Imagine that you own a media player constantly stuck on “previous” or “fast forward.” It would be hard to experience your favorite music in real time without being able to just hit “play.”
“I think of the brain as like an MP3 player,” Dr. Amishi Jha said in a recent talk in Lipsett Amphitheater, part of NCCAM’s Integrative Medicine Research Lecture Series. She added that, for many people (especially under stress), the mind is largely occupied reliving the past or anticipating the future, which makes it difficult to fully experience the present and meet its demands. An associate professor of psychology at the University of Miami, she discussed the growing evidence based on a strategy that could help the brain stay on “play” longer: mindfulness meditation.
~ Ellen O’Donnell, posted today on the National Institutes of Health’s NIH Record.
This idea of staying in “play” mode for longer periods is highly relevant for athletes who want to stay more focused in competitions and in training. What if athletes could train their brains more effectively to be in “play” mode: in the zone; sharp; in the moment; non-judging?
One route might be Mindful Sport Performance Enhancement (MSPE). MSPE was introduced fewer than 10 years ago, but has long historical influences in Eastern meditation practices. In MSPE, athletes learn the basics of mindfulness and then begin to apply these new skills in the performance realm. You would start with core exercises in awareness, breathing, body scans, yoga, and walking meditations. Gradually, you would work up to running meditations and sport-specific mindfulness exercises.
Dr. Jha, whose research is highlighted in O’Donnell’s article, is embarking on a new study of the effects of mindfulness in athletes. The Cane Brain Project is a partnership between Jha’s lab at the University of Miami and the college football team there, the Hurricanes. It is designed to assess the benefits of mindfulness training (MT) in athletes, including MT’s role as a potential protective factor for athletes at risk for concussions.
At its core, MT (and, specifically, MSPE) has the potential to help athletes stay in the moment, not judging their performance — but simply performing. How many times have we seen athletes “choke” when they begin to overthink and overjudge their situation? Sport psychologist Sian Beilock has written an entire book about the process.
In my work with athletes, I often suggest that mindfulness practices be included in our mental training. There is evidence for many benefits such as reduced stress, increased cognitive control, improved working memory, and improved attention. For athletes who are interested in incorporating mindfulness into their regimen, it should be emphasized that this process shouldn’t be rushed. Athletes should find a qualified mindfulness instructor. (Many good instructors have been trained under the Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction model developed by Jon Kabat-Zinn.)
Feel free to write me and I’d be happy to give you suggestions on how to start.