The mindful athlete: Can mindfulness really improve performance?

You may or may not have come across the concept of Mindfulness before. You might have heard about sports coaches encouraging their athletes to adopt mindfulness practices, or maybe you’ve heard about athletes learning and practicing meditation as part of their training. But what exactly is this thing called Mindfulness, and can it really improve sporting performance?

What is mindfulness?

First off, mindfulness is nothing new. In fact it’s really quite old. To put it simply, Mindfulness is really just about paying attention, without judgement, to the present moment.

Now, anyone who’s played any sort of sport will know that it’s usually more helpful to be focused on what’s happening right now, than on what happened on 5 seconds ago, or last week, or what might happen in a few minutes time. But as we all know, that’s easier said than done.

Mindfulness is just about “paying attention in a particular way: on purpose, in the present moment, and nonjudgmentally” (Kabat-Zinn, 1994)1.

Our brains are hard-wired to think, which is totally brilliant. We can think about the past and plan for the future, and this entirely natural, problem-solving way in which our minds work has helped us evolve to the point where we can land a probe on a comet travelling through space at 40,000mph. Awesome.

You don't have to sit cross-legged in front of a sunset to be mindful.
You don’t have to sit cross-legged in front of a sunset to be mindful.

But there’s a downside to this natural tendency to problem solve. Yes, it’s great when it comes to our external world (e.g., crossing a road, putting up shelves, or developing a a performance strategy), but it’s not quite so helpful when it comes to our internal world; our own thoughts, feelings, and emotional experiences. Let me explain a little further.

A little thought experiment

When it comes to our internal experience, we still try to problem-solve. Rather than simply paying attention to, acknowledging, and accepting what’s happening right now, we often get caught up in our own thoughts. Try it now. Stop reading this and for 20 seconds, just pay attention to your breathing. Close your eyes if it helps.

Done? So in that 20 seconds, how many different thoughts did your mind have? Maybe you were thinking about your breathing? Maybe you were thinking about the fact that you were thinking about your breathing? Maybe your mind decided to think about something completely unrelated, like why the ending of Lost was so utterly disappointing. Maybe you were hard on yourself because your mind was wandering?

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Thinking is natural. Our brains have evolved to do exactly that. So why fight it?

This is just what minds do. They think. We spend most of our time in a problem-solving mode. And so when we encounter unwanted emotions, thoughts, or sensations (that we think of as ‘negative’) we try to quiet them, get rid of them, change or control them. Because that’s what minds do. And we’re often really harsh on ourselves when we can’t get rid of them. Because that’s also just what minds do.

Imagine you’re getting ready for a big competition. What’s your mind telling you? “You’re nervous. Uh-oh. There goes your stomach. Oh this is horrible. You’re really nervous, and nervous athletes don’t perform well. You’ll probably mess this up. Right, ok, try not be nervous… it’s really important that you’re not nervous… Ah crap, now you’re worrying about the fact that you can’t control your nerves… Dude, you suck.”

How mindfulness can help

Ok, so perhaps it’s not quite as bad as all that, but you can see how an athlete might get caught up in this train of thought. Mindfulness can help us get out of this problem solving mode that gets us caught up in our thoughts.

The important point to note here, the really, really important point, is that having anxious thoughts, worrying about the future, thinking about previous mistakes, is perfectly and absolutely normal.

There are strategies that we can use to try to stop thoughts that we label as negative, perhaps replacing them with positive ones, and you know what, sometimes this works in the short-term.

But generally, the more we struggle against and try to control our ‘unwanted’ thoughts and emotions, the more they’re on our minds. More and more research suggests that practicing mindfulness, accepting and acknowledging thoughts sensations, etc, instead of trying to get rid of them, is actually beneficial to athletic performance.

What the research says

Research has demonstrated that mindful athletes are more likely to experience flow and tend to score higher on emotional control, goal-setting and, and self-talk abilities2. Mindfulness can also help athletes become more lucid and focused in competition, and manage their levels of activation or arousal more effectively3.

In addition, athletes taking part in mindfulness training programmes have reported that they are better able to accept emotionally difficult internal experiences, calm down, react more appropriately, and move past negative experiences4.

There’s a good deal of evidence to suggest that mindfulness can be beneficial for athletes and for coaches. Below you’ll find three different mindfulness exercises if you want to give it a try. You can easily find downloadable resources online as well so you can be guided through some exercises like these, while listening on your phone or generic Mp3 player.

