The Mindful Athlete
Of my many shortcomings as an athlete (and trust me, I had many), the biggest one was my inability to move on from mistakes. Looking back, my obsession with my mistakes was deeply rooted in my paralyzing fear of failure. For some reason, I was so scared to let my team down, and when I did, I would replay that moment over and over again in my head. It would consume me. During my college days, I would sit in class and play the scenario in my head while my professor was talking about Shakespeare or something. My obsession wasn’t healthy. I know this now, but back then I thought it was normal. I thought that it was just motivation to be better. But now I see that it truly paralyzed me. It was holding me back from realizing my potential. Instead of going onto the field and trying to make a play, I was trying NOT to make a mistake. I was so afraid to fail that failure became the only possible outcome.
Sport psychology has been around for decades. Professionals have given countless tips and advice to help athletes compete at their best. One of my favorite movies, “For Love of the Game”, is about an aging pitcher in the midst of a perfect game. Billy Chapel, played by Kevin Costner, is on the mound and begins to lose his focus. He begins to think of all of the different things that have happened in his career and life. The crowd gets louder and he can hear what the hecklers are saying. Whenever he feels like his focus is shattered, he steps off the rubber and says “Clear the mechanism.” This was his trigger to become task-oriented and find that tunnel vision. I didn’t realize it when I was watching, but Chapel was practicing mindfulness.
Mindfulness is a practice I have picked up over the last few years as I continue to battle the same fears that plagued my college career. I only wish I was aware of mindfulness when I played and sincerely suggest that you consider adopting the practice.
WHAT IS MINDFULNESS?
Mindfulness, as a practice, has been around for centuries. However, a simple Google search will leave you with a multitude of definitions. Jon Kabat Zinn offers a good definition, as he believes mindfulness is “the awareness that emerges through paying attention on purpose, in the present moment, and non judgmentally to the unfolding of experience moment by moment.” Mindfulness is a practice of being self-aware. The focus is to be present within the moment. However, it is human to fixate on the past and worry about the future. Mindfulness does not suppress these thoughts; rather, promotes the awareness and acceptance of these thoughts. They are simply thoughts, not reality.
You may be asking, “Mel, what the hell does this have to do with me on the football field?” Valid question. Bear with me.
I honestly believe that by practicing mindfulness, many athletes could reach new levels in their sport. Over the last decade or so, researchers have begun to implement mindfulness techniques with athletes. Scientifically speaking, it has been a bit tough to quantify the effect of mindfulness on athletic performance. This is because mindfulness isn’t tangible. But I can attest to the mind holding an athlete back. If mindfulness practices can help alleviate any mental hindrances then who knows how much an athlete can gain from the practice.
THE MENTAL ROADBLOCKS
There are obviously talent deficiencies and physical shortcomings that hold athletes back. There is no denying that. But there are so many mental road blocks that keep athletes from reaching their full potential.
I am sure that you have all heard someone mention “short term memory” when speaking about guys like Michael Jordan or Kobe Bryant. They had an innate ability to get over a missed shot immediately. I swear I must have had the longest memory of all time. I was the anti-MJ. If I made an error it would eat away at me for days. I would still think about that error while the next ball was coming to me! During an at-bat I would be thinking about my previous at-bat when I struck out. No wonder I struggled a bit.
Science tells us that this is what makes us human. Researchers argue that “our early ancestors needed to focus on potential threats to stay safe.” They believe that this leads us to dwell on the negative. This is especially true for athletes. An athlete could go out and score 30 points and pull 12 boards, but obsess over missing those two free throws. This leads to constant overanalyzing. Replaying mistakes over and over quickly becomes a drain on performance levels.
This constant replay of the past can distract athletes from the “here and now”. As an athlete in competition, it is important to be “in the moment”, to fully immerse yourself in the present. This is what mindfulness is truly about. Not just being “in the moment”, but being PRESENT. Be aware of the moment that you are in. Note how you feel, how you react to plays and the pace of play. This is not to say that you won’t think of past performances, but be cognizant of your thoughts so that you can accept them and focus on the task. This will allow you to “clear the mechanism” and truly lock in.
Without the fear of repeating past failures, you are free to succeed.
Research evidence has shown that people who are capable of discarding thoughts about the past and the future are generally happier. Freeing themselves of past and future allows people to LIVE IN THE MOMENT without limitations. This is what made MJ and Kobe so great. They had the uncanny ability to forget those last second misses, live in the moment, and deliver game winners (LeBron, you don’t get enough credit for your clutchness!). I needed to learn how to discard my last strikeout so that I could focus on the task of getting a hit during my next at bat.
Our emotions can often get the best of us as athletes. The highs and lows can often be drastic. Some athletes are unable to keep that even keel that is necessary to perform at a high level. Tempers can flare in the heat of the moment and derail focus. We can get down because of a few missed shots or a couple of ill-advised interceptions. The ability to remain even-tempered is crucial in sports. Mindfulness allows us to be aware of our emotions while we compete. A 2008 study reported athletes with high mindfulness scored higher in emotional control than their less mindful counterparts (Kee & Wang, 2008). We can notice our hearts beating faster, our breaths getting shorter or our tempers start to boil. If we are truly PRESENT, we can recognize our emotions getting away from us and refocus before it hurts our performance.
