Mindfulness for Athletes: How Mindfulness Can Lead to a Peak Performance

An increasing number of athletes and coaches are successfully incorporating mindfulness strategies within their training.

A few of the ways mindfulness can directly impact your swimming performance include:

  • Accessing a state of flow
  • Reducing anxiety
  • Developing the ability to focus and refocus
  • Enhancing recovery
  • Sustaining mental wellness

There are many different ways to practice mindfulness. Yoga, meditation and body scanning have all been found to be effective in increasing psychological wellbeing, decreasing difficulties in emotional regulation and creating a non-evaluative stance towards observed stimuli (Sauer et al. 2013).

This article will discuss how using all three to have a powerful effect on your performance.

What is Mindfulness?

John Kabot-Zinn the creator of the Mindfulness Based Stressed Reduction program defines mindfulness as:

“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.”

One common misconception about this practice is that it is an attempt to think about nothing or clear your mind. Achieving this is nearly impossible and often creates frustration, which is a negative experience for many people.

In an interview with Dan Harris on the 10% Happier podcast George Mumford (who worked with Michael Jordan, Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O’Neal to develop a mindful practice) explains a common challenge for people is understanding that you are not trying to control your mind.

“That is the crux of the problem you are not trying to turn your mind off you are trying to create space and let your mind be.”

How is Mindfulness Training Different from Sports Psychology Skills Training?

In sports psychology skills training you attempt to modify ways of thinking by focusing on things such as self-talk, imagery, goal setting and arousal control. Mindfulness differs from this in a significant way. It is about observing the present moment with awareness and acceptance. (Röthlin et al. 2016)

Simon Marshall PhD uses a fantastic metaphor in his book The Brave Athlete:

“Think of it like watching a fireworks display. You notice the whoosh, crack and dazzle, but you quickly shift your focus to the next one without overthinking what you just saw.

Accessing a State of Flow

Performing in ‘the zone’ is something all athletes hope to experience each time they compete.

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

Michael Klim

“When you get in that zone it’s just a supreme confidence…”

“Things just slow down. You really do not try to focus on what’s going on because you can lose it in a second. You have to really try to stay in the present and not let anything break that rhythm.”

Kobe Bryant

Both athletes are describing what is also known as a flow state. In their book Flow in Sports Susan A. Jackson and Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi define this state as:

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.

In essence a flow state is performing mindfully. To do this you need to be able to trust your preparation, have confidence in your abilities and let things happen rather than trying to force them.

In his book Mind Gym Gary Mack explains the process of entering a flow state as switching from a ‘training mode to a trusting mode.’

He uses Tiger Woods as an example:

“Tiger told The New York Times Magazine, “You ever go up to a tee and say, ‘Don’t hit it left, don’t hit it right?’ That’s your conscious mind. My body knows how to play golf. I’ve trained it to do that. It’s just a matter of keeping my conscious mind out of it.”

Mumford also explains this process in a similar fashion, “It’s a monitoring aspect with more– rather than ‘I got to make this shot’ — no just shoot.”

“You’ve trained your nervous system to do it, so now your conscious thinking needs to be quiet and let your body do what it does… Nothing exists but this moment and what you’re doing.”

Developing a mindful practice away from the field of play will give you the opportunity to be what Mumford calls ‘flow ready.’ This means the more you practice being mindful the more prepared you will be to take advantage of the experience of performing in the zone when it presents itself.

How to Practice Mindfulness:

Mindful Movement

Csikszentmihalyi points out a very strong connection between yoga and flow:

The similarities between Yoga and flow are extremely strong; in fact it makes sense to think of Yoga as a very thoroughly planned flow activity. Both try to achieve a joyous, self-forgetful involvement through concentration, which in turn is made possible by a discipline of the body.

A great way to practice the combination of mindfulness and flowing movement is by doing a repetitive sequence of poses connected through your breath. This allows you to have a mindful connection through both the rhythm of movement and your breath.

One of the most common examples of this is a called a sun salutation.

Reducing Pre-Race Anxiety

“Mindfulness training refers to techniques designed to foster a nonjudgmental acceptance of distressing thoughts. The central feature of mindfulness is that you pay conscious attention to things that worry you (ie you let yourself be aware of anxious thoughts), but you resist the urge to engage with them.”

Simon Marshall PhD

Pre-race anxiety is a common challenge. It is often caused by ruminating thoughts of either past mistakes (the last time I swam my 200 butterfly I died in the last 50 meters) or the possibility of future failure (what happens if I go out too fast and miss my national cut).

These thoughts can result in physiological responses such as:

  • Elevated heart rate
  • Increased respiratory rate
  • Muscle tension

Along with emotional responses which can include:

  • Worry
  • Nervousness
  • Overwhelmed
  • Fear

Judging and identifying with those thoughts and feelings amplify both physiological and emotional responses. With mindfulness training you learn to observe your responses with acceptance and curiosity instead of fighting them.

