Mindfulness in Sport A Practical guide

Introduction

To become better at any aspect of sport, athletes must be willing to dedicate their complete focus and attention to a given task. Focus, concentration, attention and acceptance are all trainable and learnable skills that can help athletes perform at higher levels and contribute to an overall heightened wellbeing. Athletes can learn these skills through the use of traditional meditation practises (meditation is originally intended as any kind of exercise that is physical or mental) and sport specific mental training drills.

Mindfulness training techniques have proven to assist athletes in their skill development. Mindfulness is simply learning to become more aware of your current environment. The main premise for training athletes in mindfulness is to help them foster new degrees of concentration and focus. It provides a real and concrete way to train athletes to pay attention. Individuals who are fully absorbed in a task have a greater opportunity to achieve moments of “flow” or “being in the zone,” where concentration and focus are at their highest.

Learning the psychological aspects of mindfulness will train athletes to accept the way things are at present. Mindfulness training encourages athletes to begin by accepting their current skill levels in order to have a realistic starting place from which to develop new skills.

Mindfulness training requires dedication and energy. It is a long-term practice that much like physical training, may be uncomfortable along the way. The benefits will take time to present themselves, but with the combined perseverance of coaches and athletes, an enhanced learning environment can be created using the techniques and drills presented in this guide.

Focus

Part One: Traditional Mindfulness Training Exercises

Body Scan

In the body scan we lie down and move our awareness around the body in sections. We are cultivating awareness of the body and learning to maintain focus and attention.

Practice-Try having athletes lie down on a comfortable surface. Begin by having them focus on the breath, simply feeling the in-breath and the out-breath in a calm and relaxed manner. Explain that the purpose of the exercise is to maintain focus of the specific body parts and to feel any sensations which may or may not be in that part of the body. Instruct the participants to recognize when the mind has wandered off of the suggested focus of attention (which it will do many times) and to simply bring the attention back to the current area of attention. This is the exercise- bringing the attention back every time it wanders.

Once the participants are relaxed and ready they can be instructed to begin by focusing on the left toes, left body, lower body or whatever area you wish to start in. You can do 10 minute body scans or up to 45 minutes. It is up to you. You can get as specific as necessary. In a very detailed body scan you could move from the left toes to the left top of foot to the heel and ankle, up to the left shin and calf, continuing with each body part along the way up to the hips and back down to the right side of the body again coming up to the hips and then focusing on both hands and arms, shoulders neck and face, feeling the heart beat and the lungs expand, taking as much time as you like along the way with lots of focus on breathing, regaining attention and being non-judgmental of yourself. When the athletes are sensing discomfort or tension in a particular area maybe they can accept the pain or discomfort and take a breath into the area, possibly allowing some tension to soften.

This is a very simple exercise but challenging. It is a great beginning meditation that with time and commitment can help athletes to develop focus and concentration and gain an acceptance of discomfort.

Concentration

Breathing Exercises

Stopping to take a breath can be one of the simplest techniques to teach athletes to gain focus and perspective. A single breath can be a meditation if it is done with intention and focus. Having athletes come together in a controlled breathing exercise can build team cohesion and help alleviate stress and anxiety. There are many breathing exercises but the best beginner exercise for athletes is to spend about three minutes teaching them that they can always use their breath as an anchor when they are feeling frustrated, angry, tired or overwhelmed. When you shift your focus of attention to the breath you move from thinking to awareness. That awareness allows individuals to accept the true reality of the situation and help them to become present and conscious.

Practice- At any time during a practice or stoppage of play in a game, have the athletes stop what they are doing and bring their full attention to the fact that they are breathing. Take as long as you like to simply remind them to focus on the breath and to bring their attention back to the breath every time the mind wanders. Focus on the breath coming in and the breath moving out of the body, noticing any thoughts of boredom, restlessness, fatigue and just allowing the feelings to come and go like the breath. Allow thee exercise to play out in a non-judgmental manner. Athletes can gain acceptance and learn to concentrate with greater regularity with a simple breathing exercise.

