Mindfulness can be very powerful mental skill when applied to sport performance. Mindfulness basically means paying attention in a particular way: on purpose, in the present moment, and non-judgmentally. Mindfulness can simply be noticing what we don’t normally notice, because our heads are too busy in the future or in the past – thinking about what we need to do, or going over what we have done. Mindfulness might be described as choosing and learning to control our focus of attention.
During sport performance there are so many physical, emotional, and mental sensations going on at one time. There is no way that our minds can focus on all those sensation each moment or duration of time, so what we actually do is unintentionally focusing on a few things, usually the sensations that we perceive as most intense, and start making judgments or criticisms based upon where our attention is focused.
For example, pretend you are on the run leg in a triathlon and you think “Oh my god my legs are tight, I have 3 miles to go I don’t know if I can make it that far, and here comes someone passing me now. I’m really going slow.” This example is a type of statement that I hear from triathlete’s all the time when I ask them to describe their experience. This statement encompasses many unhelpful judgments, evaluations, but most importantly it keys me into where they are allowing their focus to go in that moment. While these types of thoughts seem automatic, they are not and they can be controlled with mindfulness practice.
Mindfulnessis the opposite of automatic pilot mode. It is about experiencing the world that is firmly in the ‘here and now’ or in the moment. This mode is referred to as the being mode. It offers a way of freeing oneself from automatic and unhelpful ways of thinking and responding to situations in our lives.
Benefits of Mindfulness
By learning to be in mindful mode more often, it is possible to develop a new habit that helps to weaken old, unhelpful and automatic thinking habits. Mindfulness training in this case does not aim to immediately control, remove, or fix this unpleasant experience. Rather, it aims to develop a skill to place you in a better position to break free of or not ‘buy into’ these unhelpful habits that are causing distress and preventing positive action.
So as endurance athletes we all succumb to unhelpful thoughts that negatively impact our sport performance. Time and time again I read blogs of professional endurance athletes that admit that their negative thought patterns, uncontrolled focus, and anxiety have debilitated them in race-day performances. Kara Goucher is a good example and in the past she has been very honest and forthright about how she struggles with negative thoughts and anxiety during past races. However,I believe Sarah Piampiano, Professional Triathlete said it best, “I don’t think anyone ever has the perfect race, it’s whoever can problem solve the best is the one who’s going to win.” Mentally refocusing and controlling how you interpret your body in any given moment so that you can quickly assess, treat, and keep moving forward is the best problem solving skill you can develop.
Core Features of Mindfulness (The Basic Run Down)
Observing: The first major element of mindfulness involves observing your experience in a manner that is more direct and sensual (sensing mode), rather than being analytical (thinking mode). A natural tendency of the mind is to try and think about something rather than directly experience it. Mindfulness thus aims to shift one’s focus of attention away from thinking to simply observing thoughts, feelings, and bodily sensations (e.g., touch, sight, sound, smell, taste) with a kind and gentle curiosity.
Describing: This aspect of mindfulness relates to noticing the very fine details of what you are observing. For example, if you are observing something like a tangerine, the aim is to describe what it looks like, its shape, color, and texture. You might place a descriptive name to it, like “orange”, “smooth”, or “round”. The same process also can be applied to emotions (e.g. “heavy“, “tense“). An aim of mindfulness is to allow yourself to consider the whole of your experience, without excluding anything. Try to notice all aspects of whatever task or activity you are doing, and do it with your full care and attention.
Being Non-Judgemental: It is important to adopt an accepting stance towards your experience. A significant reason for prolonged emotional distress relates to attempts to avoid or control your experience. When being more mindful, no attempt is made to evaluate experiences or to say that they are good, bad, right, or wrong, and no attempt is made to immediately control or avoid the experience. Accepting all of one’s experience is one of the most challenging aspects of mindfulness, and takes time and practice to develop. Bringing a kind and gentle curiosity to one’s experience is one way of adopting a non-judgmental stance.
Focusing on One Thing at a Time/ One-Mindfully: When observing your own experience, a certain level of effort is required to focus your attention on only one thing at a time, from moment to moment. It is natural for distracting thoughts to emerge while observing, and there is a tendency to follow and ’chase’ these thoughts with more thinking. The art of ‘being present’ is to develop the skill of noticing when you have drifted away from the observing and sensing mode, into thinking mode. When this happens it is not a mistake, but just acknowledge it has happened, and then gently return to observing your experience.
How to Become Mindful: Mindfulness is a skill that takes time to develop. It is not easy, and like any skill it requires a certain level of effort, time, patience, and ongoing practice. When I teach mindfulness it is done in a structured way to develop the base level of mental fitness and then as mastery progresses adjustments are made. If you are interested in Mindfulness Training or attending a complementary (meaning FREE) Mindfulness Workshop for Athletes please contact me for more info.