In regards to training, mindfulness is a useful tool. The off-season can get long and tedious for some. Many athletes itch to get back on the field, making the endless workouts seem more like a chore. Mindfulness can help spark and maintain intent. To maximize training residuals, you must perform each exercise with great intent. This gets especially tough during the grueling off-season training days that seem to blend together. How many reps, sets, or even entire workouts have you wasted by simply punching the clock and going through the motions? If we are mindful, we are capable of executing each rep with a purpose, thus maximizing our return. If we are able to handle outside stressors and curb our penchant for aimlessness then we can become better, faster.
RESEARCH ON MINDFULNESS IN SPORTS
Like I said previously, the research regarding mindfulness and its efficacy sometimes leaves us with more questions than answers. This is because empirical evidence is hard to come by and evidence is usually gathered through a series of questionnaires. The results are not always quantifiable, but researchers do believe that mindfulness should be implemented.
In a study called, “Psychological Skills Training as a Way to Enhance an Athlete’s Performance in High-Intensity Sports”, the authors discuss an athlete’s ability to overcome their fear of failure. They write that the “psychological and physical impacts of fear are numerous”. Among them are: reduced motivation to train and compete, lowered self-confidence, reduced volitional and attentional skills, and increased anxiety and muscle tension (which can lead to loss of coordination). The authors discuss the need for athletes to gauge their arousal levels, as they can be debilitative or facilitative.
The study’s authors contend that:
“mindfulness techniques emphasize the non-judging awareness and acceptance of present cognitive, affective and sensory experiences, including external stimuli and internal processes. Stimuli that enter awareness are observed but not judged and internal experiences (thoughts, feelings and sensations occurring through internal or external stimulation) are instead accepted as natural, transient facets of human existence”.
Basically, mindfulness techniques build an athlete’s self-awareness allowing them to accept their emotions without linking them to negatives. This allows the athlete to focus on “external cues” and experience “performance enhancing openness to options”.
A 2004 study¹ argues that the previous approach of trying to control, eliminate and replace negative thoughts and emotions “may actually have the opposite effect” as desired. These attempts were shown to result in “increased time and decreased efficiency thinking about the issue or event causing self-focused attention rather than task-focused attention” (Wegner, 1994; Wenzlaff & Wegner, 2000). Evidence also shows that worry “often involves a predominance of negative cognitive activity.” Basically scientists believe that the athletes that try to control or erase negative thoughts and emotions become by these thoughts and worries, which leads to decreases in decision making and task efficiency. These athletes become consumed with their negativity and lose focus of the task.
A mindfulness based approach calls for the acceptance of all stimuli without perceiving them as positive or negative. Rather, these thoughts and emotions are unavoidable. Studies show that mindfulness can “achieve the goal of reducing cognitive activity” and “promote task-focused attention” (Gardner & Moore, 2007). This is critical to achieve elite athletic performance because studies show that self-focused attention was highly associated with performance dysfunction (Edwards, et al). Furthermore, increased “cognitive activity and self-focused attention can inhibit the ideal performance state in athletes.” Mindfulness allows the athlete to remained focused on relevant stimuli instead of being distracted by their inner dialogue. Clearheaded athletes make quicker, smarter decisions.
Finally, mindfulness leads to a greater chance for an athlete to experience a “flow state”. Everyone has heard of someone being “in the zone”. You always see it in sports; LeBron scoring 25 consecutive points in the playoffs or Ken Griffey Jr. hitting a home run in 8 straight games. It is that feeling when you are on the court and the hoop looks like an ocean, or when you are at-bat and the pitch looks like a beach ball. It’s when you make a highlight reel play and don’t really remember doing it. A flow state is defined as “the mental state of operation in which a person performing an activity is fully immersed in a feeling of energized focus, full movement, and enjoyment on the process of the activity”. The 2008 study by Kee and Wang found that athletes with greater mindfulness were more likely to experience peak performance via flow state. Also, a recent study² of D1 basketball players indicated that mindfulness levels significantly predicted in game free throw percentages.
People tend to look at me funny when I tell them that I practice mindfulness. I must admit I don’t really look or act like someone that would practice mindfulness or meditate. But don’t discard the benefits of mindfulness just because it seems different.
Mindfulness allows athletes to devote their entire focus to the task. When an athlete’s focus strays from task to self is when performance begins to deteriorate. By being present within the moment, an athlete can experience a heightened state often referred to as “being in the zone”. Yes it is a real thing. And there are ways to get there. Our next blog post will have different mindfulness techniques that you can use during training of competition.
1. Relationships between mindfulness, flow and mental skills adoption: A cluster analytic approach. Knee, Ying Hwan. Wang, C.K. John. Psychology of Sport and Exercise. July 2008. Vol 9.