A brief introduction to mindfulness in sport
Last week, I shared a thread from @Alex Auerbach that described the 5 skills that live at the intersection of well-being and high performance. I’d like to continue using his framework to introduce some of the skills that haven’t been covered in depth.
I’ve recently started reading Mindfulness and Acceptance in Sport: How to Help Athletes Perform and Thrive under Pressure which includes chapters written by top sport psychologists in the field. Mindfulness is a topic that people are familiar with and also confused by, so I thought I’d share some of what I’ve learned so far.
So in this week’s 3 Point’s, I’ll briefly introduce mindfulness, it’s application to sport, and how mindfulness can help you develop your mental game.
1. Jon Kabat-Zinn, Professor of Medicine emeritus at the University of Massachusetts Medical School, where he founded its world-renowned Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction Clinic, defined Mindfulness as “paying attention in a particular way: on purpose, in the present moment and non-judgmentally”.
To better understand how this pertains to performance, a group of top sport psychologists defined mindfulness as “a mental state of presence that allows you to engage with what you are doing in the present moment. It means, for example, observing your thoughts before a competition, without labeling them as good or bad and without the intent to eliminate or change them. Just simply notice” (p. 3).
They further elaborated that, “this is opposed to being mindless or being on autopilot, which describes a situation in which you are unaware of what is going on inside and around you” (p. 4).
2. Why bring mindfulness to sport?
“Elite [performers] strive to be fully present in the moment of performance, and they strive to aim and maintain their attention on the task at hand, but yet, like the rest of us, they’ve inherited a mind that is prone to wandering to a glorious outcome or a dreadful defeat, prone to losing focus.This wandering mind is easily triggered in moments of intense pressure when the outcome is highly uncertain, yet has significant personal meaning. Elite [performers] potentially benefit from training their ability to be present, and we consider mindfulness an essential tool to help athletes train this crucial ability” (p. 47).
3. Mindfulness is a skill that can be practiced formally and informally:
Formal mindfulness practice is the deliberate practice of the foundational skills of awareness and attention. Rather than aiming to control thoughts and feelings, the goal is to control attention and awareness, by aiming attention on a specific anchor (usually the breath) and by being aware of when attention wanders. Every time the mind wanders, it becomes an opportunity to bring attention back to the chosen anchor of attention (p. 51) - often referred to as mental pushups.
Informal mindfulness practice is the process whereby the performer practices being mindful while acting and engaging in the actual sports behavior (p. 53).
The authors suggest starting with a formal practice before moving to an informal practice. A formal practice can as easy as what it sounds like. I spend time each day (starting with 5 mins/day and slowly increasing the time every day) focusing my attention on my breath, noticing when my attention wanders, and bringing my attention back to my breath.
If you’d prefer an informal practice, the tool below is helpful for an informal practice. Next time you are watching film, running a workout, or another task, see if you can non-judgmentally notice where you attention is and if you notice yourself away from the bulls-eye, gently bring it back to the bulls-eye. Push-up complete.
K. Henriksen, J. Hansen, & C. H. Larsen (Eds.), (2020) Mindfulness and acceptance in sport: How to help athletes perform and thrive under pressure .