Mindfulness For Performance
Not too long ago, if you'd mentioned the words mindfulness or meditation in a sporting locker room, you would have been laughed out the door.
Mindfulness and meditation are not yet buzz-words. However, stories of individuals and teams successfully applying the techniques for improvements in both performance and resilience are becoming much more common.
Whilst many of the anecdotes you have heard as to the benefits of mindfulness are likely based on personal, subjective stories; there are numerous substantive studies backing the claims of the benefits of mindfulness for athletes. These benefits include increased composure, greater reaction speed, improved concentration and focus, and a higher potential to reach a state of ‘flow.'
Rather than begin this piece with scientific rhetoric or bold claims, I will start by sharing a personal story about how mindfulness helped stop me headbutting opposition AFL players whilst also greatly improving my decision-making and awareness on the football field!
MY STORY OF BEING ‘AN ANGRY UNIT’
Think of Australian Rules Football as ice hockey on grass. It's fast-paced, skillful and aggressive. Except in the AFL, you're not allowed to fight! There's no penalty box. Instead, any physical indiscretions that are way outside of the rules of the game result in a suspension and a stint on the sidelines for several games. Think of things like throwing punches, headbutts, illegal ‘shirtfronts' (aka- checking), kneeing, and more.
Most athletes across all sports try and avoid missing games for ‘unsportsmanlike' acts like those mentioned above. But for many athletes, pushing the line on what's within and what's outside of the rules is a crucial part of what makes them good players. Intensity and aggression in many sports are valuable attributes.
I was one of those footballers. For most of my eleven-year pro career, I relied on high arousal levels and plenty of adrenaline to play. Primarily, because that's the state I thought I needed to be in to play well. Plus, the high arousal levels helped me deal with the anxiety and performance related stress – my fear of not playing well and letting people down.
I played in the mental state equivalent of a ‘red-lining’ in a race car. The result - poor decision making. Over a period of two seasons – 44 games in total – I missed ten games through suspension from doing ‘stupid' things like headbutting (really...it wasn't much of a headbutt…!). I missed nearly a quarter of the games I could have been playing because of poor decision making...
My red line mental state also affected decision making in other ways. I would often make poor decisions with the ball because I couldn't think clearly enough to execute well. It's tough to be calm, composed and focused when your mind is running at a million-miles per hour.
Having played this way my entire life, I was at a loss for how to change. Changing a kicking technique or the mechanics of running is relatively simple – break the action down to a process, work out which part of the process needs to change, then through much repetition, change the process.
But how do you change a mental state? Especially when it is impacted by so many uncontrollable variables.
Through a chance encounter, I was introduced to someone with a military background who suggested I learn to meditate. As the adage goes, ‘desperate times call for desperate measures', and I was desperate to find a way to reclaim control over my instincts and to make better decisions; even though I couldn't see how sitting cross-legged and ‘getting zen’ was going to help me in any useful way!
His premise was that many of the younger members in the academy were benefiting from practicing mindfulness techniques in ways such as remaining calm and executing the right decisions in highly volatile and stressful situations.
So that’s what I did. I found a mindfulness ‘coach’ and committed to a six-week part-time mindfulness meditation course to learn how to be more present, aware, and calm in the moment. Now I’m not a spiritual or religious person – not even close, but one of the first things that I learned was modern meditation is mostly secular – it isn’t connected with religious or spiritual matters. This was a relief as I didn’t particularly care to become like this guy:
Instead, I found the training to be much like learning any other skill or process; I had to listen, learn and practice. Sitting at home in a quiet room for 15 minutes was one thing, the real test was figuring out how to apply the new-found skill in the ‘heat of battle’. I won't lie, after years of listening to intense music and getting ‘pumped-up' before games, the practice of doing the complete opposite and staying calm and relaxed did not come naturally.
The first few games, it felt plain wrong. I would sit quietly in a small room beneath the MCG – our home ground and a Colosseum-like stadium that holds 100,000 fans – and I would practice my mindfulness meditation for 5-6 minutes before joining the rest of my team-mates.
Walking onto the field with practically no emotional state was strange. However, it also brought relief. Less emotion meant less stress and anxiety – a small win. During those first few games trying this new process, I didn't play terribly, but I certainly didn't feel myself out on the field. HOWEVER, I also didn't strike or headbutt anyone which was another small win!
As the season progressed, I found myself getting more comfortable with the feeling of being calm and composed and also enjoying the fact that my emotions and instincts were much more in my control. I hadn’t done anything stupid to get myself suspended and, surprisingly, I was playing some of the best and most consistent football of my career. Decision making and executing, traditionally one of my weak-points, was becoming a strength.
People were noticing and starting to ask, "What have you been doing differently? You look like a completely different player out there." Initially, I was reluctant to admit that I had adopted learning to meditate for the risk of being the guy laughed out of the locker room Eventually I owned up to my new practice and was met with a sense of curiosity and not the ridicule I thought would come.