Practicing this type of nonjudgmental awareness has shown to lessen the frequency and power of this type of thinking (Bernier et al. 2009).

After taking part in 8-weeks of mindfulness training several members of the French National Swim Team found it gave them the ability to be more aware of their bodily sensations before a race and created greater acceptance of those sensations (Röthlin et al. 2016).

How to Practice Mindfulness:

The most important thing to remember when doing this practice is that you are not trying to eliminate the thoughts that are creating anxiety, but learning how to witness them without engaging.

Slower Yoga Practice

By practicing a slower moving yoga practice such as hatha, restorative or yin you will have the time to observe different responses in your body and fluctuations in the mind. Approaching these responses with curiosity you not only practice non-judgement and acceptance, but you can also learn how the mind, the body and the breath influence one another.

Breathing

Bringing your attention to your breath can be a very grounding exercise. There are several different breathing techniques that can help strengthen that connection and allow the parasympathetic nervous system to be activated.

Two of these techniques that are simple and very effective are a three-dimensional breath and the bumble bee breath.

When doing a three-dimensional breath you are focusing on allowing the front, the sides and the back of the body to expand on every inhale feeling the depth of breath through the entire length of the upper body.

Exhale slowly making it a little longer than the inhale. As you do this breath progressively build the depth and length of breath having the air flow in and out of the nose.

With the three-dimensional breath you are ground through breath itself while also creating greater awareness of the body. As you do this you can also use a strategy of counting your breath. An inhale and an exhale is one, an inhale and an exhale is two and so on. You are not trying to reach a certain number you are using this as a way to anchor your attention.

Inevitably your mind will wander and you will lose count. Notice this with acceptance and return back to counting starting at one.

A bumble bee breath is where you inhale slowly through the nose (you can feel the same sensation of the three-dimensional breath on your inhale). On your exhale slowly release the air creating a humming noise like a bumble bee. This noise can be very quiet, but the sound and the vibration of the breath has a calming effect.

The sound and vibration you create with the bumble bee breath can also be used as anchors for your attention.

Visualization

One of the most effective ways I found to practice mindfulness when it comes to pre-race anxiety is through visualization at the end of a yoga session. This type visualization is a bit different then the standard approach.

First this visualization is not of the race itself. It is of the lead up to the race.

You first imagine a situation that you are comfortable in and where things go smoothly. Then move on to visualize a less than ideal environment. Instead of trying to control the different situations practice witnessing the thoughts and emotions that are stirred up with acceptance and curiosity.

During these visualizations use the breath as an anchor for your attention so that you can allow the thoughts that flow into your mind to leave as easily as they came in.

The Ability to Focus and Refocus

Having the ability to focus and refocus are essential skills for success. Concentration helps you learn new skills with greater effectiveness and efficiency. That same concentration allows you to immerse yourself into training sets to get the most out of each practice session.

In his book Mental Skills for Swim Coaches John M. Hogg defines concentration as:

“Focusing rather than forcing one’s attention on a task. It is the learned skill of passively not reacting to or being distracted by irrelevant stimuli. It means being totally in the here and now rather than allowing the mind to drift into the past or future. Concentration is a relaxed state of being alert or alive to what is happening.”

The ability to focus is important, but having the ability to refocus may be even more so. Refocusing is the ability to bring your attention back to the present moment. Most of us have had a bad performance at the beginning of a competition. Often the emotions and thoughts those performances illicit can linger and effect future events negatively. By developing the ability to refocus you can give yourself the opportunity to let go of what has happened and concentrate on the here and now.

In a 2017 interview with SwimSwam Sarah Sjöström explained how her success in the World Cup was about having the ability to refocus after both disappointment and success.

“When I have a disappointing event I refocus really quickly.”

“(The World Cup) is always about refocusing. It is a lot of racing.”

“It is the same with success you have to refocus really fast especially when you do that many events.”

How to Practice Mindfulness:

Breathing

This is the breath can be used an anchor point.

In the book Meditation for Fidgety Skeptics Jeff Warren explains this process in an incredible way:

“Your breath is your starting point – your home base, the place to come back to. The idea is to let the sensation of breathing pull you in, but not pull you in so far that you lose any sense of a wider perspective around the breath. As always noting helps: in, out.”

Balance

Balancing poses in a yoga practice are a great way to develop the ability to refocus. Balance is not about stillness, everyone has to make adjustments returning back to center, back to a place of stability. When your mind wanders or you get frustrated balance can be lost quite quickly. Learning how to refocus you can once again gain great stability.

Approach standing balances in a very light hearted way. This will teach you that you can take what you do seriously, but not to take yourself too seriously. An example of this is when performing the standing balance of tree pose. I will often ask this question of my students,  “How can you take yourself seriously when you are pretending to be a tree?”

