SIX BENEFITS OF MINDFULNESS PRACTICE FOR ATHLETES
By Enio Sacilotto, www.coachenio.com
Many athletes realize their most significant obstacle to reaching their athletic potential is within themselves, their thinking, limiting beliefs, and their focus on the past or the future. These are all distractions that cause stress and take away the focus on playing their sport (the task). Stress has an inverse relationship with performance; the more stress, the more our performance goes down. The less stress, the more our performance level rises. Thanks to scientific evidence, mindful meditation has many benefits for athletes, increasing their performance and getting into a “flow state” or “in the zone.”
When athletes are in a “flow state,” or “the zone,” they are entirely absorbed in the task. Imagine you are playing a hockey game. Your total attention is focused on your body movements while skating, passing and shooting. You are living in the present moment; there are no distractions as you are absorbed in the game. You have no consciousness of time; everything is easy, and all your plays and game situation reads are working. Everything seems to be going in slow motion. You are fatigued but don’t even notice it. These are examples of “flow” or “the zone.” Being in this state helps you with your motivational energy and enjoyment of your sport.
Here is a definition and how it works, “mindfulness is a way of paying attention that entails intentionally being aware of the present moment and accepting things just as they are without judgment. A sense of calmness characterizes this attention style from seeing thoughts, feelings, and sensations constantly in flux. When able to watch such experiences come and go, rather than latch on to and over-identify with them, a person has more opportunity to take in the fullness of any given moment. This awareness and acceptance of “what is” ultimately allows for greater responsiveness to the self and environment, providing freedom from the reflexive or automatic reactions that so often guide actions.” – Mindful Sport Performance Enhancement: Mental Training for Athletes and Coaches, by K. A. Kaufman, C. R. Glass, and T. R. Pineau
Let’s look at six benefits that mindfulness practice can do for athletes:
1) PRESENT MOMENT – Mindfulness allows you to be in the present moment, in the here and now, not dwelling on the past (yesterday, last game, last play) or considering what will happen in the future (tomorrow, next match, next period). When you are in the present moment, you can take a subjective look at yourself and not judge yourself in any way. You will see thoughts as they are and not happening to you. To reach “the zone,” you must be in the present.
The more present you are, the more you can engage with the task at hand, playing your sport with full attention and concentration. An example is if you are on a breakaway in a hockey game or taking a game-winning penalty shot, you train yourself to be so focused that you are not thinking about the past or future. Thinking outside the present will distract you, wander your mind, and start to judge yourself, creating stress and pressure on you. With pressure comes frustration, and your performance level drops.
Attention Anchors – The ability to refocus when you get distracted is the goal of meditation. When you lose focus, you use an anchor to bring yourself back to the present. The most common anchor is your breath, so when you realize your mind is wandering, your focus is on your breath; this will bring you back to the present moment. Other possible anchors are clenching your fists or a sound. Anchors can be used during a game or practice; when you get distracted, focus on your anchor and bring yourself back to the present moment.
Noting is a term used that when you get distracted with thoughts or bodily feelings that won’t help you, you “note” them, be aware of them, let them fade away and move on to your next play or shift.
Losing focus is okay; the goal of the practice or mindset needs to be, “okay, I am distracted, I accept this, now breath and bring myself back.”
The more you practice mindfulness, the better your mind becomes at recognizing you are out of the present moment. Being present for athletes at practice, games, and life is a colossal factor; the better you get at it, the more focused you become on the task.
An analogy I like to use is that if you see mindfulness as a bicep curl of the mind, bringing yourself back to the present is one repetition when you lose focus. The more repetitions, the stronger your mind gets.
So if you get good at mindfulness, you will be prepared for crucial moments in a game and get you in the “flow state” or “in the zone.” Your performance will see all-around dramatic improvements.
2) CONTROL OF YOUR EMOTIONS – Mindfulness can help you recognize and understand where you are at with your emotions. The more you can objectively understand your thoughts and how they make you feel, you can find out what triggers your emotions. You can learn how to best deal with your feelings.
If you become angry over a bad call by a referee or a mistake you made, upset over a loss or over-excited, by being aware, you can recognize the situation and choose to bring yourself back down. On the other hand, if you become super anxious or sad, you can catch what triggers the emotion that caused it. Being aware when these emotions arise, you can do something about them. When you are aware and understand (mindful) your feelings, you will not let your emotions get out of control and struggle to bring yourself back.
As an athlete, the ultimate goal is the less you bring in emotions, the more you can make logical decisions. Calm athletes can perform and execute their plays effectively in the most hostile environments.
3) SELF AWARENESS IN COMMUNICATION – Communication is super important in the team and individual sports. By gaining an awareness of your mind and interaction with the outside world, you will be better prepared to communicate with your teammates and coaches.
When communicating with others, you want to be in the best place, in a state of empathy. Empathy is the ability to sense other people’s emotions and imagine what someone else might think or feel. You can take the empathy quiz by clicking right here.
The more you understand your state of mind, the more aware you will be of how you want people to communicate with you and how you communicate with others. You will appreciate the effect you have on people with the use of positive and negative words and interactions you have with them.
When you are in a situation where you are running away with your emotions, you will recognize that you will not be able to communicate to the best of your ability. Mindful awareness will allow you to deal effectively with your communication situations.
