Mindfulness sounds like something that belongs in a yoga studio or wherever people go to meditate, but sports? An athlete needs to stay focused on the performance, but who has time to take deep breaths and meditate while playing? And yet, mindfulness in sports seems like the latest trend.

Mindfulness improves an athlete’s performance because it creates a feeling of being in the zone, also known as flow. Researchers have identified five facets of mindfulness, including observation and mindful actions. Athletes can use many of these mindfulness exercises to improve their athletic skills.

The evidence is overwhelming that mindfulness helps athletes perform at their peak. If elite athletes like Michael Phelps, Kerri Walsh, and Derek Jeter use mindfulness training, then it should help all athletes.

Does Mindfulness Improve Sports Performance?

Many studies have shown that mindfulness enhances an athlete’s performance. One study in the Journal of Clinical Sport Psychology is called "Mindfulness and Flow in Elite Athletes". It found that elite athletes often use mindfulness techniques to enhance their skills and performance. The researchers found differences in the way males and females respond to certain facets. Also variations between team and individual sports.

Author and professor Keith Kaufman cited studies in his book Mindful Sports Performance Enhancement. They show that mindfulness leads to improved performance. An analysis was done in the performance of 200 Canadian athletes in the 1984 Olympics. It showed that athletes who prepared mentally performed better than those whose preparation was physical or technical.

an athlete_mindfulness at the Olympics

A group of researchers at the Department of Physical Education at the National Taiwan University showed that a 5-week mindfulness intervention led to improved athletic improvement.

We could go on with additional studies that prove the link between mindfulness and enhanced performance. However, this might be a time to define mindfulness.

The Five Facet of Mindfulness

Google the definition of mindfulness, and you will find many interpretations. Most explanations have something about being in the moment, but they disagree on what that means, leading to confusion.

Researchers who studied mindfulness developed a mindfulness scale with five facets. This research was designed to investigate if mindfulness could help people with anxiety or depression. Let’s examine each element and how it relates to athletic performance.

Observation

Observation relates to more than just what we see - it encapsulates all of our sensory awareness. Often, we rely too much on what our eyes tell us and ignore the other senses until they directly affect us. This can be when you realise your back hurts because you have been hunched over your keyboard all day.

An athlete cannot rely solely on sight. Think about a sport you enjoy playing and watching, and then think about what the athletes need to focus on. Yes, a tennis player needs to see the ball, but they also need to feel balanced correctly to reach for a shot. Also, hear how the ball leaves the racket to know if they can receive it right.

Description

When you can describe your thoughts and actions, you have become more mindful and aware of them. This does not mean you should always tell people what you are experiencing, only that you can.

Imagine yourself in a situation where a coach asks you to explain what happened during a play. A mindful person can be more descriptive, which would lead to a better analysis of what happened. They will be able to describe everything from how they felt and what they observed during a play to better themselves for the next round.

Mindful Actions

Mindful actions are at the heart of mindfulness. Observing what happened and explaining it is good, but what do you do with that information? Unless an athlete remains in the moment, they are not fully experiencing mindfulness.

Many explanations of mindfulness mention this aspect. Phrases such as “being aware of the present moment,” “being engaged in the moment,” and “being intentionally awake.”

Athletes who use mindful practices say this part is called “being in the zone.” Some people use the word flow to describe this feeling. So unless an athlete is in the present moment that comes from mindful actions and the other aspects of mindfulness, they don’t reach that zone.

an athlete_in the zone

Non-Judgemental Inner Experiences

There is a difference between awareness of a mistake and criticising yourself for it. Anyone playing a sport who ignores their errors will not learn from them. But there is a difference between recognising a mistake and responding negatively.

Thinking “I need to change my grip on the racket” is different from “I will never get this right.” Sportswriter Mike Edger points out that focusing on a mistake is a top distraction for players, especially younger ones. It's challenging to stay in the moment when you are judging yourself, leading to more mistakes down the line.

One way to avoid focusing on judgemental experiences is to remind yourself we learn from our mistakes. It is okay to make an error - we all do. But judging yourself will take you out of the zone.

Non-Reactivity

Non-reactivity is an extension of non-judgemental thinking. Think of this quality as the ability to acknowledge you are judging yourself but not reacting to it. Instead, you detach yourself from your thoughts and move on.

In this aspect of mindfulness, a person thinks of a negative emotion almost like an object they observe before it disappears in the rear-view mirror. It is the culmination of the other aspects of mindfulness.

