Adding Mindfulness to Your Sport or Exercise
By Greg Chertok, M.Ed., CC-AASP
The medical community is abuzz with talk on the benefits of mindfulness, a form of meditation that changes the relationship we have with our focus, and particularly our thoughts about the things on which we’re focusing. To be mindful means to pay attention to what’s happening in the present moment without any judgment, but rather openness, curiosity, and a willingness to be with what is. Lots of everyday tasks, like eating or dishwashing, can either be done mindfully, with full attention to the sensations within each moment, or mindlessly. Neuroscientific evidence suggests that practicing mindfulness may be associated with structural and functional changes in brain areas responsible for attention, regulating emotions, and self-awareness. Conditions such as depression, anxiety, chronic pain, and PTSD are all improved with regular mindfulness practice.
But many of us scratch our heads in considering its place in competitive sports and the high-intensity strength & conditioning space. Those training are presumably doing so with the intention of becoming tough, battle-hardened warriors; the idea of being present, curious and open to “being with what is” may seem silly and irrelevant. But some of the world’s toughest athletes are also the most mindful. These ideas are not mutually exclusive; in fact, they’re likely to co-occur. Here’s how you can bring a more mindful approach to your sport or activity.
Focus on your breathing
For most of us, the majority of our lives is spent not paying any attention at all to the act of breathing. This is truly remarkable, when you consider that we perform the action well over 20,000 times every day. We breathe as a survival mechanism, involuntarily and mindlessly respiring to stay alive. However there are moments when being mindful about your breathing, and using it as a means for relaxing and gaining self-control, would be helpful.
We average between 16-18 breath cycles per minute. That is, when we’re unaware of our breathing patterns – which isn’t the case now, since you’re likely focusing on your breathing and therefore your normal patterns have changed – we may breathe in and out 17 times each minute. As anxiety swells within us moments before a difficult task in the gym or anger rages in response to an error on the field, our breath cycles increase exponentially and our breathing becomes shallow, often without us realizing it, preventing a healthy flow of oxygen into the bloodstream and the brain.
The mindful athlete has the capacity to check in on her breathing and notice the changing patterns, without judging the rapid breathing as detrimental or problematic. She’s willing to simply be with her breath, watching the breath, which makes slowing down the cycles far easier. And shifting attention to her breathing helps her remain anchored in the present moment (after all, our breathing is never anywhere but in the here and now).
Focus on your body
Amid the swirling sea of continuous internal chatter, we may lose sight that it’s possible to shine the flashlight of our attention onto something other than our own thoughts. If I were to ask you, in this moment, to shine the flashlight onto your left arm – that is, focus on its positioning and sensations – you would all be able to do so, without even having to look down at it. We’re highly capable of attending to our bodies, and doing so often provides rich, accurate information about our relationship to things in the environment. The challenge is simply a matter of listening to what our bodies have to say. For instance, recent research finds that to combat obesity, adolescents must be mindful of whether they are even hungry, a technique that requires focusing on the sensations of our body. Members of such groups are often not conscious that they are eating too fast, which leads to feeling uncomfortable afterward. Learning to check in with one’s body while eating may prevent this.
The mindful athlete will listen to his body, with openness and without criticism. At the free throw line before two big shots, he may shine the flashlight onto his body and notice unpleasant tension in his shoulders, a signal that it may be time to bring some relaxing awareness to the area and slow down before going through his shot process. The tendency to rush the shot simply to “get it over with” and escape the discomfort speaks to a mindless, and often unsuccessful approach.
Be curious about your performance
The immediate and reflexive display of anger after a mistake or misstep is characteristic of most mentally-untrained athletes. This population generally views mistakes as damaging (“Mistakes are bad, and I guess this means I’m bad”), which heightens anxiety. Compare this to the mindful athlete, who tends to view mistakes differently.
I had the luxury of watching Novak Djokovic during an on-court practice session days before the U.S. Open tournament several years ago. As he went for a forehand winner, he clearly mis-hit the ball, which went right into the net. His reaction wasn’t a leg slap, or a thrown racket, or an enraged scream – reactions that are reminiscent of the junior tennis players I observe – but a look of curiosity. The look conveyed the thought of “Hmm, I wonder what caused that” rather than “I can’t believe I did that!” Being curious about mistakes opens you up to make adjustments and corrections. Being judgmental about them makes it nearly impossible to do so; the emotional intensity of the reaction gets in the way of any learning or adjusting.
Rather than furrowed brows and clenched fists, the mindful athlete will greet a mistake with quizzical expressions and thoughtful moments of silence. He latches onto a missed point or a poor shot as an opportunity to learn something, and to grow a little bit.