Mindfulness for Peak Performance
Wednesday, August 2, 2017 - 09:07
Being an athlete is rewarding in countless ways, but there are also times it can be stressful. From experienced world-class athletes to young children in sport, athletes can be under immense external and internal pressure. To promote peak performance, as well as continued enjoyment of sport, mental skills training should be included within the training plan. Mindfulness training, in particular, is garnering support for its positive effect on performance and well-being.
Traditionally, coaches and sport psychologists have used Psychological Skills Training (PST) with their athletes. PST involves strategies like goal setting, self-talk, relaxation, and imagery to manage performance anxiety, be it through manipulating arousal levels, replacing negative thoughts, or optimizing focus. Use of PST has been questioned because it suggests that in order to reach peak performance, athletes should control their emotional, psychological, and physiological internal processes. Focusing on changing negative or maladaptive thoughts and feelings, however, may remove focus and mental energy from the current task. It is also possible that this could generate a habit where the athlete actually begins to look for undesirable thoughts and brings them to his or her awareness, leading to irrelevant and potentially detrimental focus during performance.
Mindfulness training provides an alternative to PST. An effective intervention for treating mood and anxiety disorders, mindfulness training is increasing in popularity as a viable option for athletes, with links to better task performance, reduced stress, and enhanced long-term well-being.
What Is Mindfulness?
There are two aspects to mindfulness: present-centered attention, and acceptance of experiences. To be mindful is to be in the present, deliberately aware of internal and external stimuli, and nonjudgmentally attend to these experiences on a moment-to-moment basis without attempting to control or change them. In contrast with PST, athletes are to accept their internal processes as natural events in the competition or training setting rather than try and control or suppress them. It is when we label thoughts or feelings as negative and react to that judgement that our performance is hindered. Mindfulness training is based on improving psychological flexibility and increasing an individual’s tolerance to anxiety: instead of trying to get rid of anxiety, individuals alter their interpretation of anxiety. Interventions commonly used by sport psychologists working with athletes are mindful sport performance enhancement (MPSE) and mindfulness acceptance commitment (MAC).
Benefits of Mindfulness
Although the field of sport psychology as a whole requires more rigorous research to establish the effectiveness of interventions, mindfulness training shows promise of being a valuable tool for coaches and athletes:
- Individuals who underwent mindfulness training had improved performance, an improved ability to regulate negative emotions, and increased flow.
- A mindful mind may be able to better focus on the task at hand, and consequently, make better decisions when distracted, fatigued, when things do not go as expected, and at other critical points during competition.
- Mindfulness training involves a relaxation component that facilitates an athlete’s ability to mentally recover, thus benefitting his or her overall wellbeing.
- Mindfulness has been associated with reduced levels of burnout.
Despite acknowledging the benefits of training mental skills, many athletes fail to engage in sport psychology interventions for fear of losing time for physical training or because of the expenses associated with consulting a sport psychologist.
One researcher suggests that the use of smartphone apps is a low-cost, easy-to-implement way around these barriers to mental skills training. There are a variety of mindfulness apps with options for guided or self-led mindfulness or meditation. Free apps are accessible to anyone with a smartphone, and they give coaches and athletes the flexibility to fit sessions in around regular training.
There are other ways of practicing mindfulness without an app, too. Meditation is one way of practicing mindfulness, but there are different exercises and techniques that can help you lower stress, regulate negative emotions, and become more present. Mindfulness is not restricted to specific age groups either: youth and children can also benefit from it.
- A simple how-to guide to practice mindfulness
- A 10-minute guided meditation from The Mindful Athlete
- Exercises and activities for adults
- Mindfulness for youth, including body scan and mindful breathing recordings
Gustafsson H, Davis P, Skoog T, Kenttä G. Mindfulness and its relationship with perceived stress, affect, and burnout in elite junior athletes. Journal of Clinical Sport Psychology. 2015; 9(3): 263-281.
Josefsson T, Ivarsson A, Lindwall M, Gustafsson H, Stenling A, Böröy J, Mattsson E, Carnebratt J, Sevholt S, Falkevik E. Mindfulness mechanisms in sports: Mediating effects of rumination and emotion regulation on sport-specific coping. Mindfulness. 2017: 1-10.
Moen F, Abrahamsen F, Furrer P. The effects from mindfulness training on Norwegian junior elite athletes in sport. International Journal of Applied Sports Sciences. 2015; 27(2): 98-113.
Rist B, Pearce AJ. Strength training for the brain: Using technology to deliver mindfulness training to improve strength and conditioning performance. Strength and Conditioning Journal. 2016; 38(6): 81-88.
Sappington R, Longshore K. Systematically reviewing the efficacy of mindfulness-based interventions for enhanced athletic performance. Journal of Clinical Sport Psychology. 2015; 9 (3): 232-262.
About the Author: Lily is a fourth-year student in the kinesiology program at Western University, currently interning with SIRC. With a background in synchronized swimming, she continues to be actively involved in the sport as a coach and varsity athlete.