When an athlete says they need to get their head back into the game, they know they need to live in the moment, stop judging, and let go. 

How Do Athletes Experience Flow?

Some people say that being mindful as an athlete means experiencing flow. The person to first use the term was the American-Hungarian psychologist Mihály Csíkszentmihály. Based on his research, he came up with this definition of flow:

“Being completely involved in an activity for its own sake. The ego falls away. Time flies. Every action, movement, and thought follows inevitably from the previous one. Your whole being is involved and you’re using your skill to the utmost.”

The components of flow include the following:

  • Losing awareness of time. When an athlete is in the zone, they experience time differently. Sometimes it slows down as every movement becomes essential, and at other times it seems to speed up as everything comes together.
  • Focusing on the moment. Instead of listening to the crowd’s cheering, athletes who focus on the moment have their head in the game, to use another sport’s analogy.
  • Moving effortlessly. When everything comes together, athletes are not thinking of what to do. They just do it.

How Can An Athlete Practice Mindfulness?

As coaches, trainers, and athletes have come to see the positive impact that mindfulness has, they are developing many mind practices. These are five popular meditation exercises:

Diaphragmatic Breathing

Some aspects of mindfulness need to be emphasised for athletes, and one of those is breathing.

Breathing is an essential aspect of our lives in general, and most of us don't realise that shallow breathing results in poor posture. Shallow breathing affects the position and effectiveness of the diaphragm, the muscle central to breathing. The result is that the chest, neck, and upper back muscles must help in the breathing process.

Understanding the mechanism of proper breathing helps athletes to improve movements related to their sport. Proper breathing is not simply a matter of breathing deeply. For one thing, taking deep breaths is difficult to maintain. We take 1,000 breaths an hour, and who can breathe deeply that much without hyperventilating?

So an athlete needs to improve their breathing and then practice it.

What Are Proper Breathing Techniques?

Instead of the deep breathing practised in many yoga, meditation, and even mindfulness classes, correct breathing should be done like this:

  • When you inhale, expand your rib-cage and chest without having your shoulders or neck lift.
  • If you do this, when you exhale, your lower ribs will create space for your diaphragm to fit into your rib-cage.
  • Place your hands on your lower ribs when you breathe, and you should feel them slide apart and up (if they do not, then your breathing is shallow).

The next step for an athlete is to practice correct breathing regularly so that it becomes second nature.

One way to do so is through a Diaphragmatic Breathing Exercise. To do this:

  1. Lie on the ground, with a pillow under your bent knees and another to support your head.
  2. Put one hand on your chest and the other on your lower ribs.
  3. Breathe in slowly and keep the hand on your chest steady. The hand on your rib-cage should move up.

You can also practice this exercise in a chair. Read about more complex athletic breathing techniques. These include bridge breathing, angry cat breathing, and flowing chair, and twisting chair, in this CNN article.

Mindfulness Body Scan

A body scan exercise, such as lying down and noticing how different body parts feel, is a fundamental mindfulness practice. Athletes need to be attuned to their bodies while practising and playing. Therefore, becoming aware of the body is an important exercise.

Lay on a Firm Surface

Start a body scan while lying down on a comfortable and firm surface. Pay attention to your surroundings until you start to notice how your body feels on the floor. Or the texture of your clothes, and any sensations of warmth or heaviness. Your goal is to see how your body is reacting to lying there.

Focus on Your Breath

Next, pay attention to your breathing. What does the air feel like when it enters your nostrils? What is the difference between exhaling through your nostrils versus your mouth? Try to get your mind to be in rhythm with your breathing.

Focus on Your Body

Finally, bring your mind's attention to different parts of your body. Starting with your toes and working your way up is an easy way of doing this. Take your time - the goal is not to race through the exercise but to become aware of your body.

Having someone guide you through a body scan meditation can provide guidance until you learn how to do one independently.

Progressive Muscle Relaxation

Stress and pain are part of being an athlete, but it is not good to add the pain from stress to the pain from an injury. Muscle relaxation techniques can help with both of those.

To use this technique, find someplace where you can comfortably lie down and stretch out. For each muscle group:

  1. Breathe in and tense the muscle (do not overdo it - you shouldn’t feel pain or cramping).
  2. Keep the muscles tensed for 5 to 10 seconds and then exhale and release the muscles quickly.
  3. Relax for 20-30 seconds before you move down to the next muscle group.

After you have relaxed each group of muscles, count down from five to refocus.