Meditation

Sitting Meditations

For many people, the word “meditation” conjures up images of someone sitting cross legged with their eyes closed, possibly chanting and looking rather mystical. Sitting meditation is not just for yogis or spiritual gurus but rather a way for regular people to practice paying attention and focus. It is a time to slow the incessant thinking mind and awaken the awareness of reality. This can be extremely challenging for many first-timers. Simply sitting and focusing on the breath, sensations in the body, noises or thoughts in the mind can be uncomfortable. Sitting on the ground for any extended period of time can present problems for many. With time and practice, this simple exercise can have many re-wards both physically and mentally. It takes time for concentration and mindfulness to develop, so it is best to begin practicing slowly and simply.

Practice- Bring a group or individual to a comfortable place where they can try to sit for a duration of time you determine to be suitable. Have participants sit in a posture that represents wakefulness. Five minute sitting meditations can be a great place to start. Have the participants begin by focusing on the breath and to bring attention back to the breath every time the mind wanders. Move the attention to any sounds the participants hear, focusing on the ears and what they can listen to. They can then bring their attention to the sensations of the body. Where the body makes contact with the ground or chair and simply have them accept the feelings. The sitting mediation can also include focusing on thoughts that go through the mind, allowing the thoughts to pass by like clouds would in the sky. Instruct participants to accept what is happening and not try to change the situation or feelings but just be present for what is really going on in the mind and body. Give simple guidance through the exercise with lots of quiet time for personal growth. The exercise will help athletes to train the mind to be more focused and aware. Learning to focus while sitting quietly will help athletes to focus in the moments of stress and anxiety in the sports arena.

Awareness

Walking Meditation

This form on practice often resonates with athletes, who tend to enjoy more physical meditations. This exercise is intended to highlight how often we are unaware of what we are doing. We take walking for granted and when we actually concentrate on the act of walking, we can see the complexities it entails. The act of simply standing can offer new levels of awareness, as we recognize the effort that goes into balancing. In the walking meditation you attend to the walking itself. You can focus on the footfall as a whole; or isolate segments of the motion such as knee movement, leg movement, arm movement, or the entirety of the whole body moving. You can bring the awareness of breathing together to the meditation with the awareness of walking.

Practice- Try bringing individuals together in a line and have them simply walk to one side of a gymnasium or field. The point is not to get anywhere, only to notice the sensations in the body. Connect the movement with the breathing, instructing the individuals to sense the bottoms of the feet and the ankles and knees, taking into account the feelings in the entirety of the body. Become aware of the sense of balance or lack of balance. Duration: 5-45 minutes.

The walking meditation can be done at any speed as long as it is done with complete attention on the act of walking. Once the individuals have reached the end of gymnasium or field have them stop and stand for a few moments, focusing on standing and breathing. After a few moments turn around in a controlled mindful manner and continue to walk to the other end repeating as many times as the time you have allotted allows. Participants can gain attention and concentration while moving in this exercise, also learning to bring the breath and body together.

Dedication

Part Two: Sport Specific Exercises

These exercise can be done while running, skating, walking, or cycling. The objective is for the athletes to focus on the function of movement, attempting to bring complete attention to a task which may seem easy or obvious. The act of running may be taken for granted and when an athlete gives the simple act their complete attention the athlete will notice nuances to the movement they may have over-looked in the past. Reaching higher levels of performance begins with focusing on our most basic functions. When athletes can develop a sense of awareness to the basics first, it gives them a starting place to develop more complex skills.

Practice- 5-10 minutes to begin. Take the basic movement of the specific athlete and have them spend 5 minutes completely focused on that one act. If running, they can run at any speed, being aware of all of the sensations of the body. The point is to be fully accepting of where their abilities to run are today, without projecting wishes and desires into the run. Remind the athlete to bring their attention back to running every time the mind wanders.

This drill will help to increase focus, help the athlete to pay attention to what they are presently engaged in and build awareness of the body. The athletes will also cultivate a greater sense of joy in their sport as they learn to not take for granted the simple pleasures of running, skating, cycling, etc. This exercise, if done repeatly and with care and effort will reduce athlete burnout.

Flow

Recovery Training with Focus on the Breath

When athletes exert full effort, they are often out of breath and fatigued. This can lead to stress and anxiety in the mind and body of the athlete. The purpose of this drill is to help them recover more quickly, to increase performance and to assist the athlete in gaining confidence of their own abilities to regulate their stress responses. This drill can be used in conjunction with any drill that induces high levels of fatigue.

Practice- When athletes are gasping for breath, instruct them to place all their focus on the act of breathing. Every time the mind wanders off the breath, simply bring attention back to the breathing and the feeling of the stomach expanding on the in-breath and the stomach contracting on the out-breath. Having the athletes engage in conscious breathing is the purpose of the exercise.

