The outcome is entirely beyond your control, no matter how much noise you make during the match. For 90 minutes, you’re a helpless victim of hope and fear, reduced to ranting and raving when your players make mistakes, unleashing the type of abuse at opposing players that would make your mother blush (or disown you) and, of course, venting your fury at the referee. When things go well, there’s no better feeling in the world. And when they don’t, well, more on that later.
A few months ago, I heard a meditation teacher say that you can integrate meditation into every aspect of your life—while walking, eating, interacting with others… any time and any place, basically. Fair enough, I thought, but with all due respect, this man has obviously never watched a live football match before. I had no option but to put his words to the test.
The instructions were clear: "As long as you’re aware of what is going on and you’re able to remain in the state of non-distraction, then whatever you experience is actually meditation." After all, isn’t that the whole point? There’s not so much to be gained from meditation if it only brings you peace and stability when you’re cocooned in the comfort of your own home. If it’s really going to have an impact, it needs to reach into the corners of your life where your patience, your sense of humour, and even your sanity, are pushed to the limit. Which brings us back to the football.
It just so happened that my team had recently won through to the cup final, so once a ticket for the big day had been secured, I was ready to begin my experiment. I was going to meditate in the company of 88,000 people—surely the biggest moment of anyone’s meditation career.
Now don’t misunderstand me here. I’m not talking about sitting cross-legged on a plastic seat for 90 minutes in deep meditation while everyone around me wonders whether to call security. I’m not that weird—and no way was I going to pay that much for a ticket and not watch the game.
My challenge was to see if I could watch the match in 'a state of non-distraction'. In other words, "to rest your attention very lightly on the sensory information you are receiving, and disengage from the emotional and intellectual content normally associated with it."
It wasn’t exactly the kind of meditation session that I was used to. There was no cozy room, no comfortable chair and no sound of silence to settle the mind. It was cold and rainy, my fellow supporters and I were on our feet for the entire game, and the noise was deafening.
I won’t lie—it wasn’t easy. I made an encouraging start before the game, as I sat in my seat and soaked up the atmosphere, listening to the fans singing and watching the players line up on the pitch. But as soon as the referee blew his whistle, it got more and more difficult.
So who would come out on top in this cup-final clash between distraction and non-distraction?
15 minutes: Distraction dominates the early exchanges as my team comes under serious early pressure, but despite a few scares, no major damage is done.
Actual score: 0-0
Experiment score: Non-distraction 0-0 Distraction
30 minutes: After a shaky start, my team is punished. As soon as the goal goes in, I’m hit by a terrible sinking feeling. I try to rest my attention very lightly on the sound of 44,000 opposition fans celebrating, but there is plenty of ‘emotional content’ swirling around in my head, that’s for sure.
Actual score: 0-1
Experiment score: Non-distraction 0-1 Distraction
45 minutes: My team finally begins to make an impact and a sweetly taken goal puts us right back in the game. My distraction levels rise even further as I jump around in jubilation, hugging random strangers as if they were my long-lost brothers.
Actual score: 1-1
Experiment score: Non-distraction 0-2 Distraction
70 minutes: The match is nearing its conclusion, and both teams go close to scoring a potentially winning goal. My thoughts are racing, and I have almost completely forgotten about my experiment.
Actual score: 1-1
Experiment score: Non-distraction 0-3 Distraction
90 minutes: Suddenly, it happens. A terrible mistake, and the ball hits the back of the wrong net. There’s a short gap while I process what has happened, and then I officially enter a state of total distraction. In desperation, I try to focus on the noise coming from the fans at the other end. It works, briefly, and then the reality of the situation hits me—hard.
Actual score (full-time): 1-2
Experiment score (full-time): Non-distraction 0-4 Distraction
As I made my way home after the game, stepping through the puddles and listening to my fellow fans voicing their bitter disappointment at the outcome, there was one crumb of consolation. Even though I felt bad, I didn’t feel quite as bad as I had done in similar situations in the past (of which there have been quite a few). That, I think, has something to do with meditation. Not my 'football meditation', but the rather more conventional meditation that I’ve been doing regularly for the past few years. And it also occurred to me that if I’m able to cope a bit better with setbacks like losing a football match, then maybe I’ll also be able to handle the bigger things that come my way with more composure and perspective.
Next time though, as I continue to integrate meditation into my daily life, I think I’ll try something a little less challenging.