Some people start this relaxation technique with their feet and others with their hands. If you choose to begin with your hands, a good order would be to:

  1. Clench your hands.
  2. Extend your forearms and bend your hands back to stretch the wrists.
  3. Bend your arms at your elbows and flex your biceps.
  4. Shrug your shoulders.

Then move on to your face:

  1. Frown with your forehead.
  2. Close your eyes tightly.
  3. Stretch your cheeks and jaw by smiling wildly.
  4. Press your lips together.

Now your torso and legs:

Press your neck back for 5 to 10 seconds and then forward. Remember that you are just trying to stretch, so keep this movement comfortable.

  1. Take a deep breath and hold for 5 to 10 seconds to stretch your chest.
  2. Arch your back.
  3. Suck your stomach into a knot and tighten the muscles.
  4. Press your butt muscles together.
  5. Clench your thighs hard.
  6. Point your toes toward your face, and then curl them down.

To help you remember the order for the muscle’s relaxation, use the next technique.

Sports Visualisation

Visualisation is natural in sports. Athletes often picture missed opportunities and losses, and a good coach will tell a player not to dwell but to move forward. How is that possible when an athlete keeps replaying the mistakes?

To solve that problem, athletes use guided visualisation to redirect the images to a positive outcome. Long before making an error, an athlete uses visualisation often without knowing it. When a coach teaches a new skill, an athlete pictures it and what it will look like to execute successfully.

Athletes use guided visualisation to rehearse a skill or routine. Visualisation makes it sound as though they only picture the skill. But a mindfulness coaches encourage athletes to use all their senses. The more senses incorporated into the visualisation, the more likely a player's body will execute.

Not only does visualisation help an athlete prepare to execute a play successfully, but it also eliminates anxiety. Instead of focusing on nervousness, the visualisation will create the mindfulness athletes need.

Mindful Walking

Athletes often respond better to this mindfulness practice because it involves movement. However, there’s more to it than walking.

an athlete_Mindful Walking
  • First, imagine a line on the ground. It does not matter whether the line is inside or out nor whether it is 10 or 50 feet (3.05 to 15.24 meters) long, as long as it is straight.
  • Then, slowly walk along the line. You are not trying to get anywhere. Keep your breathing relaxed, and put your hands and arms where they feel comfortable.
  • Finish one step before you lift your foot for the next step. As you walk, focus on the sensations in your feet.
  • When you get to the end of the imaginary line, turn back and walk back on the line, using the same process. Walk slowly, one step before the next, and focus on the sensations.

How long you do this practice is not as important as how consistently you do it. A ten-minute daily walking meditation will go a long way for creating mindfulness.

Is Mindfulness the Same as Sports Meditation?

Although mindfulness and meditation are used as though they mean the same thing, they don’t. Mindfulness is the state of your mind and focuses on being present in the moment.

Meditation is a method for reaching mindfulness. Because one goal of meditation is becoming aware of the present, some prefer to use it to learn and practice mindfulness. However, meditation is not the only method for accomplishing this.

Yoga is another technique used to practice mindfulness. The level of attention required to hold poses correctly allows one to practice being in the moment. Another benefit of using yoga to practice mindfulness is the exercise an athlete gets from it. Yoga's ability to improve flexibility and strengthen the core are well known.

Can I Learn Mindfulness Without Meditation or Yoga?

Yes. Mindful practices do not have to be done in a meditation or yoga studio. The more you do something, the easier it becomes, and you have many opportunities to practice it as you go through your daily routine.

Take time every day to focus on your breathing

You do not need to take deep breaths, but make sure your stomach moves up and down. No one near you needs to know that you are doing this. Focus on the coolness of the air as it enters your nose and the warmer air that leaves.

Pay attention to sensations in your body

If you tap your feet while listening to music, draw your attention to your foot. Is it tingling? Are your heels feeling slightly sore?

Do a routine task

Wash the dishes instead of putting them in the dishwasher. Because this task is so boring, doing it can help you focus on the senses - everything from the smell of the soap to the feel of the water. Other routine tasks, such as taking a shower, or eating have the same opportunity to focus on the present moment.

You can also use a mindfulness app while jogging or working out. Check out the Smiling Mind app. It is free, has programs specific to sports, and now integrates with Google Home.

Final Thoughts

Many elite athletes use mindfulness as part of their training and practice routines. There are also many techniques besides the ones we have highlighted. If your sport is an individual one, like running, you can use apps like Smiling Mind. If your coach has not started a mindfulness program, try to encourage them to do so.

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