“It’s not about how much you practice, it’s about how much your mind is present when you’re practicing.”
If you follow psychology at all, you may have noticed that in recent years, the term “mindfulness” has been garnering a lot of attention. The most commonly accepted definition of mindfulness is “the intentional, accepting and non-judgemental focus of one’s attention on the emotions, thoughts and sensations occurring in the present moment.” Mindfulness is not a trance state, it is not someplace that you can get to. It is a way of being in the present moment. It is not some clear-minded, peaceful fantasy world. Noticing the breeze brushing against your cheek is mindfulness, but so is noticing your desire to check that text as you drive.
A Chinese Study showed that after only 20 minutes a day for 5 days a group given meditation instruction scored significantly better than a control group (given relaxation training) in:
Lowered anxiety, depression, anger and fatigue
Increased immunoreactivity (increased immune system functioning)
Recently, researchers from Harvard have also begun to study mindfulness meditation on a regular basis. Using randomly-assigned studies where they have taken before and after shots of the participants’ brains have shown that over the course of 8 weeks the group that practiced mindfulness meditation had significant changes in their brains.
What were these changes?
Increased gray matter in:
The left hippocampus – involved in both short & long term memory, as well as spatial navigation. Team sport athletes – imagine being able to learn and absorb your team’s playbook more quickly than ever. Imagine being able to navigate the court knowing exactly where your teammates are, developing court vision like Chris Paul. Individual skills and sport benefit from increased gray matter in the hippocampus as well – memory is necessary for learning, so this finding would imply that you would be able to remember and re-create that perfect forehand on the tennis court or a spot-on approach in the long jump.
The posterior cingulate cortex – link between several different regions of the brain – if your parts of your brain can’t communicate with the others, you can’t function.
The temporo-parietal junction – used to process incoming information – think of how much information you have to process during a competition – your coach, your opponent’s intention, your teammates’ intention, their location, etc. Improved ability to do this would theoretically lead to improved skill on the field.
The cerebellum – this piece of the brain has a large role in motor control, i.e. coordination. Damage to the cerebellum has been shown to mess with motor skills and posture among other things. As an athlete, you need this area in tip top shape!!
But wait…aren’t these meditators sitting the whole time staring at the floor? How do these changes in brain structure apply to performance in a sport? It’s a fair question. Let’s bring it back to the Kobe Bryant quote at the beginning. You cannot improve without being present. If you aren’t paying attention, or are otherwise putting in poor-quality work, it is not going to be of the same benefit as high quality work. You can’t even know if you are putting in high or low quality work if you aren’t present and paying attention! Being present is a skill. Some people are better than others, and these people generally learn faster than the rest of us. However, like any skill, you can practice it. Just like training for strength in the weight room can benefit an athlete on the track, training in formal mindfulness can benefit an athlete by helping them stay focused. Formal practice is helpful, but you can also practice it without sitting. It can be walking to class or brushing your teeth, an everyday moment. I used to use segments of collegiate practices throughout the week as specific times to hone my focus – warming up, cooling down, during downtime. I would try to stay as much in the present moment as I could. By doing this I noticed two things: first, that I would become more aware during the rest of practice as well, and second, I would notice a lot of things that I had never noticed – feelings and thoughts that were there all along were brought to light. Simply using your mind to pay attention to whatever may arise in the present moment – worries about the upcoming test, regret that you didn’t say more to your crush in the dining hall a few minutes before, the sensation of sunshine on your face, whatever might be swirling around in that head of yours– is practice.
A key to mindfulness practice is being there for anything that comes up – often we like to run away from thoughts or feelings that we don’t like, and often make our situations worse for ourselves by doing so. Procrastinating is an example – the work does not go away, and the anxiety only gets worse with each passing moment. While mindfulness practice does not mean that you must resolve anything, it requires courage to face it. It takes effort to be with suffering without running to a social media feed or whatever we like to use as a distraction when we would rather be someplace else. One must be there for our sensations, thoughts and emotions in the present moment like we are there for a loved one – unconditionally, through good times and bad, without judgment.
On the playing field, this means that we are not only present with thoughts and emotions that we like – the sound of the ball hitting the back of the net, the thrill of a big hit – we are present with things that we do not like, like our self-judgment after a mental error, or the butterflies in our stomach. By harshly condemning our response to our errors, we make a mistake in the way we handle our mistake. The first step is to stop digging, to accept what is, and to move on from there. Mindfulness’s contribution to sports psychology is not in that it changes our thoughts and emotions as much as it changes our relationships to our thoughts and emotions. They may change as you really face them, examine them, hold them up to the light – but they do not have to. It may be enough to understand that we can tolerate fear, embarrassment, anything. In the same way that the thought that “this is going to be a great game” doesn’t always turn out to be true, by staying present and accepting of the opposite thought (i.e. this is going to be terrible), we do not have to trap ourselves in the self-fulfilling prophecy that that thought often leads to.
As a track & field athlete, some days, practice was pretty painful. However, as both my mental ability and meditation practice developed, I was able to stay with my dislike of workouts that I wasn’t good at, and shift my attention back to what I needed to do to get better. Many track runners, and other athletes as well, mindlessly blow through repetitions without realizing that every step is an opportunity to perfect their form, their speed, even work on their attitude as they practice. So although the workouts still hurt – and I still didn’t look forward to them – when I left the track I could honestly say I was better than when I arrived. Had I tried to avoid those negative feelings…I would have completed the workout, sure, one way or another…but I would have missed the opportunity to improve that my new acceptance in the present moment gave me. Sport is all about small improvements. In track & field athletes train for months to get fractions of a second faster. In team sports as well, an inch will often separate a basketball from a defender’s outstretched hand. Every little thing matters – the question is, are you going to be present to improve?