I’m an athlete. I’m wondering if there are any ways in which mindfulness can help me get to the next level in my sport?
Play to Win
Dear Play to Win,
Thank you for writing in with this question. George Mumford, a renowned mindfulness teacher to elite athletes and executives, identifies in his book The Mindful Athlete, five spiritual superpowers as being keys to elevating performance. These superpowers, based on the Buddha’s teachings, are mindfulness, concentration, insight, right effort, and trust. Here, I’ll delve into each one in hopes of helping you spark athletic gains.
Mindfulness involves a deliberate present-moment awareness that is intentionally focused and held non-judgmentally. In the context of athletic performance, mindfulness training provides the athlete with specific meditation-based practices to increase their ability to enter into what has been called “the zone.” The zone experience is considered to be “the ultimate experience of optimal performance in sports.” Zone experiences require the athlete to be able to sustain a present-moment focus and not get caught up in distractions, whether internal or external.
While many athletes are incredibly strong and skilled, it is the ability to utilize mental training to recruit strength and skill when most needed, especially, in the heat of high pressure moments, which is what sets exceptional athletes apart from their peers. If you are a basketball fan, for example, think back to moments from this year’s playoffs when we saw brilliant performances from elite players, like Steph Curry and Chris Paul (before his injury) from the Warriors and Rockets, respectively. We also witnessed a standout example of the opposite of a present-minded athlete in Cavalier’s J.R. Smith, who was seemingly confused about the situation, strategy, and score at the end of Game 1 in the Finals at Golden State. This mental lapse proved costly to the Cavs as they went on to lose the game and, eventually, the series.
Athletes who have experienced positive flow states describe them in a fascinating way. Mumford writes that the athletes he has coached report experiencing a slowing down of time, superior performance without associated pain, present moment absorption, special “premonitions” about how plays will develop, and a shifting toward a process orientation rather than an outcome focus. They also experience interconnectedness with essential aspects of their performance (e.g. teammates, opposition players, equipment), mental and physical transcendence, expanded consciousness and increased performance.
In order to move into this special state of consciousness, athletes have to be able to stay fully absorbed in the moment and clear from any distractions. This type of awareness is qualitatively and experientially similar to what is often described by meditators.
There are numerous yoga practices that directly impact the body’s nervous system, which, in turn, can facilitate heightened concentration. Perhaps the most foundational practice is awareness of breath. (Related: Yoga master Sharath Jois explains the importance of controlling the breath.) Breathing is obviously central to sustaining life. However, for the athlete learning how to work with the breath can enhance their game.
Beyond the practice of concentration on or awareness of the breath is the controlling or manipulating the breath to promote a state of relaxation. The physiological mechanism through which relaxation is created is the parasympathetic nervous system. An oversimplified way of thinking about parasympathetic functioning in this context is that deep breathing promotes relaxation, and in a relaxed state, the present moment is more available. When we are relaxed, the mind is more calm, the body is less tense, we are more attuned to our sensory experience and able to think and see more clearly.
In the context of athletic performance, the now-moment is crucial to success. For example, in high pressure situations, there is not any bandwidth for the mind to wander back to a missed free throw, or an errant pass, or the anticipation of the next quarter. In many different sports, the play happens so quickly that any lapse in awareness can prove costly. Therefore, concentration on the breath is a fruitful avenue to begin to train present-moment awareness and open the athlete up to entering and sustaining flow states.
You can see for yourself how it feels to connect to your breath. Right now, I invite you to sit still and assume a dignified posture by rooting into your chair or the floor. Do your best to lengthen up through your spine and let your shoulders relax as well as release tension in all other areas. It is helpful to place one hand on your belly and the other on your heart. As you are sitting there, take a nice long deep breath in and feel the expanding space of the belly and chest rising to meet your hands. At the top of the in-breath, notice a pause before the exhale and let the exhale move slowly out, about twice as long as the inhale. Feel your hands relaxing back down and in.
Repeat this for several cycles and notice what changes you may feel. Do you feel at ease and able to be present with your sensory channels more open? If so, you can now understand more about why working with breath is beneficial for performance. If you were not able to have this kind of experience with this practice, please know that it takes time to connect into the breathing in a relaxing way. Keep at it.
Related: A Simple Guided Breathing Meditation
There are several areas in which the athlete can pay particular attention to self-knowledge. These areas center around the patterning of the mind and beliefs. Mumford suggests engaging in daily inquiry to examine the areas in one’s life that create discomfort, where one’s patterns are hindering one’s progress, or how one may get caught in desires or cravings. We all have particular emotions or thought patterns that have become ingrained and, therefore, we must actively look into them in order to unearth and transform them.
You may briefly inquire with yourself about your relationship to daily stressors and how it can take a positive turn. Mumford encourages extending this self-reflection beyond the mental to learn how to develop ongoing conversations with the body. It is crucial for athletes to learn to listen to their bodies as a way of preventing injury, enhancing training and conditioning, and reducing performance fatigue.
Combining meditation with journaling is a powerful practice to shine a spotlight on these kinds of cognitive and emotional patterns and hindrances that may be limiting one’s performance and stifling growth. Consider setting an intention in your meditation practice to receive insight on how to transform these patterns and record your observations in a journal.
4. Right Effort
Mumford offers four points of focus: The first is to remain alert to “unwholesome qualities” that may arise. This can come in the form of negative thoughts or laziness. The second is to notice when unwholesome qualities come up, and abandon them rather than get caught in reacting to them. For example, notice when a negative, unhelpful thought arises and aim to acknowledge it as such, and then let it go without giving it anymore power. This takes practice and training.
The third is to foster new qualities that are wholesome and the forth is to sustain those qualities that already exist. An example of how to cultivate more wholesome thoughts would be to write down any negative thoughts that may come up concerning your performance, and then do your best to rewrite them as more wholesome positive ones. Essentially, the path to create positive qualities is to remain committed to the daily practice of mindfulness, which may appear in the forms of meditation and/or yoga. I always recommend working with a qualified professional when there is a lot of negative thoughts or emotions that may make positive growth more challenging.
For the athlete, the practice is to recognize that your entire life can be a training ground for presence and as you learn to strengthen the muscle of focus that is a skill that you can bring into the game at crucial moments.
This is a practice of learning to cultivate trust in oneself and in the path of mindfulness. The athlete must come to cultivate confidence in their capacity to develop the physical, mental, and emotional strength and resources needed to perform. It is trust in one’s own ability to meet the unfolding moments of the game and, more importantly, it is to meet life with gracefulness, love, presence, openness and skill. This takes a commitment to ongoing, daily practice and dedication to staying present, no matter the intensity or challenges that the game or life has to offer. Mindfulness is about embracing and engaging with the moments of our lives.
If you are new to mindfulness and not sure where to start, there are many excellent resources on Sonima, like this article, to learn more about how to further your knowledge. It is recommended that the practice of mindfulness and yoga be initiated under the guidance of a qualified instructor to ensure physical and emotional safety and to have ongoing coaching and support as one undertakes what can be a power and transformative journey. I wish you luck!