Ask any sports psychologist or mental performance coach and they will tell you the key to peak performance is mindfulness. Mindfulness is the conscious awareness of thoughts and emotions in the present moment. The value of mindfulness can be attributed to the T.F.A.R. thought model which is a psychological tool that helps us analyze and understand the outcomes of our decisions and choices.
The thought model suggests that every situation (circumstance) triggers a thought which creates a feeling (emotion) that drives our actions (behaviours) which leads to our results (outcomes). The thought model is a program that mostly happens at a subconscious level. This is why the practice of sitting with our thoughts allows us to become more aware of those thoughts that lead to specific results by bringing them into the conscious mind.
The most common challenge for many athletes to deal with in sports performance is pressure. Although many believe this is an outside stressor – pressure is actually created within. Pressure in sports performance is the duplicate of stress in normal everyday life. For many, pressure evokes a fear state which puts athletes into what is known as survival mode. Survival mode is the short-term, fear-based mode of thinking you enter when your flight or fight mode is triggered by physical or psychological risk.
“You can’t be in survival mode and growth mode at the same time.” – George Mumford.
If we process this through the T.F.A.R. thought model we can understand how pressure can lead to less desirable results for the common athlete. Pressure can trigger a negative thought which creates an uncomfortable feeling in the body ( eg. the sweaty palms, accelerated heart rate, jelly legs, adrenalin pumping – speeding everything up in the mind). This feeling might drive fearful, hesitant, or uncomfortable action which in most cases has an unsuitable result.
The practice of mindfulness is a skill that also allows us to be more involved and consciously aware of our surroundings in the present moment. In this fast-paced world and the chaos of sports competition – distractions, challenges, adversity, and momentum swings have the ability to cause a split focus. eg. split between present-past or present-future. Without 100% focus in the present moment, we can’t be as truly as effective as we desire – hence why many athletes experience inconsistency and don’t perform to their full potential in competition. An athlete’s full potential and peak performance lie in the ability to be 100% focused on what’s important now (W.I.N.). This is also a critical component of the flow state or as we like to call it in the sports world – performing “in a zone”.
The greatest challenge to focusing on what’s important now is the thoughts that have the ability to take us out of the present moment. Again, this is why mindfulness is such a vital key to peak performance. At the basic human level, we are all created with a negative bias. This means that our default is to pay more attention or give greater meaning to the negative events more so than positive situations. Research shows that up to 80% of our thoughts have a negative connotation and being creatures of habit – 95% of those thoughts are a thought we have had before. Believe it or not, the reason for the negative bias is to actually keep us safe and alive by taking less risk.
If someone has ever said to you “think positive” in a challenging situation and you find it difficult… now you understand why. Because of our default negative bias, it is important to recognize that positive thinking is a skill set that needs to be developed to become competent. International speaker and best-selling author Teale swan compares the transition from negative thinking to a positive focus is like trying to jump the Grand Canyon. There needs to be a middle ground. That middle ground for athletes is through the practice of mindfulness – i.e. being aware of thoughts, emotions, bodily sensations, and surroundings to come back to the present moment.
“The mind is just like a muscle. The more you exercise it, the stronger it gets and the more it can expand” – Idowu Koyenikan
There are a variety of ways to practice mindfulness to help you recognize the thoughts that lead to helpful or hindering results. Here are 10 ways that you can practice mindfulness:
The benefits of meditation are becoming more and more evident in sports performance. The practice of meditation is the process of observing thoughts instead of attaching to them. This is primarily done by focusing on the breath which allows us to bring ourselves back to the present moment. Not only does meditation help improve focus, but it also reduces stress (internal pressure), stabilizes emotions, reduces the mind from ruminating (monkey mind), helps deal with fear, improves sleep patterns and speeds up recovery time, advances the sense of self and even enhances endurance. This is a prime practice of many professional athletes and people in high-pressure jobs.
In recent times yoga has become a popular choice for athletic recovery. Not only does the practice help with balance, core strength, muscle recovery, and flexibility but yoga is great for building mental focus. Studies show that yoga helps develop concentration, cognition, and memory. Researchers have found that yoga can greatly affect neural patterns in the brain, which can improve your ability to concentrate and focus. The benefits of yoga for concentration can be beneficial for any task that comes your way.
3. Daily Journaling.
Journaling is a relatively simple concept with a number of benefits for athletes in competition. The process of putting thoughts into words is an incredibly powerful tool to accelerate development and improve sports performance. Journaling is a training tool for the mind that evokes mindfulness, develops emotional intelligence, boosts memory and comprehension, and even improves communication skills. Journaling allows us to become more conscious of our thoughts by diving into the subconscious mind and physically seeing how our mind works on paper. This powerful mindset tool has been around since humans learned how to put thoughts into words but is still a rare habit for many.
