Mental Health for Athletes: How Mindfulness Can Help

Psychology Today defines mindfulness as:

Mindfulness is a state of active, open attention on the present. When you’re mindful, you observe your thoughts and feelings from a distance, without judging them good or bad. Instead of letting your life pass you by, mindfulness means living in the moment and awakening to experience.

There are many aspects of mindfulness that athletes can incorporate in their preparation to achieve a peak performance. There are also many ways that it can improve an athlete’s mental health.

Quite often athletes find themselves in a mental environment that is not conducive to mindfulness. Analyzing past performances can create a mindset of judgement and resistance. Having a focus on outcomes often creates a situation where athletes grasp for more never allowing themselves to enjoy of the present moment.

Both of these mindsets have the potential to cause athletes to be impatient and force things rather than trusting in the process and allowing things to occur naturally. If these patterns of thought become habits they often have a negative impact on an athlete’s mental health.

For myself, both as an athlete and a coach, I knew that to achieve my goals I needed to identify different areas for improvement, eliminate as many mistakes as possible and ultimately put in the work. The problem was I became so focused on what to improve on and how to improve I had a hard time accepting who I was.

This had a huge impact on my mental health. I began to judge myself excessively, resist my present circumstances and ignore many of the amazing events happening right in front of my eyes

Through both a meditation and yoga I now practice awareness, non-resistance and non-judgement. Through these practices I am learning how to be more mindful, which has had an extremely positive affect on my mental health.

Awareness

“Awareness is like the sun. When it shines on things, they are transformed.”Thich Nhat Hanh

For an athlete to improve they need to be able to analyze their past performances to identify mistakes and areas of weaknesses. The next step is to make goals and create a progressive plan to reduce mistakes and strengthen weaknesses.

This process has the potential to create a mental state where athletes are continually focused on their future goals and/or constantly looking into the past to find ways to improve.

Focusing on future events creates grasping and paying too much attention to the past can create attachment which in turn may create feelings of discontent and regret. These emotions can play havoc on an athlete’s mental health.

In contrast when your awareness is on the present it allows you to notice things that create feelings of gratitude and engagement.

You gotta live in the moment. I don’t care what you’ve done in your life, it has nothing to do with what you’re gonna do or what you can do. The past is history, tomorrow is a mystery. But today is a gift-that’s why they call it the present. – Mike Ditka

Give it a Try:

One of the ways to practice awareness is to  bring your attention to the present moment through a focus on breath. To practice this find a comfortable position. You can be seated, kneeling, lying down, etc… Find a place that provides you with comfort, but where you are unlikely to fall asleep.

Once you have found that position start to notice both the depth of your inhales and the length of your exhales. Do not try to empty the mind just simply bring your attention to your breath.

There are many ways to focus on breath, the one I will offer here is to count your breaths. Count an inhale as one and an exhale as one then the next inhale as two and the next exhale as two. Continue from there up until ten and then start back at one.

Quite often your mind will wander and you may lose count, be accepting of this and just restart your count at one. If you do fall asleep, be accepting of that and be happy that you have been able to relax the body and mind to that extent.

Just as we would not expect a child who has just learned to swim to compete in the 1500 freestyle don’t expect yourself to be able have your awareness in the moment for great lengths when you are just beginning your practice. Start with two minutes a day and progressively move forward from there.

Non-Resistance

“In all activities of life, the secret of efficiency lies in an ability to combine two seemingly incompatible states: a state of maximum activity and a state of maximum relaxation.” – Aldous Huxley

The first time I attended a Bipolar support group I was asked to tell everyone about myself. After some poking and prodding I finally released my deepest frustration, “Over the last number of years I do what everyone has told me I should do. I have never gone off my meds, I get an appropriate amount of sleep, I exercise, I eat healthy, I journal and I see my therapists on a regular basis, yet still I end up here.”

After the meeting one of the group members came up to me and said, “I am not going to tell you I know how you feel, because anytime someone says that to me I want to punch them in the face. What I can tell you is that I have found that when I fight to get out of a depression it is like quick sand and I sink deeper. It is when I stopped fighting that I was able to find a healthier state more quickly”

He didn’t mean stop doing the things I was doing to stay healthy, but not resist the state I was in. He was right once I learned not resist what was happening to me in a depression I came out of it more quickly.

