The Mindful Athlete: beyond training the muscles and technique
While it is a given that muscle training and technique are crucial to peak performance, recently more and more attention has been given to the impact mindfulness has on performance. The connection between the essence of mindfulness, the experience of flow, and peak performance lies in maintaining a nonjudgmental present-moment awareness.
Critical ingredients to mindfulness in performance are willingness, resilience, emotional buoyancy, the cultivation of present-moment awareness, and action (do something about it!). I do not claim that these are the only ingredients; however, they are some that I have found useful. Let’s discuss them a bit.
Willingness and Commitment The recognition of reality – of what really is – requires attention. Research has shown again and again that attention is critical for well-being and balance. We often make goals that are entirely unrealistic; goals that are based on our poor appreciation of what is. Commitment to reality, and to what you really want (not your coach, not your environment), is the critical first step to realizing peak performance and experiencing flow.
Foster Resilience There is much to learn from people who push limits, challenge conventional wisdom, and can excel in moments that are packed with intensity. One of the characteristics that many of them have developed is the skill of resiliency – being able to adapt and adjust to challenging circumstances. Going through some heavy stuff is catalytic in this process of becoming flexible. Being able to respond after a loss, and to cultivate a positive mindset in the face of adversity, fosters resiliency 1, 2.
Research has suggested factors that promote resilience include: a challenging situation, a sense of meaning (what is really important to you - what gives you the energy to keep going), cultivating a positive mindset despite adversity, and maintaining a sense of being aware of your own reactions 3. Importantly, cultivating resiliency is not merely reserved for the world's best performers; it is for garden-variety people like you and me.
Emotional Buoyancy It is important to cultivate awareness in the moments when you are dwelling on thoughts, particularly when it is disappointments or stuff from the past (even during the competition!). Athletes (and average people) lose energy when they get into that vortex. Rather than getting caught up in judging yourself or in finding solutions to those mental events (your thoughts), admit that the churning of your mind is happening and try to go back to something simple, like the awareness of your body moving or the sensation of your breath. The latter is NOT easy and requires work (read below about a few tips to cultivate awareness). However difficult it may be, it is crucial to your well-being that you find a more productive focus and take a different action.
A critical tip for your emotional buoyancy: We cannot control the outcomes, so “when the lights are on” concentrate on the process (biking, running, playing tennis) and not on results.
Cultivate a Present-Moment Awareness Present moment awareness is realizing your focus or lack of focus. I compete in triathlons, and I found for myself that after I finished my swim and did not like my time, then many times I got on the bike and dwelled on the swim. I lost focus and took myself away from a good performance on the bike. Present-moment awareness (and acceptance) is seeing the negative thinking. Acknowledging the dwelling on the past performance and going back to pedaling is mindfulness in action.
Athletes need to cultivate present moment awareness. I am using the word cultivate on purpose: plant the seed for your self-awareness practice, patiently water that seed every single day, and observe the process as it unfolds. This process never ends (sorry). Meditation to me is a great tool for that cultivation. But hey, do not simply trust me on this… just do it and see what happens. Results can be unpredictable (remember we cannot control the outcomes, just the process), but that unknown is the nature of the practice.
Train yourself to be in the difficult moments. Find for yourself the right effort; find what you need to embrace a difficult state of mind. Again, this is tough. If anybody tells you that it is easy or that they have a recipe for an easy fix, be very careful – I personally do not believe there is any easy way to do this.
Take Meaningful Action The power of present moment awareness is to realize what is happening, and to be able to act on these observations. This could mean reminding yourself to breathe in a particular way or it could mean choosing a specific action to focus on, such as good mechanics on the bike.
Tips for the Cultivation of Mindfulness for Peak Performance (and for life) Have a strong commitment to the sport, to the truth, and to seeing reality as it really is. This is critical to setting goals and evaluating the progress. Take responsibility to figure out the reality in front of you now (as Phil Jackson may say).
Engage yourself in a regular meditation practice. This is the greatest “equalizer,” as we all have the ability to meditate and the capacity to see reality as it is. This is a foundational and necessary practice in my view.
Push yourself a bit to sit in meditation regularly (I said a bit). Seeing what is in the present moment will light a candle that was never thought possible and create a new condition, a new standard for you. Meditation is a physical practice that you do sitting on a cushion and having a balance of your erect (but not stiff) upper torso. It is like a balanced yoga pose that you maintain for a long time (20 minutes).
Engage in a regular yoga or QiGong practice, especially balance poses. Just as in muscular training, push yourself far enough to grow but not so far as to injure yourself. With your meditation practice, challenge your boundaries and push past your edge, but do not go so far as to strain so much that you risk your well-being. Practice finding your balance within as you flow from one pose to the next, always drawing upon this place of stillness to help keep you balanced and grounded.
Take time to just relax. Relaxation is actually just letting whatever happens in the moment to just be.
Investigate your values: know them very, very well and align your behavior with them more clearly. This is very, very tough, but it will make you a more rounded athlete (and human being).
Ask yourself frequently: What is it like to be you? You are an athlete and a person. What do I really need to be the athlete I want to be? What do I really need to be the person I want to be? What is the training I need to get there?
As coach Pete Carrol says in his book ‘Win Forever’: have a clear philosophy and be a great listener, particularly of yourself.
The obstacle is the path. When you make mistakes, take ownership of the mistake. Instead of belittling yourself, take a quick moment to get perspective: about the big picture of your life, or the even bigger picture of how this moment in time is so small in relationship to the totality of all moments (tough...). Make the conscious effort, as much as you can, to hold yourself kindly through the uncomfortable times as if you were coaching your closest loved one.
Trust yourself (your inner coach). The most important coach is within you. You can train yourself more often than any other person in your external world ever could. That training, that self-coaching, happens through silence (during meditation). Investing in the awareness of your inner dialog can be a life-altering effort. Once we become aware of that inner coach, we can let go of the conversations that shred us to the core. Over time, just like you would trust a coach who has your best interest at heart, you'll be able to trust your inner coach (you). This is an experience that can be transformative, and can accelerate performance (both on and off the field) at a rapid pace.
Give yourself permission to trust you and your condition at the moment (do not berate yourself mentally, it just doesn’t work). If you are constantly judging yourself, it is difficult to be in touch with your true self. Stop, meditate frequently, and you will find the needed balance and know what to do. Note I did not say create your balance, but rather you will find your balance because it is already within you.
You may never be what you think is 100% or perfect, but you are what you are in the moment, and that is true perfection. Anxiety and fear are not a problem unless you make them as such by ignoring your feelings and letting them build up inside of you. Anxiety and fear cease being a problem when you label it, and say that it is okay to feel those things. Do not identify with fear, but rather allow yourself to simply feel what you are feeling without judgement.
There is no such a thing as the big game or the big anything. We just have this moment.
These are just ideas from my own practice and training, research, and particularly from paying attention and listening to some special people like Jon Kabat-Zinn, Michael Gervais, and George Mumford .
Remember there is no recipe, as the recipe becomes a limitation. We do not need to “sell” or intellectualize the practice of mindfulness: we just need to do it.
- Luthar SS, Sawyer JA, Brown PJ. Conceptual issues in studies of resilience: past, present, and future research. Ann. N. Y. Acad. Sci. 2006;1094:105-115.
- Davidson RJ. Affective style, psychopathology, and resilience: brain mechanisms and plasticity. Am. Psychol. 2000;55:1196-1214.
- Frankl V. [Happiness and the meaning of life]. Krankenpfl. J. 1994;32:427-428.