Thirty years ago, the first empirical test of a mindfulness-based intervention for athletes was published by Jon Kabat-Zinn and his colleagues. The researchers found that, following mindfulness training, a group of college rowers performed well above their coach’s expectations (based on experience level and physical ability). A second group (Olympic rowers, several of whom won medals) reported feeling that the mindfulness training (MT) had helped their performance. After this first study, there was a dearth of studies on mindfulness training in sports. But there has been a recent resurgence with most studies showing that MT is impacting athletes in positive ways (e.g., less stress, increased ability to focus, etc.).
The idea is that rather than trying to control internal phenomena (thoughts/images), it may be more beneficial for athletes to develop skills in present-moment awareness and acceptance. As Kabat-Zinn suggests, one is trying to pay attention in a particular way: on purpose, in the present moment, and nonjudgmentally.
Most of the athletes I work with don’t have much trouble with the first component (purposeful attention), but struggle more with staying in the present moment, nonjudgmentally. Given that this is so hard for many of us, it makes sense to train the mind to be better at this.
What we are really talking about is improving self-regulation (in this case, of attention) in order to facilitate optimal performance or even the highly sought-after flow state. Most of this training mirrors a well-established protocol called Mindfulness-based Stress Reduction (MBSR) which has been modified for work with athletes and teams.
Here are a few tips gathered from a post Christine Yu wrote last year:
1. Mindful Breathing
Take a few minutes a day (in the morning or before you engage in an athletic event or exercise) to pay attention to your breath, which can bring on a calm and clear state of mind (via the parasympathetic nervous system). Physiologically, this can help to regulate your breathing if it becomes shallow. Sit comfortably, close your eyes, and start to deepen your breath. Inhale fully and exhale completely. Focus on your breath entering and exiting your body. Start with five minutes and you can build up from there. When your mind wanders, gently bring it back to the breath.
2. Body Scan
Practice a body scan to help release tension, quiet the mind, and bring awareness to your body in a systematic way. Lie down on your back with your palms facing up and legs relaxed. Close your eyes. Start with your toes and notice how they feel. Are they tense? Are they warm or cold? Focus your attention here for a few breaths before moving on to the sole of your foot. Repeat the process as you travel from your foot to your ankle, calf, knee and thigh. Continue to move up your hips, lower back, stomach, chest, shoulders, arms, hands, neck and head — maintaining your focus on each body part and any sensations there. Breathe into any areas that are holding stress and try to release it. As you engage in this practice regularly, you will become more highly attuned to what’s happening in your body. You can spend 10 minutes or longer doing a body scan.
3. Internal and External Messages
Pay attention to your internal dialogue as well as the stories you tell your family and friends, which can reflect and shape your mental state more than you might think. That means no more, “I can’t run that far,” or “I hope I don’t miss the goal.” Notice your thoughts and emotions, but don’t judge them or become attached to them. It’s okay to notice that the feelings are there, but don’t take that emotion with you into the next shot or next play. Instead, let the thoughts and emotions go quickly and speak in terms of what you want to achieve in this moment.
Finally, for a comprehensive academic review of this topic, check out this chapter (Mindfulness in Sports Performance) that was published last year in a massive tome called The Wiley Blackwell Handbook of Mindfulness.