teaching yoga to athletes: 10 tips to be successful

Ahead of her upcoming teacher training ‘teaching yoga to athletes’ in Shoreditch this April, Sarah Ramsden shares her top tips on working with athletes and how it differs from teaching a traditional yoga class.

Teaching yoga to athletes and in sport is my passion. I’ve worked at Manchester City FC and Manchester United FC for 13 years now, working with senior and youth teams. I’ve also worked with the England women’s football team, GB Taekwondo, the Football Association, many other football clubs and individual players, and of course, all the runners, bikers, triathletes, fell runners and swimmers who come to my classes.

Yoga for athletes has grown continuously for years and shows no signs of stopping, and as a yoga teacher, you are uniquely placed to take advantage of this amazing interest.

For those new to the concept tailoring yoga to teach better to athletes, I’ve compiled this list of 10 tips for working successfully with athletes:

1 – Bring your passion to the practice
I am an anatomy geek and a movement junkie. I am fascinated by what an absolute triumph of human design we are, even when it all goes pear-shaped. I am never bored with bodies. You might love doing a sport or teaching yoga or helping others to heal – but find your passion and communicate it.

2 – Be an athlete, or at least give it a go
Ok, you don’t absolutely have to be an athlete but you do need to have some idea of what it feels like to do what the people you teach do. If you are an athlete of some kind it will add tremendous depth, empathy and experience to your teaching. If you aren’t – well, just give it a go. Do a stack of strength training. Go running. Get on a mountain bike – just for a bit. Understand how it feels and how your body responds. You will be a far better teacher for it.

3 – Be interested in your student’s sports
I watch a lot of football matches these days because, for the people I work with, that is what it all adds up to. So take an interest in the sport – read about it, go watch it. Remember that it is the desire to play that sport better, and for longer, that has brought these men and women to your class.

4 – Keep a humble perspective
Please remember that (say it quietly) yoga is not the answer to everything and most athletes are trying to be athletes, not yogis. I am not at MCFC or MUFC to make them into yogis but into better players and the minute I forget that, then I will be out. Yoga is important to them but it is part of the training mix.

 5 – Teacher with relevance
I used to think that making athletes sweat on the mat by doing loads of complex poses was doing them good. It isn’t. Remember, beasting someone is an easy, cheap trick and is probably irrelevant to them. So I don’t do stuff that isn’t relevant just to make myself look good (well, not often). I try to make it about them – their bodies and their needs – and get me and my fat ego out of the way.

Next, you need to know your stuff… 

6 – Bring functional anatomy to life
This isn’t dry lists of muscles and attachments. This is the amazing process of how we move and how whatever sport we play changes our bodies. This is teaching from our extraordinary physiology and how we can help athletes move, feel and think better. Forget teaching the same poses in the same way as you’ve always done – it’s about modifying, adapting, responding to what your athletes really need… and that’s fascinating.

7 – Have a working knowledge of sports physiology 
You have absolutely got to know how playing a particular sport changes the bodies who play it. So you need a working knowledge of sports physiology and of what adaptations you might expect of a footballer or rugby player or triathlete or mountain biker or taekwondo player…

8 – Speak the language
With the footballers, I work in their world and I am a privileged guest in that world. So I don’t throw sanskrit around – it won’t help them be better footballers. I use the language of their sport and their bodies so that I can communicate with them and the medical departments, and so that they can relate to me. So you’ll need to find a less yogic way of instructing and get your medical/anatomical language up to scratch. (Don’t worry, it isn’t hard.)

9 – Don’t forget stability
You can call this bandhas, Pilates, segmental stability or whatever, but getting some functional stability around someone’s middle is up there as one of the most important things you can do for an athlete. So understanding this one will be high on the list in any semi-pro or professional sport. Flexibility without stability is a no-no.

10 – Strength is key
Strength is what holds us together and strength defines athletes. It is super important. So you need to understand how strength is developed and how flexibility and stability work with strength to allow us to play a sport. The yoga bit is only one part of the training mix.

What’s next? Start a class. Get going on your journey of working with sportspeople. You will be doing awesome, rewarding work that really makes a difference to athletes. Last word to Ryan Giggs: “Yoga is key to prolonging my Manchester United career’.” You can help others do the same.

Sarah Ramsden is a senior yoga teacher with Yoga Alliance Professionals and has pioneered the growth of yoga in professional sport – working at MCFC and MUFC for over 10 years, with senior and youth teams. She has also worked extensively with other professional clubs, players, and different sports/national teams – GB Taekwondo, elite rowers, England Women’s football. She teaches the only accredited course for teaching yoga to athletes – The Body Athletic: Teaching Yoga to Athletes and in Sport. This is accredited by Yoga Alliance Professionals and open to qualified yoga teachers wishing to gain a high-level Vocational Specialism.

Click here for details and to book onto Sarah’s teacher training ‘teaching yoga to athletes’.

Click here for details about Sarah’s upcoming workshop ‘breathwork to improve sports performance’.

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