Mindfulness in sports

Mindfulness is the practice of applying awareness to the present moment through sense-based experience rather than thought. In other words, the ability to bring attention to what is happening right now, without imposing judgments on the quality or meaning of the experience. In practicing mindfulness, sportspeople are able to notice thoughts as passing mental events that don’t require action. The ability to observe in this way can lessen the reflex response to a situation and increase the ability to respond in a calmer more objective way.

We often remember the sporting outbursts (John McEnroe, Zinedine Zidane to name but a few) where players are overcome with rage, feelings of injustice or unfair treatment, or respond negatively to crowd interference. With athletes not only needing to consistently turn in their best performance, but also being role models for fans and aspiring young people, changing the way individuals react to thoughts is a growing area of focus in sports.

A Chosen Response

It is not just the one-off outbursts that sportspeople have to contend with; performance anxiety is a large factor whether you are a team player or individual athlete. So how can mindfulness help? Mindfulness can help individuals become aware of their thoughts, bodily sensations and environment. Through noticing as an observer what is happening in the present moment, we can choose to respond in a certain way instead of relying on the reflex, learned response that often isn’t the most helpful.

Novak Djokovic uses mindfulness every day to help him let go of negative experiences during play and re-adjust his mental and physical responses

We can choose to notice the environmental conditions and make adjustments to our play. We can notice how certain scenarios cause tension in the body and we can choose to relax those parts of the body. Or, we can just notice as an observer and watch the feelings or thoughts arise and pass away – they are mental events that don’t necessarily need a reaction; especially where the thoughts are unhelpful or negative or likely to elicit a negative response. Sport can be a very stressful environment. Mindfulness can help individuals to let go of emotional responses and instead help them to act with more balance and wisdom; this could be the difference between winning and losing.

Improving Focus

Often in competitive sports (professional and amateur) it’s easy to ruminate on past mistakes or predict an outcome before the performance has even started. Mindfulness brings us back to the present moment – what is happening right now? By focusing only on what is happening in the moment, thoughts of predicted failure or learned reactions to past events start to lose their power. Our minds and bodies find a freedom to perform in the moment.

As an amateur competitive cyclist, I have felt and witnessed performance anxiety and the effects it can have on the enjoyment and outcome for individuals. It’s easy to slip into the mental cycle of berating yourself for not doing well, or having moments of self-doubt. Mindfulness might not stop these moments, but it will teach you how to observe them purely as mental events and not based on the reality of the moment. Bringing yourself back to the present and anchoring attention on your breath is a powerful practice to overcome attachment to negative thought patterns. Trying a simple breathing practice before an event can reset the mind and body to be able to focus productively on the current situation.

Positive Imagery

Mindfulness is a powerful method for creating space in the mind which can then be used to meditate on positive visualisations. Utilising the senses can affirm visualisations bringing them to life with vividness that can overcome anxiety and negative thought patterns. Creating a positive mental image of a shot, play, race or outcome can help increase confidence and focus making mindfulness an essential practice not only for success, but also for enjoyment.

David Njoku of the Cleveland Browns uses mindfulness and visualisation to improve performance

Practicing mindfulness is mental training that helps refocus awareness so that attention can be redirected purposefully to help you perform to the best of your ability. As with all training, it is a process that requires commitment and repetition. Mindfulness begins with a sitting practice and deliberate times set aside for mindful enquiry. This then moves on to mindful movement and can become a whole of life practice that can be utilised on the court/pitch/field/track before, during and after performances.

The Well Nest could help your sports team to improve performance through the practice of Mindfulness. To learn more about mindfulness, tailor a mindfulness package for your club or team or to register for mindfulness courses in Staffordshire (suitable for everyone, not only athletes) take a look at the Mindfulness pages or contact [email protected]

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