Mindfulness has been around in mental health treatment for some time now. Recently though, we are seeing a surge in elite athletes adopting this technique to improve their performance.
The technique of mindfulness begins with the basic idea that one should focus their full attention on the moment at hand. It encourages individuals block out all outside static and noise and fully commit to the here and now. Sounds easy right? Well, in theory yes, but in application it is a bit trickier.
Mindfulness is a skill that takes some practice. And who knows more about practice than, you guessed it, athletes.
Learning to manage your emotions, thoughts, and immediate reactions can be the difference between medaling and 4th place, making the playoffs, or beating your PR. Within sports, mindfulness has been seen to increase motivation (both intrinsic and extrinsic). This means athletes can optimize their performance while also learning to navigate their own levels of stress. What does that mean? Well, when we think of stress, we should understand that in sports, stress is not necessarily an evil. Stress is an indication that we are both physically and psychologically reacting to a situation that we are invested in.
Mindfulness does more than increase motivation. It also boosts an athlete’s self-efficacy and confidence, which in turn correlates with improved performance. People who utilize mindfulness begin to master their self-reflection and find it easier to deal with ups and downs of the season. The point of this technique is to help stabilize the swings between success and failure. If we are confident and mindful, managing the lows of our career become easier. Combined with a more intrinsic and positive motivation, returning from pregnancy can be far more manageable and easier to compartmentalize.
By increasing awareness of your emotions, you can become more in tune with outside stressors and how they affect not only your mind but your body. For instance, a perceived threat will increase anxiety, which may increase heartrate and activate physiological changes that can reduce out performance. If we can learn to manage these perceived threats, we can control our bodies even more, often reducing physiological reactions that hinder performance.
While mindfulness appears to be a very individual technique, it benefits the team in critical ways. With more effective interpersonal relationships with teammates, athletes will find their performance improving and motivation tied to supporting the bigger picture.
So how do I begin practicing mindfulness?
*In Dialectical Behavioral Therapy, mindfulness is utilized to reduce suffering, increase control of your mind, and experience reality as it is. It allows individuals to wake up from automatic or rote behaviors and be present in our own lives, avoid suppressing, and prevent clinging to the past or grabbing for the future.
We can see an athlete’s ability to utilize mindfulness by how they approach each new moment in a game, race, or event. Athlete’s who struggle with this might let a mistake from last week, or a mistake from earlier in the game, affect their confidence and ruin their present moment. We all experience mistakes in performance, but mindfulness can help us bounce back quickly.
Trying to find the right balance within mindfulness can take time. It requires us to navigate between our reasonable mind, our wise mind, and our emotion mind. No idea what that means? No sweat! The reasonable mind is cool, rational, and task-focused while the emotion mind is mood dependent and emotion focused. Ideally we want to find balance in the wise mind where we appreciate both reason and emotion.
Mindfully preparing for competition.
Just like a physical warmup, athletes can warmup their minds by practicing mindfulness before getting to their competition. There are a few scenarios that can be incorporated pregame to help begin building the mindfulness portfolio. A simple way to begin practicing mindfulness is to find a space you feel comfortable in, whether inside or outside. Begin with a non-sport related image to get the mind going. Imagine you are on the beach in early morning and listening to the ocean waves gently crashing against the shore. Imagine the foam slowly rolling up the beach and gently disappearing. Notice the quiet in between each wave and the color of the water receding back into the ocean. Imagine the sun rising and the color of the sky as it hits the smooth ocean top. Imagine each piece of sand and how it makes up the whole of the beach.
Next, you can begin to integrate sport related images. Let’s take a soccer example. Start by remembering your last warmup. Imagine how your feet hit the ground as you job across the pitch. Notice how your chest goes in and out with each breathe. Begin noticing the stadium, the rows of seats, their color, and imagine the sound of the crowd beginning to arrive. Imagine the goal, the box, the halfway line, the sideline, and end line. Imagine standing in the center circle, your view 360 degrees around the pitch. Continue focusing on aspects within the stadium.
This exercise can last for a few minutes to 15 to even more. Begin with short amounts and build your way up. As it becomes easier, it begins to feel similar to meditation (as they do go hand in hand).
Mindfulness encourages us to evaluate rather than judge, which can be hard to understand at first. Judging pushes us into our emotion mind, while evaluating aims to remove the ultimatum of good and bad. For instance, if a teammate does not pass you the ball, you might react with feelings that you are a bad player or undeserving of the ball. These are judgements rather than evaluations that you may not have been in an ideal position to receive the ball, or your teammate made a mistake and did not see you. While both ideas end with you not receiving the ball, the feelings around them are very different.
What if imagery is hard for me?
Some athletes find mindfulness difficult because they have not mastered control of their images. In this case, athletes can utilize a body scan or mindful breathing.
A mindful body scan begins by finding a quiet comfortable space to lay down on your back with your arms at your side. Close your eyes and begin notice your breathing. Focus on your chest and stomach expanding as you breathe in and shrink as you breathe out. Once you can feel a rhythm, begin focusing on different regions of your body and noticing feelings from the skin to the muscle and more. It’s easy to begin at the top of your head and move down (or vis versa).
As you scan your body and start noticing the sensations, you can focus more precisely. If you start with the arm, focus on the elbow, then wrist, then knuckles, then fingers, then fingertips, and so on. As you scan, don’t try and alter anything, simply notice how the body feels.
This technique helps athletes notice where they might be carrying tension or unresolved emotion. It may also help point out where nerves and anxiety might be hiding within the body.
Use a mindful body scan whenever you want to fine tune your attention. The longer you can remain in tune with your body during the scan, the more attention to detail you will notice on the pitch or in your race.
The biggest advice I can give? Be mindful that mindfulness takes practice. Make sure to practice it throughout the day, even for small moments, as it will add up and begin to spark small changes.
*From DBT Skills Training Handout and WorksheetsSecond Edition by Marsha M. Linehan
If you'd like to learn more about how meditation is linked to mindfulness click the link below.