Mindfulness for Athletes: How It Can Lead to Better Performance

Mindfulness Athletes
Photo: Pond5

They say that in sports, 90 percent of performance is mental. Yet, we spend the majority of our time, effort and money on physical and technical training — including everything from gear and coaches to gym memberships and sports massages. All that leaves little time to focus on our mental game.

“There are only so many ways we can continue to get bigger, faster and stronger,” says Trevor Moawad, Vice President of Pro and Elite Sports at EXOS. Moawad is a leading Mental Conditioning Coach and has worked with top collegiate football programs like University of Alabama and Florida State as well as pro football teams such as the Jacksonville Jaguars. “If you change the overall mental mindset, you can see results faster,” says Moawad.

While sports psychologists have been around for years, we’re talking about more than just game-like visualizations and positive affirmations. Increasingly, elite athletes and sports programs, from Super Bowl XLVIII champs, the Seattle Seahawks, to Olympic snowboarder Gretchen Bleiler, are incorporating mindfulness, meditation, yoga and other practices into their training regimen. By learning to stay focused on the present moment and strengthen the mind-body connection, these competitors aim to unlock a new edge on the competition — while feeling better in their own skin. But is mindfulness and mental training really the key to peak performance? 

The Mental Link

“It’s OK to notice that the feelings are there, but it’s not OK to take that emotion with you into the next shot or next play.”

In any competitive situation, it’s only natural that your adrenaline starts to pump. Your heart beats faster. Your palms get sweaty. You feel butterflies in your stomach. But when you toe the line for a big race or you’re in the middle of a high-stakes game, are you able to stay connected with the present moment? Or, does your mind flood with thoughts of previous errors or jump ahead to future outcomes like a missed goal or a slow finish time?

“When our brains get caught up in thoughts from the past…or thoughts of the future…it creates a stress response, and we can’t use the part of the brain that keeps us engaged in the moment,” says Dr. Kristen Race, Ph.D., founder of Mindful Life, author of Mindful Parenting, and expert on brain-based mindfulness solutions. This mental chatter can make it difficult to maintain perspective and focus. “If we’re too stressed about performance, we can’t make good decisions and solve problems and stay composed,” says Dr. Race.

Not only can our thoughts and internal dialogue create a stress response, it also impacts our behavior. “What we’re telling ourselves affects what we see, and what we see affects what we feel,” says Moawad. Recent studies by researchers at Coventry University and Staffordshire University found that increased stress and anxiety, including fear of failure, does affect athletic performance in competitive situations.

Train Your Brain
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Just Focus

“Mindfulness helps train the prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain that creates a calm and alert state of mind…and perform at our best.”

While some degree of stress is normal in athletics, we need a way to moderate that stress. We also need to be able to resist internal and external distractions — anxiety, fear, a loud crowd, or even a distracting teammate — so that we can make good decisions in the moment. While this field of research is still young, there have been some promising signs that mental training can help us short-circuit the body’s stress response and create a stronger mind-body connection.

One major study found that those who reported a greater sense of mindfulness were more likely to experience a higher state of flow (the feeling of being totally in the moment which has been linked to enhanced performance). These individuals also scored better in terms of control of attention and emotion, goal-setting and positive self-talk.

According to Dr. Race, “Mindfulness helps train the prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain that creates a calm and alert state of mind, which helps us stay focused, avoid distraction and perform at our best.” She says, “It’s one of the best ways to calm the stress response in the brain.” This allows us to notice our thoughts and emotions without getting attached to them. A recent study found that mindful meditation led to lower resting cortisol levels — the so-called “stress hormone.”

Through bringing out attention inward, we also activate the insular cortex of the brain. As a result, we experience a heightened sense of awareness of our body and improve the communication between the body and mind. According to Dr. Race, this helps us sense physiological changes, like a tense muscle or shallow breathing, and make split second adjustments even before we’re consciously aware of what’s going on (and before those factors have a chance to impact our performance).

While Dr. Race’s work looks at improving the mind-body connection and managing the thoughts and emotions that may arise during competition, Moawad makes sure that those negative thoughts don’t arise in the first place. He helps his athletes refine their internal communications and reduce the mental noise through powerful music, film and stories. He also employs specific exercises to develop the ability to tune out distractions, like a random number identification game where players have to find a specific number under different scenarios — with no noise, with someone watching, and with lots of crowd noise.

Mind-Body Connection
Photo: Pond5

Train Your Brain

There are a number of ways to train the mind to focus on the present moment and weed out distractions. “It’s like strengthening a muscle… The more we practice, the stronger we become,” says Dr. Race.

Whether you’re a big-time athlete, or just big on priming yourself for success, here are a few simple practices that can go a long way.

1. Mindful Breathing
Take a few minutes a day (in the morning or before you engage in an athletic event or exercise) to pay attention to your breath, which can bring on a calm and clear state of mind. Physiologically, this can help to regulate your breathing if it becomes shallow. Sit comfortably, close your eyes, and start to deepen your breath. Inhale fully and exhale completely. Focus on your breath entering and exiting your body. Start with five minutes and you can build up from there. 

2. Body Scan
Practice a body scan to help release tension, quiet the mind, and bring awareness to your body in a systematic way. Lie down on your back with your palms facing up and legs relaxed. Close your eyes. Start with your toes and notice how they feel. Are they tense? Are they warm or cold? Focus your attention here for a few breaths before moving on to the sole of your foot. Repeat the process as you travel from your foot to your ankle, calf, knee and thigh. Bring your attention to your right foot and repeat the process. Continue to move up your hips, lower back, stomach, chest, shoulders, arms, hands, neck and head — maintaining your focus on each body part and any sensations there. Breathe into any areas that are holding stress and try to release it. As you engage in this practice regularly, you will become more highly attuned to what’s happening in your body. You can spend a 10 minutes or longer doing a body scan. Guided body scans are also available.

3. Internal and External Messages
Pay attention to your internal dialogue as well as the stories you tell your family and friends, which can reflect — or even shape — your mental state more than you might think. That means no more, “I can’t run that far,” or “I hope I don’t miss the goal.” Notice your thoughts and emotions, but don’t judge them or become attached to them. “It’s OK to notice that the feelings are there, but it’s not OK to take that emotion with you into the next shot or next play,” says Dr. Race. Instead, let them go like a hot potato and speak in terms of what you want to achieve.

The research on the connection between mindfulness and mental training on athletic performance is still an emerging field, and there is plenty we don’t know about how the brain works. However, these practices can help lower stress levels, connect with the present moment, and create a more resilient mind. If that may lead to better performance, we’re game!

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