By Bryson Kelpe & Dirk Smith
Mindfulness is about attention and awareness, which are important in high performance situations and in maintaining good mental health. Mindfulness is often a topic of conversation and even the theme of many apps.
‘As long as you are breathing there is more right with you than wrong with you’- Jon Kabat-Zinn
Just saying ‘being more mindful and less judgemental´is not just a philosophy but a way of living and being. In performance, it can be a transformative practice and help practitioners get out of autopilot.
The nonjudgmental part gets people out of negative thought cycles and
ruminations that hinder performance and mental health.
The mind can get caught up in unhealthy thought cycles or states (ruminations). Even basic mindfulness practices can cultivate awareness that allows people to take a step back and observe that they are in a negative thought cycle.
What is mindfulness?
Is it something from a meme or something from an app or is it a state or a trait? Mindfulness has been best described as “paying attention in a particular way, on purpose, in the present moment” according to Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn. Mindfulness is a state of being open and present in the moment. It is also a trait that can be developed through mindfulness training. Karat-Zinn is noted or starting the UMass stress clinic in 1979 at the University of Massachusetts, where he studied mindfulness starting with chronic pain and stress then going on to study mindfulness with conditions such as depression and anxiety. This research grew into Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) and Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy, several specific clinical interpretations such as Mindfulness-Based Eating Awareness Training (MB-EAT) and now Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Coaching (MBCC) which focuses on performance. For sport and performance, Mindfulness Sport Performance Enhancement (MPSE) was developed by Kaufman, K. A., Glass, C. R., & Pineau, T. R. (2018) for athletes and for high pressure performance.
What are the benefits of mindfulness training?
Practicing mindfulness can have a positive effect on various psychological conditions such as depression, chronic pain, anxiety, and stress. Several studies have shown that the integration of mindfulness in sport overlaps with core components of peak performance and flow. When practiced regularly, mindfulness can help athletes reduce performance anxiety, increase concentration, decrease ‘choking’ experiences and increase athletic endurance and self-rated sport performance. Paying attention and being in the moment is of great value in performance because it allows you to be efficient and achieve thoroughness and accuracy when accomplishing a particular task. Mindfulness training has been shown to improve athletic performance and reduce anxiety and burnout. Changes occur in areas of the brain associated with decision making and attention; the area of the brain linked to emotional regulation and satisfaction also increase with prolonged mindfulness training. The biological changes include enhanced ability to learn, remember, regulate emotions, and take perspectives, all of which are important in high performance situations.
Some of the other variables and skills developed by mindfulness training include task orientation, flow, satisfaction, well-being, stress control, anxiety management, and maladaptive perfectionism. These benefits, and the ability to practice mindfulness anywhere, anytime have made mindfulness training a popular tool for building resilience and mental skills with athletes. By using mindfulness practices, performers can build mental resilience and enhance cognitive skills.
Mindfulness exercises “often emphasize the acceptance of internal processes as a typical part of the athletic experience, and focus on the present moment regardless of those internal processes”. In other words, mindfulness helps us accept thoughts and feelings without becoming attached to them. An illustration of this process is to imagine your thoughts are cars that you are watching pass by, without ever getting into any of them.
Foundational mindfulness practices such as the 3 step breath, body scan meditation, and mindful walking can help retrain the brain and improve awareness and acceptance in athletes.
Three Step Breath, Body, Scan Meditation
The Three Step Breath, Body, Scan Meditation technique is a tried and true mindfulness approach that helps you disconnect from automatic pilot and recenter yourself into the present moment.
Mindful Walking is a technique that combines mindfulness meditation with physical activity. Both have shown to have numerous physical and psychosocial benefits to one's own health and wellness. With mindful walking you can help release stress, reduce arousal, build focus and connect with your environment.
Kaufman, K. A., Glass, C. R., & Pineau, T. R. (2018). Mindful sport performance enhancement: Mental training for athletes and coaches. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association
David "Dirk" Smith M.Sc, SDL, CSCS, (He/Him) is a sport psychology expert, strength & conditioning coach, swimming coach, sports diversity leader, published research scientist, teacher, writer, journalist, and athlete. He brings over 12 years of experience, education, and training to empower athletes to build self efficacy, strength, confidence, and express themselves through sport.