For an athlete, communication is a huge factor; it will allow you to get the best of yourself and your teammates. It helps you understand when coaches, teachers and parents are trying to help you become a better person and athlete.
4) ATTITUDE OF GRATITUDE – It is a privilege to play sports and be on a team; many people worldwide do not get the opportunity to go to the rink, get equipment, have games, and compete. With all our business, we can sometimes overlook the concept of gratitude.
Psychology research shows that athletes that practice gratefulness are: more engaged, more enthusiastic, see everything with a positive perspective, are more productive, have a proactive mindset, sleep better, express compassion, have more vital immune systems, get along better with teammates can persevere through challenging times and generally play with a greater sense of enjoyment. They have more fun!
A grateful athlete’s attitude shifts away from blaming, complaining, anxiety, depression, resentment, jealousy, negative self-judgment, and other negative emotions that hinder performance.
A simple mindfulness exercise is to do a negative visualization: create a vision of how life would be like without something. Perhaps a coach to help you, a great teammate, your phone —see-through your mind’s eye what life would be like without it—then being grateful that you have it!
Another Mindfulness exercise is to write down three different things you are grateful for each day.
You play for something or someone greater than yourself when you are grateful. When you play for something greater, you will put your heart into your sport and go the distance to get things done.
As athletes, we can get into the negative trap. Gratitude puts you in a positive frame of mind. Using grateful mindfulness helps train your mind to see the positive in moments where there are perceived amounts of negativity.
Expressing gratitude will help you become a better athlete!
5) SELF-OBSERVATION: Mindfulness is all about taking time to observe your mind and your thoughts. Take 1 to 10 minutes of Mindfulness practice every day to understand where your mind is at any given time.
An analogy or exercise you can do is visualize yourself sitting at a bus stop and watching buses drive by. Each bus represents a thought. Welcome the bus (one of your thoughts); watch it come to your bus stop. Look at it, acknowledge it and let it move on, not taking the bus, not letting the thought take you away. Thoughts are like traffic on the road; sometimes there are a lot of cars and sometimes not many. When you encounter negative thoughts, you tend to fight them, and like being in a boxing ring, you try to punch them away. Fighting negative thoughts causes anxiety, worry, stress and rumination. It is okay to accept negative thoughts. The key is not to engage in the thoughts, don’t take the bus; note it.
They will fade away with a mindful understanding, just sitting there and observing the thoughts (buses), acknowledging them, and understanding them for what they are. Then you can easily decide what action to take.
Understanding what you can control and not control allows you to make better decisions.
6) REDUCE STRESS – One of your worst enemies is stress. Stress accumulates during the day, pre-game and during crucial times within the game. As I mentioned early in the article, stress harms your performance. With mindfulness practice, you learn to relax and manage stressful moments. You also develop a positive mindset during challenging times, which helps improve your performance.
HOW TO START A MINDFULNESS PRACTICE:
1. Sit in a quiet room, get comfortable and focus on your breath. Feel the air coming in through your nostrils and out your mouth. Alternatively, concentrate on your stomach rising and lowering with each breath. Research shows that a four-count in-breath and a six-count out-breath work best.
– Start small with 1-minute increments, then slowly build-up.
– You will lose your focus on your breath – this is perfectly normal. Just acknowledge that your mind wandered and go back to focus on your breath. Remember, you are doing mind curls.
– A variation of this exercise is to start counting the breaths; when your mind wanders and you lose count, start over again.
2. Listen to music – stay present – listen to the rhythm – pick out the different instruments. If your mind wanders, bring it back to the present moment and refocus on the music.
3. Focus on an object – such as the base of a burning candle. Stay focused as long as you can; again, start small. When your mind wanders, acknowledge it, and bring your focus back to the base of the candle.
4. Use a guided meditation – There are many meditations available on the internet. You can download a guided meditation by clicking right here. This meditation is From the book A Still Quiet Place for Athletes – 01-Rest through breathing.
5. Practise Yoga – yoga is a series of stretches that will build your flexibility and make you aware of your body. You will have a short meditation session (Shavasana) at the end of the yoga session.
For mindfulness to work, you must practice consistently and make it a habit. Similar to working on your sports skills or strengthening your body. You improve with repetition. Mental training is the same; you need to practice regularly. Experiment with my suggestions; there are no right or wrong ways to practice mindfulness. Practicing the techniques for four to six weeks will make a noticeable improvement in your everyday and athletic life.
The Mindful Athlete, By George Mumford
A Still Quiet Place for Athletes: Mindfulness Skills for Achieving Peak Performance and Finding Flow in Sports and Life by Amy Saltzman MD
Mindfulness for Student-Athletes: A Workbook to Help Teens Reduce Stress and Enhance Performance by Gina M. Biegel MA LMFT, Todd H. Corbin CPC
Enio Sacilotto is President of International Hockey Camps and operates the Mental Edge High-Performance Training. Enio has 39 years of coaching experience (professional hockey in Europe and the Victoria Royals (WHL)). Currently, he coaches at the Burnaby Winter Club Hockey Academy and the Croatian National Men’s team. If you have questions or are interested in his services, contact Enio at email@example.com or call 604 255 4747. Website: www.coachenio.com.
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