As well as a strategy for dealing with the stresses of everyday life, mindfulness is one of the most effective ways to perform under pressure, especially when it comes to sport.
When the going gets tough, keeping your head in the game is king.
Whether it’s lowering your average, aiming for the triple-20, or taking the penalty nobody else wants to, an alert mind free from intrusive thought that’s capable of concentrating on the task at hand is one of the hallmarks of sporting success.
In a nutshell, mindfulness is simply the ability to maintain purposeful attention in the present moment. Mindfulness in sport is simply the application of this practice in competitive and athletic situations.
While the scientific study of mindfulness is relatively new, the techniques have been used for millennia. Now research is beginning to show that not only is mindfulness a great way to handle sporting-related stress, but it actually improves athletic performance.
Here, we’ll discuss how mindfulness helps athletes perform at their very best, look at some examples of mindfulness at the top level, and how to implement some techniques yourself.
Meditation in sports psychology
Athletes competing at the elite level are often plagued with mental disorders such as stress, depression, panic attacks, and anxiety. One of the oddities of becoming successful at something is that athletes often find the expectation to keep on performing hampers their ability to do so.
In order to counteract this effect, sports psychologists have turned to mindfulness and meditation in combination with other coping strategies to enhance athletic performance.
The characteristics of mindfulness are:
- Non-judgmental acceptance of anxiety and distracting thoughts
- A refocussing of attention, often to the breath
- Re-centering oneself into the current situation and present moment
Sports psychologists are interested in athletes tapping into mindfulness as it better enables the “flow” state. In psychology, flow is simply what we’d call “being in the zone”. That is, flow is when we are fully immersed in what we’re doing, free from distractions, and confident in our own ability.
An athlete that’s in the flow state is a sight to behold, performing at their very best. An athlete who can’t get out of their own head trips over their own negative thoughts, affecting their performance, often disastrously.
Negative thoughts and feelings, therefore, throw a spanner in the works when it comes to flow. It could be something as simple as a cramp, or as serious as a crippling bout of anxiety. When these intrusive thoughts hit, however, the ability to overcome them separates the highly successful from the amateur.
Studies have shown that individual sports athletes such as tennis players, gymnasts, plus track and field competitors are especially susceptible to this kind of pressure. Without the support of a team behind them, mindfulness provides a strategy for overcoming mental roadblocks.
Why do athletes use mindfulness?
Maintaining concentration at all levels of a sport can be demanding. The more at stake, however, the bigger the pressure on the athlete.
Elite athletes, therefore, have been turning to mindfulness to cultivate the right kind of disposition to keep doing what they do best, no matter the situation. With mindfulness, even when the odds are stacked against you, you have the ability to remain fully present and engaged with your current task.
When 3-0 down at home, a dressing room at halftime can often become a place of blame and frustration. With players equipped with mindfulness techniques, however, the focus shifts from whose fault the situation is to what needs to be done. Through mindfulness, the ego retreats allowing better teamwork and the ability to see things clearly.
Mindfulness, therefore, encourages athletes to accept negative thoughts, but instead of indulging them, focus on one’s personal values and meet the challenge ahead. Being aware of the current situation and accepting negative internal states without judgment has been shown to even imbue athletes with renewed energy and vigor.
Mindfulness is also an effective technique for dealing with injury. Both in the moment and when recuperating, mindfulness has been shown to be aid recovery and help overcome injury.
How does mindfulness in sport improve performance?
Mindfulness improves athletic performance for a couple of reasons.
Firstly, the ability to let unhelpful internal states such as pain or negativity simply wash over you, like a cloud passing overhead, is extremely useful. While they still acknowledge these states are happening, athletes learn how to stop internally staring at them and, instead, kick the ball with accuracy, run with determination, or fire an arrow with steadiness.
Another factor to consider is the biological effect that mindfulness has on the athlete. A study given exposure by the Journal of Health Psychology has demonstrated that athletes who regularly meditate have a markedly lower level of cortisol in their blood.
Cortisol is famously known as the “stress hormone” that wreaks havoc on our health and also the performance of athletes. Keeping cortisol levels down is vital to maintaining long-term performance when competing in a sport. The day-to-day pressures that come with intense training programs, expectations, and press coverage at the elite level, all contribute significantly to the release of cortisol.
Mindfulness appears to pull the reigns on the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal system responsible for flushing cortisol through our body. Simply becoming internally aware of our breath and thoughts appears to allow us to see the emperor without his clothes, bringing negative thoughts into focus before gently letting them go.
What famous athletes use mindfulness?
One of the most notable proponents of mindfulness is the world’s number one Tennis player Novak Djokovic. Djokovic has explained on numerous occasions how he believes in the power of the mind to take command of his game, as well as his life in general. Mindfulness, Djokovic cites, is the reason for his success, allowing him to maximise his potential. For Djokovic, mindfulness techniques allow him to have an inner calm and remain happy on and off the court.
Mindfulness was also more than just instrumental in the success of the NBA’s Chicago Bulls between 1993 and 1998. As part of the support staff, sports psychologist George Mumford employed mindfulness techniques to keep the Bulls successful and help the grieving Michael Jordan. Cultivating a “flow ready” mindset through mindfulness, Mumford was able to create a winning team.
Other athletes well-known for implementing mindfulness techniques include the gold-medal winning volleyball players Kerri Walsh Jennings and Misty May-Treanor and the late Kobe Bryant.
What are some mindfulness techniques?
1. Slow down
In sport, this can be hard to do. When your mind is going a million miles an hour, and you’re expected to perform then and there, stopping for a moment can be tricky. Nevertheless, pausing, even briefly, and noticing the situation is vital to becoming mindful.
2. Observe the negative thoughts and feelings
This can be a feeling of incompetence, anxiety, pressure, or even physical pain. By becoming aware of them, these internal states lose their potency. Do not pass judgment on these feelings and thoughts. Simply let them float by.
3. Focus on your breath
After slowing down and observing your internal states, try to focus on your breath. By taking slow, steady breaths, concentrating on bodily sensations as your diaphragm inflates your lungs before exhaling will center you and induce a flow state needed for maximum performance.
As the pressures of modern sport continue to take their toll on the minds and bodies of those involved, the role of mindfulness will continue to grow, allowing athletes to compete at their best.