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Mindful Breathing

Find a comfortable place to sit, feet flat on the floor and with your hands in your lap. Take a few nice deep breaths, in through the nose and out through the mouth. Gently let your breathing return to normal, in and out through the nose, and at the same time, just let the eyes close. As you let your eyes close, just for a few moments, pay attention to your breath.

Just notice where you feel that breath most strongly. Is it in the nose? Is it in the stomach? Perhaps it’s in the rise and fall of the chest? No need to try to change anything, just notice the breath. Follow it. Notice how each breath is slightly different. Notice the rhythm of the breath. And if your mind starts to wander, which is really what minds tend to do, just notice that that’s happened, and without judgement, bring your attention gently back to your breath.

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Mindful Eating

640px-Skittles-Louisiana-2003
Mmmm … Skittles

When was the last time you paid real attention to what you were eating? We often rush through meals to get to the next thing, or sit and eat while we’re watching television, not really paying attention to anything. This exercise is a really useful way of just getting used to the idea of giving our full attention to something.

You can use a skittles or M&Ms or, if you prefer something healthy, a bit of dried fruit like a raisin or apricot. Normally when we eat things like this, we take a handful, and just shove them down. But here, I want you try to take just one. Just one skittle, or dried apricot, and really pay attention to the process of eating.

So before you even pick it up, notice how the food looks. Really take the time to notice the colours, the contours, the shape. Notice how the light reflects off it. When you pick it up, notice how it feels. Notice the textures, the feel of the food between your fingers. Again, really take some time with it, roll it around between your fingers. Notice the smell of it.

When you’re ready, put the food in your mouth, but again just notice what the process of doing this actually feels like. Notice how your mouth and tongue move in anticipation of the food. Before you chew it, just let it sit there in your mouth for a while. Notice the flavour, as well as the feeling of the food.

When you’re ready, begin to chew, but again, just take the time to notice the process of chewing. What does you mouth do to get ready to chew? How does the food feel when you first begin chewing? Notice the different sensations, flavours, textures, sounds.

When you’re ready, swallow the food, but again, pay attention to the process of swallowing. Notice your intention to swallow the food. Notice how you prepare to swallow and notice the sensations as you finish eating.

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Body Scan

You can start this exercise with a minute or two of mindful breathing as above. Then, starting at the top of the head and moving down, just notice how the body feels. Work your way down, paying attention to particular areas. The forehead, the eyes, the mouth and jaw. Notice any areas of tension. Notice any areas that are particularly relaxed.

We’re not trying to change anything, were just paying attention to different areas and noticing what sensations come up. Move down to the neck, the shoulders, the arms, elbows, forearms, hands, and fingers. Just take a little time to pay attention to how each area feels. Notice any aches or pains, pay attention to the joints as well as the muscles.

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You don’t need to be able to fold yourself in half to practice these mindfulness exercises. Just find somewhere comfortable to sit, or even lie down.

Pay attention to your upper back. Notice how it feels. The chest, the lower back, the stomach. Just take a minute to pay attention to each area. Move down to the hips, the legs, your quads and hamstrings, again, not trying to change anything, just noticing any areas of comfort or discomfort. The knees, calves, shins, ankles, feet and toes. Then just return your attention to your breath for a moment before opening your eyes when you’re ready.

So there you have it. Three different ways that you can practice being mindful. And remember, the more we practice, the better we get at being able accept thoughts as just thoughts, and remain fully connected to the present moment. 

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References

1Kabat-Zinn, J. (1994). Wherever you go there you are. New York: Hyperion.

2Kee, Y. H. & Wang, C. K. J. (2008). relationships between mindfulness, flow dispositions and mental skills adoption: A cluster analytic approach. Psychology of Sport and Exercise9, 393-411.

3Bernier, M., Thienot, E., Codron, R., & Fournier, J. F. (2009). Mindfulness and acceptance approaches in sport performance. Journal of Clinical Sports Psychology4, 320-333.

4Baltzell, A., Caraballo, N., Chipman, K., & Hayden, L. (2014). A qualitative study of the mindfulness meditation training for sport: Division I female soccer players’ experience. Journal of Clinical Sport Psychology8, 221-224.

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