“The mind is like water. When it’s turbulent, it’s difficult to see. When it’s calm, everything becomes clear.” – Prasad Mahes
Gratitude is a practice of positive thinking. It is seeing the beauty of what you have currently and being thankful for it. It is normal for athletes and high-performing people to lock in on the next big goal but gratitude is a tool that can help boost motivation by reflecting on the progress you’ve made so far. The way this translates into sports performance is that it allows the athlete to focus on their own strengths rather than getting caught up in what they don’t have or become distracted by others that may be bigger, faster, or stronger. This allows the athlete to zero in on what’s important now. The practice of gratitude allows athletes to be more mindful of their focus and what they can control in competition.
5. Body Scan.
Emotions are linked to feelings in the body. When we are stressed our muscles become tense. The idea of practicing a body scan is to understand the body’s sensations. It also allows the athlete to focus on the vessel in which they’ve built their skillset into their central nervous system and muscle memory. An athlete performing at their peak is instinctual (meaning they trust their body’s movements). The meaning of fear is a loss of control and when this happens the mind tries to regain control, causing athletes to perform from thought rather than instinct. your mind cannot keep up with what your body can do. Let go of thought and perform in your body.
6. Controlled Breathing Exercises.
Concentrating on your breathing and aiming to slow it down will reduce your heart rate and make you feel calmer and in control. This type of breathing allows us to “hijack” the body’s natural blood pressure regulation system and increase our heart rate variability (HRV). HRV is the varying interval in our heart rate, where an increase is reflective of a greater capacity to deal with stress. One of the major signals the brain sends to the body in a fear state is the increased heart rate. Slowing down that heart sends a message back to the amygdala (fear mechanism) that the danger is gone allows for clarity and calm in the mind.
Hakalau is an ancient Hawaiian practice that uses peripheral vision to bring you into a meditative state. The word Hakalau translates to “eyes wide open” and the practice helps you both focus and expand your vision – which is super beneficial to any athlete no matter the sport. The ideology behind the practice is when you are seeing through your peripheral vision, your physiology is more relaxed and calm. This practice is considered a walking meditation of the kahunas which allowed them to still function while in a meditative state.
8. Nature Walks.
Spending time in nature has restorative and healing power. Being outdoors increases well-being, helps alleviate stress and anxiety, promotes creativity, assists with recovery from mental fatigue, helps restore attention, boosts the brain’s ability to think, and engages the senses. Bringing conscious awareness to our senses (sight, sound, smell, taste, and touch) not only grounds us in the present moment but brings our mind and body into a state of balance.
Grounding (also known as earthing) is a therapeutic technique that involves activities that “ground” or reconnect us to the electrons of the earth. This is a mindfulness technique that really engages the sense of touch for a number of psychological and health benefits such as decreasing the stress response, improving blood circulation, and reducing inflammation – just to name a few.
10. Performance Reflection.
Reflective practice occurs when you explore an experience you have had to identify what happened and your role in the experience, including your behaviour, thinking, and related emotions. Mindfulness not only helps us become more self-aware but also helps us self-manage to get the best out of future situations from what we have learned through reflective practices.
“It’s not what happens to you but how you react to it that matters.” – Epictetus
Not only does mindfulness help you become more anchored to the present moment and more mindful of your thoughts, but it also eases anxiety, reduces stress levels, improves concentration, changes thought patterns, stabilizes emotions, reduces the mind from ruminating, improves recovery time, helps manage fear, conquers mental blocks, strengthens the immune system and improves resiliency and mental toughness.
But the greatest benefit of all for athletes is that it helps you understand your peak performance programming patterns. Neuroscience has shown that human beings have not just one brain — but three! Yes, three complex, functional and adaptive neural networks, or what the scientists studying them are called ‘brains’; one in the heart, one in the gut, and of course, one in the head. These brains exhibit neural plasticity, learning, and memory. And each has its own domains of expertise and competencies. This means that every experience is remembered through one or more of the brains. Once you understand how certain thought patterns produce great results, it is a matter of duplicating the program. How cool is that!!
As athletes, we are taught from a young age to focus effort on strengthening physical skills such as endurance, strength, agility, and ability. However, at elite and professional levels, it is becoming even more evident that athletic performance is largely mental. Because of the results from studies and research put forward, mental strength and durability are becoming a priority in most sports. The practice of mindfulness helps athletes understand and focus on themselves as well as their limits, making them more efficient and productive throughout performance.
– 𝐶𝑜𝑎𝑐ℎ 𝐶𝑎𝑙.