When participants experience trouble catching their breath, it can create stress for the body and mind. With conscious breathing, athletes can begin to recognize the control they can have on their own stress responses. In time they will be able to bring their heart rate down faster, thus improving performance and overall wellbeing.

Breathe

Shooting, Passing, Throwing Drill

This drill may be used for athletes at any skill level. It can be done for 30 seconds upward. Gauge the athlete’s focus level to determine the length of drill. You can have the athletes focus on many different senses in this exercise.

1. Focus on listening drill- Have all participants be completely quiet and listen to the sounds of their game. This includes the sounds the stick makes passing and receiving a ball or puck, the sound of the ball hitting a bat, the sounds of a ball bouncing on the floor or a ball hitting a glove. Can they identify how it sounds when a ball is hit in the “sweet spot?” What does a perfectly received pass makes on the hand or stick? This drill will create more focus and help athletes pay attention to small details, thus improving performance.

2. Focus on the sensations of the body drill- Encourage the athletes to sense the feelings in the hands when they pass an object or receive a pass. Ask the participants how the legs/hands/arms/back feel when you make a great shot/pass/hit/stroke? This drill encourages body awareness in the athletes. When they can sense the feelings of a well-executed task, they are more likely to repeat that movement.

Play

Mistakes Focusing Drill

The object of this drill is to allow athletes to get over mistakes immediately. During a match or game it is often counter-productive to ruminate over a mistake. Athletes need to put the mistake in the past (for the time being) and focus on the present moment or play. There is a time for corrections to be considered, either during practice or possibly between plays but not during the current play. If an athlete is too consumed with committing an error, it can create more mistakes in the next play. Rather, we encourage the athletes to be fully in each moment without any self-deprecating thoughts of the past, even if the past was only 5 seconds ago.

Practice- This drill will be presented with the premise that the athletes are in a game situation. They can be performing any skill that is required for their sport. An example could be two players practicing bounce passes in basketball together. The instructions would be to pass the ball like normal and have the coach make no corrections or give no instructions. Encourage mistakes to increase development and have the athletes free themselves from self-punishment when they throw the ball away or make a bad pass. Instruct the athlete to recognize that that play is over and there is nothing we can do about it in this moment so move past it and focus on the next play. Ask the athlete to see that they have made a mistake, understand there is a time to correct the mistake in order to improve skills but it is not immediately, in the middle of a play or game. Every time a mistake is made, the athletes are instructed to move past the mistake for the moment and bring complete focus on the next/current play. Have the athletes repeat this over and over: make a mistake then put the mistake behind and focus on the present moment where, we have control. The athletes are not blocking out the mistake or forgetting about it, they are simply focusing on the present situation because ruminating about a mistake will not erase it. Mistakes are a part of sport. This drill can teach athletes to move past mistakes in a non-judgmental manner and when the time is appropriate, coaches and athletes can apply the proper techniques to correct the errors from happening in future games.

Letting go

Heightened Focus Drill

The ability to pay attention is a teachable and trainable skill. In order for athletes to pay attention with greater regularity, we must encourage them to step outside their comfort zone. When athletes experience new stimuli they are forced to fo-cus, thus increasing their ability to concentrate. This drill is designed to alter play-ing conditions in order for athletes to bring focus onto specific sensations or senses. The intended effect of the drill is for athletes to heighten their awareness through different sensory disturbances.

1. Turn off the lights- If it is safe and is applicable to your sport, you can turn the lights out during a practice to remove or weaken the visual sense. The result is a heightened awareness of touch, hearing and communication with teammates. The sensations of respective sports equipment will be enhanced, the sounds of the game will take on a new dissension and athletes will be forced to find new ways to communicate with their teammates. While this drill can be frustrating and challenging for many athletes, it can help them accept the current situation for what it is and develop new perspectives of their game. Encourage participants to have an open mind in regards to the darkness and observe what types of new experience this gives them. This could entail repetitive passing or shooting drills or simply walking on the court or field while focusing on the present moment. This drill could be run with a few selected players who are blindfolded as well. The intent is to enhance and observe various sensations that may ordinarily go unnoticed.

