As an athlete, being at the top of your game doesn’t only involve hours of practice and dedication to the weight room. There are mental capacities that need honing in order to heighten performance. While being a top-notch sports player is a physical feat, the mental game is just as important. When athletes become more aware of their bodies, they also build inner resilience to handle stress, which unlocks elevated performance levels. In essence, mindfulness training can grow the inner capacities of distress tolerance, present-moment awareness, and acute focus to fuel what athletes seek most—results.
What is mindfulness anyhow? Mindfulness is about cultivating awareness of the present moment, intentionally and without judgment. Although mindfulness originated from Buddhism in the East, we’re now utilizing secular mindfulness in various domains of life here in the West. Studies in neuroscience show that a consistent mindfulness practice grows new neural pathways that support focus and emotional regulation in addition to decreasing matter density in areas of the brain that encode negative emotions, such as the amygdala. In effect, if we make a mistake on the court or field, and our mind is still ruminating in self-judgment about this failure, we’re less present and more likely to repeat mistakes moving forward in the game.
Why the best athletes are mindful—and mindfulness makes the best athletes.
A study in the Journal of Health Psychology recently found that athletes who practice mindfulness meditation techniques were more motivated to exercise regularly and were more satisfied with their workouts. This indicates that the more present we are in the moment, the more capacity we have to tap into inner resources such as motivation and satisfaction.
Phil Jackson has become the poster child for implementing mindfulness in athletics. From the Chicago Bulls to the Los Angeles Lakers, he used Zen philosophy and mindfulness approaches to help his teams grow mental strength. He equates this mental training to the physical training his teams also commit to. Phil introduced mindfulness in training camps, and it ultimately became a standardized process for his teams to center and ground themselves. From Phil’s perspective, "Mindfulness is about aligning with who you are and living from an authentic place." So whether you’re a professional athlete or you simply enjoy sports for stress-release, mindfulness can harness your presence, enjoyment, and ultimately elevate your performance.
Here's how to infuse your training with mindfulness.
1. Practice pausing.
Perpetual busyness is our modern-day epidemic, and it includes our minds. We have about 60,000 to 80,000 thoughts per day, and about 70 percent of those thoughts are negative in content. These negative thoughts fuel poor performance in the athletic world, but if we can weave in periods of mental pausing before we walk onto the court or go on a run, we can create space to align with intentions and stay positive. As a mindfulness-based psychotherapist, I work with many athletes who want to achieve some pretty big goals. I encourage them to pause for five to 10 minutes before they engage in competition to breathe, reset, and repeat a positive affirmation. Example? Repeating "I trust in my tremendous ability to step into greatness today. I let go of self-doubt" a few times before competing.
2. Balanced beliefs.
Mindfulness isn’t about having zero thoughts; it’s about cultivating awareness of our thought patterns. If we can begin to excavate entrenched negative beliefs about who we are as an athlete or performer, we can shift our belief system to embrace our true abilities. Psychology Today reported, and other studies suggest, that mental practice can be almost as effective as physical training. Knowing this, you realize it's important to begin to visualize yourself achieving athletically. Truly feel what it would be like to win that trophy, make that three-point shot at the buzzer to win the game, or cross the finish-line running your best time. When we tap into the feelings that support our goal, we create optimal conditions to make the goal a reality.
3. Bring spirit back into the sport.
When we’re competing, we often lose the meaning of what sports and competition are all about. In a culture of "us versus them," the power of playing sports is often muddied by the intensity of taking the other guy or team down. But when you align with the friendship, love, and passion of athletics, you bring spirit back into sport. In this moment, mindfulness and joy naturally arise. Before competing, drop into the body using mindful breathing and align with your inner intention connected to this game or race you’re about to dive into. In this place of embodied presence, you ignite the power of performance. Through this power, we elevate our human potential beyond what we thought was possible.