Mindfulness and Peak Performance


High-performing athletes and coaches recognize that mental preparation is just as important as physical preparation to achieve athletic excellence, and are turning to mindfulness practices to enhance workouts, recovery and performance in competition, and to cope with daily life pressures. Fortunately, there are numerous resources available featuring a variety of practices that can be used to support athletes and coaches in their quest for peak performance in sports and activities.

Studies have shown that mindfulness practices can produce positive results in overall health for both emotional and physical well-being, and that mindfulness practices can change the brain and behavior, which may lead to improved focus, concentration and athletic performance. Whether your client is a professional, elite or amateur athlete, or simply a weekend warrior, improved mental focus can be the difference between success and failure.

Mindfulness Practices and Concepts

Positivity and Positive Self-talk

Most of us have an inner monologue running non-stop in our brains. The key to utilizing positive self-talk to improve performance and manage anxiety is to be aware of this inner monologue and focus on how to best manage this internal chatter to achieve optimum results. It is important that individuals tune into the conversations in their heads to identify when negative self-talk occurs and, over time, begin to change the narrative and tone to positive affirmations. For example:

Negative self-talk: “I am too lazy to get up for early morning workouts.”

Positive self-talk: “I can and will get to bed early to be at my best for early morning workouts.”

This awareness and ability to change requires practice and won’t happen overnight—but it can happen. In fact, a 2012 study found that even very young children can learn to correct negative self-talk.

Yoga

Yoga, which literally means the union of mind and body, is a physical mindfulness practice that has proven benefits for everyone. A wide variety of yoga practices is available and athletes may need to discern which yoga style is best suited for their specific sports. For example, power lifters, sprinters and other power-driven sports athletes may benefit from slower yoga practices such as yin where postures are held for anywhere between 60 seconds and 10 minutes to increase flexibility and encourage a feeling of release and letting go. Restorative yoga is another healing practice and utilizes supported postures that are held for longer periods; this type of yoga encourages rest, relaxation and assists in the release of tension in the body and mind. Yoga nidra, which translates to “yogic sleep,” is a practice that is passive in nature and involves the use of a  guided meditation that takes you into a sleep state and promotes deep mental relaxation. It is meant to train the conscious mind to remain aware while diving deep into the different levels of dream and sleep states. When this occurs, the brain and body are relaxed completely and the benefits of sleep are realized, but in a much shorter time span.

Journaling

Journaling is widely accepted as a means for cultivating wellness. While many athletes keep some sort of training diary, journaling is a mindfulness practice that can allow athletes to go to an internal place to figure things out and strategize on how to achieve future goals. Journaling is a written account of how an athlete perceives and reflects on their performances, successes and failures. Journaling also offers athletes the opportunity to explore their inner life and make changes to their outer lives, thus gaining greater self-awareness, confidence and personal growth.

Meditation

Research suggests that, for some people, meditation may offer benefits equal to traditional therapy. The researchers were able to identify the physical changes—on a molecular level—that result from a mindful meditation practice, thereby increasing our understanding of how a consistent meditation practice benefits overall health, reduces stress and for athletes enhances performance. Meditation may also be used to help athletes control negative thoughts and sports anxiety, enabling them to focus on their skills in the present moment and perform better.

How Three Athletes Use Mindfulness in Life and Sport











 

Kimberly Shah

Topaz Navarro

Meredith Lyons

Sport

Triathlete

Brazilian Jiu Jitsu, long-distance runner

Former competitive boxer and Savate fighter, current exercise professional

When did you begin your mindfulness practice?

I was fortunate enough to have a coach introduce it to me when I was 14 as a part of our regular training.

2019

2008

How does mindfulness make you a better athlete?

Your sense of awareness is heightened, but not in a disturbing way. It brings you to a zone where nothing else exists.

[Meditation] provides a set time and space for quiet and focus.

Sometimes it’s difficult to remember to treat yourself the way you would treat a client or student with regard to rest, injury or even just changing up your routine. Mindfulness allows you to step outside of your ego and listen to your body.

How do you practice mindfulness in training?

[I use] visualization and hypnosis to help prepare for the event in a way [so I] feel like I have done it before. Mantras and meditation help bring me to a place where I am more centered and focused.

[I use[ meditation and coherent breathing.

I’m currently dealing with an injury that prevents me from running. I’ve had to constantly reframe my perspective when I beginto spiral into sadness about it. I’ve also had to intently listen to my body and pay attention to its cues.

How do you practice mindfulness in competition?

I have specific mantras I use throughout a race.

[I use] box breathing to settle in and focus.

It’s been a while, but when I was competing, my worst days were the ones leading up to competition. Positive visualization helped sometimes, but I also tend to ruminate–especially if I didn’t feel my performance was sufficient. Meditation helps with that.

How often do you meditate, do yoga or practice another method of mindfulness?

[I meditate] every day for 1.5 to 2 hours a day. It is a practice as regular as brushing my teeth.

I do yoga two times a week and I meditate five to seven days a week

I do yoga three to four times a week. I do a daily written gratitude list in my bullet journal, where I list at least three positives about the day. I fell out of a regular meditation practice after a traumatic home fire. For a while it just brought my brain back to that trauma for some reason, but I’ve started finding different forms of moving meditation or focus meditation as ways to still the mind. I’m still trying to work them into a more consistent practice.

What has been your experience in terms of benefits from your mindfulness practice?

By nature, I struggle with being flexible when things don’t go as planned. So, this might be the biggest benefit I experience. It also brings me a certain calm, which is good for my nature since I tend to run at a higher energy level than most.

I feel rejuvenated after a good five- to 10-minute session of sitting still in silence while focused on box breathing. After yoga, I feel loose and free from all the tension built up in my hips and core.

I’m more productive in all aspects of my life, more organized and less stressed.

In the face of athletic adversity, how would you use mindfulness to find the strength to keep going?

It helps keep me centered and flexible. Being flexible is the key when there is athletic adversity.

I take a deliberate pause from activity and get grounded in the moment. Perform long, slow breathing focused on the breath and letting everything else go.

I remind myself that this moment, whether I’m enjoying it or hating it, is fleeting. Injuries will heal, bad races will be over, etc. The pendulum will continue to swing, so I appreciate where I am as much as I can.

These elite athletes have acknowledged participating in a regular mindfulness practice:

  • Michael Jordan
  • Scottie Pippen
  • Thaddeus Young
  • Phil Jackson
  • Bruce Lee
  • Novak Djokovic
  • LeBron James
  • Alex Morgan
  • Serena Williams
  • Derek Jeter
  • Simone Biles
  • Kerri Walsh-Jennings
  • Misty May-Trainor

Professional, collegiate and even amateur athletes face high levels of emotional pressures from sources outside of training and competition: athletic organizations, sponsors, social media, press and more. These pressures can be seen in the recent controversy surrounding tennis player Naomi Osaka and her challenges with off-the-court pressures. Can mindfulness be a tool for coping with the intensity of these pressures? Based on the growing body of research into the benefits of mindfulness practices, these are tools that athletes and their coaches should consider trying. Learning to be in the moment through the use of mindfulness practices can give athletes at all levels a sense of mental freedom and physical comfort that can provide significantly more focus and confidence during competition, leading to peak performances in their sports.



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