Other peoples’ opinions on meditation aside, as the games rolled on I was certain that mindfulness and meditation were playing a big part in my improvements on the field. By the end of the season I had managed to play every game – no suspensions – had helped the team make the play-offs for the first time in over ten years AND ended up winning the club’s best & fairest award – the Australian version of a team MVP.
I went from having my head on the proverbial chopping-block the season before and being forced to make drastic changes to save my career. And the drastic change that was made? Only learning to be more present in the moment, to focus on what was in my control and to see things more clearly and calmly. Perhaps not so drastic a change after all.
WHAT DOES SCIENCE SAY
However, I am just one athlete. At the beginning of this piece, I mentioned there are numerous studies which support the benefits mindfulness can have on performance, just like in my story above.
In an article by Gardner and Moore from 2012₁ which reviewed a decade's worth of empirical research into the use of mindfulness and acceptance models in sport, the point is made that, "There is no single nomothetic ideal performance state and that in fact, individuals can perform optimally while experiencing a variety of cognitive, affective, and physiological states.”
In other words, everyone is different and performs better or worse for entirely different reasons. Mindfulness may help some and not others – it's probably not the be-all and end-all of elite-performance.
However, there is certainly valuable research backed findings that lend themselves to improve sporting performance. For example, a study by Richard Davidson in 2002 which looked at a variety of participants ranging from “suicidal outpatients to Tibetan Buddhist monks with more than 40,000 hours of meditation experience”, found that “meditators with adequate mindfulness training actually begin to experience trait-like differences in their ability to respond to emotion and function in the face of stress-inducing stimuli.”₂
Elite and pro sports provide plenty of "stress-inducing stimuli", and as we all know, having the ability to respond calmly in such situations is a definite strength of great athletes. Some people seem to react well to pressure – they thrive in the heat of battle – whilst others are renown for wilting. How do you train yourself to be a ‘thriver' and not a ‘wilter’? Mindfulness meditation. Learn to manage the emotion and subsequently learn to control the execution.
Another study, by Heleen Slagter and colleagues in 2007, found that “those with only three months of meditative experience were able to allocate attentional resources much more efficiently than those without training in mindfulness.”₃ This backs up my experience of finding mindfulness meditation beneficial in helping me make better decisions during games – I was able to allocate my mental resources better to see what I needed to see: defenders dropping off, gaps in the play or space to run.
At the risk of dragging this piece on I will leave the research at that but, if you are an athlete, or you work with athletes, and you are looking for more proof around the benefits of mindfulness in sport there are plenty of papers and studies out that you will likely find useful and exciting.
HOW TO BECOME MORE MINDFUL
I am not a mindfulness coach or practitioner, so I won’t go into detail as to the specifics of how to practice mindfulness. Luckily however, there are plenty of accessible ways for athletes to trial it for themselves.
The easiest place to start is with one of the many mindfulness meditation apps available. Some of the most popular are:
Like with any new skill, learning it solely from an app probably isn't going to be the most optimal way to fully realize the benefits. However, after using one of the apps you or your athletes find that mindfulness meditation is a useful practice, then I would recommend looking to engage in a more comprehensive in-person program.
You can train to be fitter, faster and stronger. You can work on skill-based techniques and learn to identify patterns in opposition tactics. But, learning to become a better decision maker, to see things clearly, and to remain calm and focused under immense pressure, are all arguably quite tricky skills to master.
Mindfulness meditation is not the only way to improve in these areas, but in my opinion and experience, and with research to back it up, it can certainly help. So, if you're an athlete looking for a competitive edge, or hoping to take control over your instincts and emotions, I'd highly recommend giving it a try.
Good luck and happy meditating!
- Gardner, F.L. & Moore, Z.E (2012): Mindfulness and Acceptance Models in Sport Psychology: A Decade of Basic and Applied Scientific Advancements. https://www.researchgate.net/publication/263920504_Mindfulness_and_Acceptance_Models_in_Sport_Psychology_A_Decade_of_Basic_and_Applied_Scientific_Advancements
- Davidson, R.J (2002): Toward a Biology of Positive Affect and Compassion. http://oxfordindex.oup.com/view/10.1093/acprof:oso/9780195130430.003.0006
- Slagter, H.A et al (2007) – Mental Training Affects Distribution of Limited Brain Resources
Game Change was founded in 2011 to serve and enhance the athlete development needs of major professional and elite sport organizations and athletes. Game Change specializes in customized research and assessment services, the development of applied interventions and resources designed to provide long-term positive outcomes for organizations and individual athletes. Game Change believes strongly in sport as a catalyst for societal change and adheres to the philosophy of ‘changing the world one athlete at a time’.