Mindfulness in Sport
Mindfulness in Sport
Many people in sport have heard of the phrase “being in the zone” or have heard elite golfers talking about “focusing on the task in hand” or “being in the present moment”. However understanding something and being able to do something successfully are often two very different things.
Well this is where the concept of mindfulness comes in. Mindfulness was originally a fundamental practice of Buddhism dating back to its earliest traditions. In the 20th century it was taken up by Western psychologists and stress therapists to help people deal with stress in their daily lives. Now, more recently the application of mindfulness in sport is becoming a widely accepted way of helping sports people get in and stay in the zone.
So what is mindfulness? Well it is a personal routine to help stay in the present moment through developing an awareness and acceptance of any thoughts as they come and go.
Our awareness can be in the past, the future or in the here and now. Most anxiety comes from either dwelling on past problems or fearing some future catastrophe. None of these problems exist in the present moment, just the experience of our senses and actions of doing what we are doing. Even in times of imminent danger, being in the present moment helps us instinctively take the right action for the circumstances. If a gunman comes into your house, is it helpful to be thinking I should have locked the door or will he kill me or just rob me!! You just need to focus on whatever strategy will help deal with the situation as successfully as possible. Being in the present moment goes hand in hand with trusting our instincts to do the right thing.
Now sometimes, having our awareness in the past or future can be helpful – for example, learning lessons in a non-judgmental way or setting motivating goals for the future. The key in sport is being able to switch to the most appropriate mode of awareness for the situation and typically this means leaving behind the thoughts of the past or future during actual performance.
So now to the key steps to developing the “mindfulness habit” to stay in the zone.
The first step is awareness – awareness of our thoughts. That may seem obvious – surely if we are thinking we are aware! Not necessarily. Thoughts often creep into our mind uninvited and can start to take control of our emotions before we realise it. So awareness is a level of awareness where we can develop choices – a more detached observation rather than being lost in our thoughts. A practical way to do this is to add to your thought “I am aware that I am thinking…..”, for example you may be thinking that you are having a bad day today so add “I am aware that I am thinking that I am having a bad day today”.
Step two is acceptance. Don’t try to resist the thoughts as that often results in them gaining strength and fighting back. Accepting them doesn’t mean we want them to carry on, but by accepting them, perhaps with an element of curiosity, they tend to lose their strength and fade away. A key phrase is “don’t try to change them, don’t try to stop them from changing – sometimes things change just by being observed”. This is sometimes referred to as the Law of Reverse Effort. Ever had that time when you forgot someone’s name and the harder you try to remember, the further away you slip from remembering!
Step three is to return to the present moment – hence my comment earlier about a level of awareness that gives us choices. If using relaxation techniques, a simple method here is to focus on your breath and any bodily sensations which result from your breathing. In the heat of competition, it is about having some simple process goals to focus on which bring your attention back to the task in hand. In golf or similar sports, a good pre-shot routine is great to take your attention to where it needs to be. These are sometimes called triggers and need to be developed in a way that fits with your sport, personality and style of play.
Now the steps above seem simple. However, in the early stages of learning mindfulness, the unwanted thoughts can try to fight back. But perseverance WILL change this habit – just be mindful about mindfulness – be aware of what is happening, accept it with detached observation and bring your mind back to your present moment. The great thing about it is that you can practise it at any time – when you are eating a meal, come back to the taste and texture of your food or when cleaning your teeth, really focus on the experience and sensations of cleaning your teeth. And soon it will become totally natural under the toughest competition conditions – so get started and good luck! Although if you are truly mindful, you will not need the luck!