The impacts of mindfulness are vast and well documented, including fostering a sense of peace, enjoyment of the here and now, and more restful sleep. But did you know that practising mindfulness in sport can also improve performance?
Underneath specific traditions, what mindfulness practices have in common is “engagement with the present moment.” Mindfulness has been brought to greater popularity in North America by such practitioners as Jon Kabat Zinn and Elaine Langer. Practices are wide ranging and can include breathing or visualization exercises, sitting or standing postures, and silent or sound-based methods. Given the many benefits, it may not be surprising that athletic performance can also be enhanced through mindfulness.
Mindfulness in sport
Studies indicate dramatic impacts for athletes as a result of incorporating mindfulness. Across the sports, from golf to rowing, running to archery, research makes clear the powerful impact of mindfulness—on mindset, practising, competition, performance, and outcomes. Reduced anxiety, improved times, more frequent states of flow, and injury prevention are just a handful of the many results.
For deeper insight into how mindfulness affects athletic pursuits, I turned to the manager of recreation at Ryerson University, Andrew Pettit, who holds degrees in psychology and kinesiology, and licensed psychologist Dr. Douglas Misener, who specializes in rehabilitation, clinical, and performance psychology.
Dr. Douglas Misener also offers five insights to keep in mind when practising mindfulness.
1. Take your time with a mindfulness practice, even if it feels difficult, boring, or repetitive.
2. You don’t have to find practising mindfulness enjoyable—practice anyway, until it becomes a routine!
3. Even if you feel sleepy, frustrated, unsettled, or like you are not “getting” it, all that matters is that you keep practising.
4. When your mind wanders, simply notice where it went and then gently bring it back to the present moment.
5. Don’t settle for “finding” the time. Make it!
Dr. Douglas Misener and Andrew Pettit explain how mindfulness can help athletes experience flow in their chosen sport. So I asked, what is flow?
- “It’s that feeling of complete immersion in a task,” Pettit says, “where you feel up to the challenge and so deeply engaged that you lose yourself in the moment—whether moving, playing, or performing.”
- Misener calls it “being in the zone—an athlete’s ability to control their thoughts and images during performance is crucial.”
As a starting place, I asked both Pettit and Misener for their takes on what mindfulness means. Misener describes mindfulness as “paying particular attention in the present moment, with purpose and without judgment.” Pettit adds that, in mindfulness, we aim not to dwell on the past or think ahead into the future. “Some find mindfulness in traditional meditation, while for others it’s a walk in the park, game of basketball, or intense workout,” says Pettit.
Mindfulness meets sport
“Long before mindfulness and meditation were being intentionally taken up in Western communities, people have used sport and physical activity to land in a mindful state—any activity that requires your full focus in the present moment can bring you there,” says Pettit.
In terms of sport performance, Misener explains, “Success often involves the ability to manage extraordinary levels of stress. Mindfulness techniques can help to disengage from overthinking, allowing the athlete to execute the many hours of training, practice, and rehearsal, all the while avoiding the ‘choke’ experience.”
Misener recommends that his clients “observe elite athletes’ behaviours, in specific how many stop, pause, take a deep belly breath or two, and then proceed to, for example, hit a tennis serve or dive off the high board.”
How can athletes start incorporating mindfulness? “The first step in mindfulness is to focus on the breath,” encourages Misener, “since it becomes the regulator to manage stress. The next step is to set one’s intention, the goal you wish to achieve from your action.”
Merits of mindfulness
The feedback Misener receives from clients who intentionally incorporate mindfulness into their sport training includes “becoming aware of operating on ‘autopilot’ versus ‘conscious choice.’ In other words, staying in the moment.”
And presentness, he says, especially when under stress, “is crucial during performance. For example, an individual or team may be ahead in the score late into the game, yet can end up losing because they failed to stay focused—in their head they had already won.”
What are the biggest benefits for athletes? “The ability to tune out distractions, improved memory and attention, increased positive emotions, boosted immune system function to fight off illness and potentially recover from injury faster, and success on the field,” says Misener.
Pettit says, “Most importantly, athletes who practise mindfulness are actually developing a lifelong skill that transcends sport and which they can carry with them anywhere they go.” a
Takeaways for those in training
Consider bringing some of the following mindfulness-based approaches during your next intense workout, training session, or match.
1. Bare attention
Notice how mindfulness can hone attention by reducing distractedness.
2. An attitude of acceptance
Even if a game did not go as hoped, a mindful focus on nonjudgment can help keep you open and confident.
3. Knowing who you are
Mindfulness can support harmony between personal values and goals.
4. Keeping challenging feelings in check
Use mindfulness to regulate fear, anger, anxiety, and other emotions that can have a negative impact on athletic performance.
Mindfulness can help you know when to stop training, for example, or shift strategies.
Mindfulness improves the ability to persevere through unpleasant feelings and situations.
With mindfulness can come presentness and adaptability to change.
Mindfulness can help us understand that happiness is not bound to results.
9. Less overthinking
Mindfulness can free us from rumination and dwelling.
Alert and attuned athletes
Dr. Douglas Misener, who has worked with performers and athletes from the National Ballet of Canada, the Canadian Sport Institute of Ontario, Ontario Hockey League, and members of Cirque du Soleil, offers his top five mindfulness tips for pro and aspiring athletes alike.
- Develop a mantra that helps you create compassion and kindness toward yourself.
- Enhance focus by attending to a singular item, moment, or intention with full concentration. When the mind wanders, disengage it and consciously return your focus, over and over again.
- Foster greater calm through open monitoring. Instead of a specific focus on an object or phenomenon, you can practise moment-by-moment awareness without judgment, labelling, directedness, or evaluation.
- Breath is essential to mindfulness: diaphragmatic (belly) breathing, thoracic (chest) breathing, and clavicular (collarbones) breathing can be coordinated into one smooth exercise in which a maximum deep breath is taken—bring alert attention to the full wavelike motion of each inhale and exhale.
- Commit deliberate awareness to one routine activity you do every day, such as brushing your teeth, getting geared up, or doing cool-down stretches.
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