Team building

2. Silence Drill- In this drill, have the athletes cease all verbal communication. In a team sport setting this drill is efficient at introducing the experience of new stimuli. Athletes can begin to listen for more nuanced sounds during the game, thus heightening understanding and senses required during the game, which increases their knowledge and can enhance performance. If players are listening to the simple sounds of the game they can pick up when a pass or shot is performed correctly by listening, hence gaining a new perspectives of the game. When players are engaged in small area games without the ability to communicate with their teammates, new and interesting ways of communicating occur. A greater level of focus also develops as the quiet allows for present moment awareness.

Have the players participate in small area games without any verbal com-munication. Do not use a whistle or give verbal commands. Play in a completely quiet environment and ask questions about the thoughts and feelings of the athletes after the drill. Another option is to have the athletes play a simple passing or throwing game without any sounds other than the noises of the ball, stick or glove. Awareness to the game will be heightened during these drills, developing more focus and attention to details.

3. Loud Music- Play music during a practice or drill that is extremely loud and distracting- preferably music that the participants likely do not enjoy. This drill will encourage athletes to accept the moment, learn to concentrate when situations are difficult or when distractions are present and find new ways of communicating with their teammates. If possible you can encourage the athletes from making judgments during this drill. Certain sounds are generally viewed as pleasant by most, while others are distracting or offensive. If the athletes can simply learn to accept the sounds as sounds and not judge them, they can then focus on the task at hand and not be bothered by loud sounds or distractions that may arise in the form of boos or heckles during a match or game. Instruct the athletes to accept what is happening and to guide their attention back to the present moment every time their mind wanders to judgments of the sounds or the experience and simply guide the awareness back to the present task.

Engaging

Injury Acceptance Exercise

The purpose of this activity is to prepare athletes for the unfortunate reality that injuries occur in sport. Often when an athlete is hurt or injured they feel pain not only in the injured area, but they frequently also experience great mental or emotional distress. Athletes should be encouraged to accept the pain rather than block it, which seldom amounts to more than feelings of anger and frustration. Rather than accepting the injury as a reality of sport, the mind will tend to wander off to consider all of the possible negative outcomes of the injury. Examples of such negative scenarios athletes experience are convictions that they have ruined their career or dashed away any opportunity of attaining their sports goals. They often feel as though they have let down their teammates and families. Such negative thought patters are common when we are faced with adversity. We can equip athletes with tools to help avoid these mental storms. It is critical for coaches to set aside some time from training to discuss the reality of sport and injury with athletes and to provide them with practical strategies to cope with an injury. If the athletes are mentally trained and prepared prior to suffering an injury, they will have coping skills to move past the injury. A training session for this type of discussion would include strategies that feature conscious breath-ing when an injury occurs to calm the athlete and help better evaluate the true situation. Developing predetermined recovery training plans for the most common types of injuries for each specific sport would be wise. Such a plan would provide concrete strategies to help the athlete accept their injury and provide them with a new training schedule to ensure recovery and progress. Athletes can be taught to focus training on areas of the body that are not injured (if possible) or to spend time on game analysis to improve the technical and tactical acuity of their sport while they are recovering. If such strategies are mapped out before an injury occurs, athletes will accept their injury more readily, thus temporarily redirecting their focus and resulting in faster recovery times.

Acceptance

Mindfulness Journal

Willing participants may find it beneficial to write down their experiences regarding mental training in a journal. Recording the feelings and emotions that arise during mental training can help athletes recognize the benefits they experience and also realize what aspects of the training simply do not resonate with them. Keeping detailed notes can additionally encourage athletes to continue with their mental training. Mindfulness training is not a practice where one can reap the rewards after only participating a handful of times. Ra-ther, it is a lifelong practice which must be cultivated slowly and consistently. If athletes have a record of their emotions and feelings, they will be able to look back at their growth and development. This will provide them with the documentation that their mindfulness training has recordable results.

Through dedication and effort, athletes can become more aware of their sport, bodies and lives. They can cultivate a greater ability to focus on tasks and pay attention with more regularity. Their performance on and off the sports arena will increase and their heightened life satisfaction will create less stress and anxiety on a day to day basis. Athletes will be more likely to stay engaged in their sport, reducing the levels of burnout that are common in sport today. A solid mindful-ness training intervention can have many beneficial results for all stakeholders involved in sport. It merely requires commitment and passion from both players and coaches to reach new and exciting levels of performance and wellbeing.

Reflect

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