The Role of Mindfulness in Enhancing Sport Performance

Mindfulness was described by ‘Awakening Joy: 10 Steps to Happiness’ author James Baraz, as: “simply being aware of what is happening right now without wishing it were different; enjoying the pleasant without holding on when it changes (which it will); being with the unpleasant without fearing it will always be this way (which it won’t)”.

It is a practice founded in ancient Asian culture, specifically in the Buddhist community with it being a part of the Buddha’s Eightfold Path leading to Nirvana. Because of this association, western media has previously presented a stereotypical and misconceived version of mindfulness practices, often depicting them as mystical and religious rather than practical exercises which have been passed down generations for 2500 years.

For the last 100 years or so, studies on mindfulness and its benefits have played a crucial role in the Western adoption of these practices. Since the Enlightenment movement of the 17th and 18th centuries, empirical studies have become a decisive factor in determining whether something is embraced or dismissed.

Sports psychologist George Mumford, known for his role in assisting the Chicago Bulls winning the championship in the 1990s, working under Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant for the Los Angeles Lakers, as well as his book ‘The Mindful Athlete: Secrets to Pure Performance’, was one of the first to transfer this gained scientific knowledge of mindfulness to coaches and players to improve performance, and this transfer has since continued to expand, develop, and gain credibility.

Mindfulness being accepted by psychologists has led to it being used in the treatment of mental illnesses. It works well alongside Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT), a therapy developed to analyse one’s own thoughts, feelings, and behaviours. Mindfulness-based Cognitive Behavioural Therapy was later developed by Zindel Segal et al., as well as the Acceptance and Commitment Therapy by Stephen C. Hayes.

While these methods do not directly improve sporting performance in comparison to the other methods, they do play an important role in alleviating factors which inhibit athletes achieving peak performance. Though we may forget it when we are shouting insults at our team’s players on the tv as if they could hear us, athletes are as human as all of us, the mental difficulties we have are the same.

A basic psychological and physiological theory in sports science is the idea of ‘Arousal’. Arousal is the term used to explain a person’s level of activation or stimulation at any given moment. You should view this on a continuum from being completely asleep, all the way to having a manic episode.

It’s clear to sports scientists that this is an important factor in influencing the performance of the athlete. Important theories like the Inverted U Hypothesis originally proposed by psychologists Robert Yerkes and John Dodson in 1908, Catastrophe Theory by John Fazey and Lew Hardy in 1988, as well as Yuri Hanin’s Individual Zones of Optimal Functioning model developed in the 70s and 80s, all propose ideas around arousal and performance.

These ideas all require the athlete to be able to control their arousal at any point for optimal performance, and to do this an athlete must be mindful of the way they feel and what they think. Weight lifters will use quick breath work to generate high amounts of oxygen in the blood so muscles can create energy quickly, as well as build an inner aggressive mentality that produces adrenaline simultaneously.

Meanwhile penalty kick takers in football will usually take a slow and soothing breath to lower the amount of energy being produced, to lower the anxiety in their head, and simply focus on the task at hand. To practise mindfulness is not to only calm oneself down as most may use it, it is simply being aware, and to do so allows you to know whether you are too relaxed or too excited for a task. Being mindful is the first step to having the ability to control for better outcomes.

Furthermore, athletes will often achieve what Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi coined as Flow State during their athletic activities. This is a state of being where a person becomes fully immersed into their activity to the point there is a decrease in executive functioning activity. To achieve this a person must be completely focused on the current moment, there can be no attention allocated to past or future events.

Eckhart Tolle said in his bestselling book ‘The Power of Now’ that we should “realise deeply that the present moment is all [we] ever have. Make the Now the primary focus of [our lives]”, and this is an important part of mindfulness, being present, realising that “life is now. There was never a time where your life was not now, nor will there ever be”. One of the breathing exercises, like the 7 Minutes 2 Bliss method, are often used to assist entering this the flow state.

Practising this mentality assists achieving the flow state as one of the prerequisites of achieving this state is complete focus on the moment. When there is no allocation of attention on past failures or possible future failures, peak performance has a fertile ground to blossom, and the benefits of flow state can work their magic.

Ultimately, this article does not exhaustively cover all the benefits mindfulness can provide in a sporting context and could continue for much longer. Hopefully, this information will inspire you to research additional benefits on your own and decide how to apply mindfulness to your own sporting activities.

You don’t need to be an elite athlete; mindfulness can be beneficial for everyone, from the greatest champions to those just beginning their journey

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