As athletes and coaches we often believe that we can beat down any obstacle and take on any challenge through working hard, which is why I approached my mental health in the same way. If I worked hard enough I would beat it. Unfortunately somethings can be made worse by relentlessly attacking them.

The concept of non-resistance may be familiar to many athletes as it is prominent in the idea finding the ‘zone’ or competing in a ‘flow state’. The following definition of ‘flow’ comes from the book Flow in Sports by Susan A. Jackson and Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi:

It is a state of consciousness where one becomes totally absorbed in what one is doing to the exclusion of all other thoughts and emotions. Flow is a harmonious experience where mind and body are working together effortlessly, leaving the person feeling that something special has just occurred. So flow is also enjoyment. Flow lifts experience from the ordinary to the optimal, and it is in those moments that we feel truly alive and in tune with what we are doing.

Michael Klim described this state after breaking the world record in the 100 butterfly:

“The swim itself just happened, just like Gennadi (coach) said it would, without really forcing it”.

To achieve of state of ‘flow’ you must accept what is occurring in the present moment and allow yourself to be fully engaged in your actions. You need to be able to trust in your preparation, have confidence in your abilities and then let things happen rather than trying to force them.

Resisting ‘what is’ only creates unneeded stress and tension both of which are ultimately unhealthy for the body and the mind.

Give it a Try:

I love using yoga in two ways to practice non-resistance. To start pick a style of yoga that resonates with you. I would suggest picking a style that is not overly challenging.

The first way is through breath. Having and moving with an awareness of breath are two key components of yoga. Anchor your attention to your breath and as thoughts come into your mind rather than resisting their presence have awareness of them, but keep your attention on breath. This is a simple way to train the ability to focus on the present moment rather than attaching feelings and emotions to memories or ideas of the future.

The second way is when coming into a pose. Allow yourself to enter a pose in a natural manner rather than forcing yourself into a position. When coming into a pose you will often feel resistance, don’t try to push past it. Instead find a point of resistance, accept where you are and anchor your attention to your breath. Most often resistance and tension at one point in the pose will release and you may move further into it. If resistance and tension does not release that is okay too, do not resist that either.

One Last Point:

Non-resistance can be one of the hardest things to practice because by opening up our awareness we may expose thoughts and emotions that are unwanted, but resisting undesirable circumstances most often make them worse.

But don’t mistake non-resistance with non-action. Non-resistance does not mean you should not take action to improve your situation it means that you should accept the moment and move on from that point.

Non-Judgement

“Be curious not judgemental.” – Walt Whitman

Often when we breakdown our past performances it is through judgemental eyes. A performance is a moment in time, but rather than seeing it as that too often we allow our performances to define us as good or bad, weak or strong, without the proper perspective.

Throughout my life I have had lofty goals and high expectations of myself, but too often I have felt the need to be unnecessarily judgemental of my own performances in an unhealthy manner. Looking at a mistake as a way to educate yourself on a how to move towards your goals more effectively sounds simple, but doing so without being overly critical and unkind to yourself can be a challenge.

It is much easier for most of us to show others the empathy and support than it is to offer ourselves the same. In practicing non-judgement you are focused on being aware of the present moment and observing it without determining its value.

Give it a Try:

Once again this is something I love to include in my yoga practice.

To begin with I would suggest picking a style that is not overly challenging. During your practice take time to bring your awareness to the body. Use this time to educate yourself on how you hold and move your body.

Be aware of how you felt at different points in your practice and how one side feels different than the other. The key is when bringing your awareness to the body do not to judge one side as good or bad or one side weak or strong, but just develop an awareness of your body in the present moment.

 

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About Jeff Grace

Jeff Grace

Jeff is a 500 hour registered yoga teacher who holds diplomas in Coaching (Douglas College) and High Performance Coaching (National Coaching Institute - Calgary). He has a background of over 20 years in the coaching profession, where he has used a unique and proven teaching methodology to help many achieve their …

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