 

Enhances Recovery

Two ways mindfulness can help enhance recovery are by engaging the parasympathetic nervous system and increasing the quality of your sleep.

The parasympathetic nervous system is the side of your nervous system responsible for recovery and regeneration. When the parasympathetic nervous system is activated it is known as the relaxation response which includes:

  • Decreased metabolism
  • Decreased heart rate
  • Decreased respiratory rate
  • Increased sense of calm

Mindfulness and yoga have been shown to activate this relaxation response (Lazar et al. 2000).

Sleep is an essential element in enabling you to recover effectively from training. Getting a good night’s sleep will positively effect:

  • Stress regulation
  • Muscle recovery
  • Metabolic function
  • Motor control

Although we know it is important for many a quality night’s sleep is elusive.

Mindful practices have been shown to both help induce and increase the quality of sleep. Athletes who did a brief 6-minute self-administered session of mindfulness experienced a decrease in pre-sleep arousal and improvement in their quality of sleep (Li et al. 2018).

Creating a pre-sleep routine that includes a short mindful practice signals the brain to transition from a waking state to a sleeping state.

How to Practice Mindfulness:

Restorative Yoga

Restorative yoga is a gentle form of yoga where you use props such as cushions, bolsters, blankets and blocks to support the body in different poses. You remain in each pose anywhere from three to 10 minutes. The intent of this practice is to allow yourself to let go. By trusting the support of the props you can activate the parasympathetic nervous system allowing the body to relax giving you the chance to practice mindfulness through the connection to the breath.

Restorative Deer

www.lachlanemily.com

Heart Bed

Yoga Nidra

Yoga Nidra is known as yogic sleep. In essence it is a form of guided meditation that engages the parasympathetic nervous system through heightened body awareness and attention to the breath.

Yoga Nidra provides a way of contacting and resting within Pure Awareness as it exists beneath the waking and dreaming/imagery states of mind.

It involves guided practices that gently draw one’s attention inward, through various aspects of body, breath and being. This progressive inner attention invites the activity of the mind to gradually still along the way, while going ever deeper toward conscious deep sleep.”

– Jennifer Piercy

The following is a short 18 minute Yoga Nidra session.

For this practice find a position where you are at ease, that will be restful for the length of the class. Many chose to practice in a classic savasana pose, but feel free to choose a different position that will allow you to relax.

Mental Wellness

There are many aspects of mindfulness that can be incorporated into your preparation to achieve a peak performance. There are also several ways mindfulness can help improve your mental wellness.

Performing to your potential requires high expectations, determined effort, analysis of past results, acceptance of critical feedback and a low tolerance for poor performances.

For an athlete the challenge is separating person from performance. Your performance does not define who you are as a person. Mindfulness can help you develop the ability to separate the two in a healthy way. Developing the ability to approach life’s experience in a mindful way is a great benefit to improving mental wellness (Coffey et al. 2010).

A mindfulness practice is one of non-attachment. Meaning you are not attaching yourself to any specific thought or feeling you are witnessing them and letting them go. The same approach can be taken when observing your athletic performance. One of your roles in life is being an athlete, but approaching this with an attitude of non-attachment allows you to separate yourself from your performance.

Athletes are hard on themselves even when it may be more appropriate to show themselves compassion. Continually beating yourself up over mistakes made may not be the most productive way to improve performance.

Mindfulness training is a way to develop self-compassion. Athletes Connected explains mindful self-compassion as:

“Mindful self-compassion is a skill rooted in the idea of accepting who you are. This means accepting the good and bad, the success and failure. Mindful self-compassion teaches us how to take a step back from a situation, understand that nobody is perfect, and learn to love and accept ourselves for our imperfections. The first step to utilizing mindful self-compassion is understanding that everyone experiences failure. For many of us, when faced with failure, we immediately judge, criticize, and think negatively about ourselves. The goal of mindful self-compassion is to better respond to ourselves and our failings with kindness and self-understanding.”

How to Practice Mindfulness:

Two Ways that Athletes Connected suggest to practice mindful self-compassion are:

  • Write down a list of 10 positive affirmations about yourself that you can look at when you find yourself in a negative space.
  • Set a goal of writing three positive things about yourself, or about your day, before going to bed. This can help you to get in the habit of recognizing the good within yourself.

Yoga and Mediation

Click here to get the complete playlist of six short meditation and yoga classes created specifically for athletes to improve their mental wellness.

One thing that is important to remember when creating a mindfulness practice is that it does not have to be a complex endeavour. In an interview with Stack sports psychologist Michael Gervais recommends starting by focusing on 10 breaths, “Begin with a commitment to just 10 breaths a day, and then move to 15 breaths in a row per day, then 20,” says Gervais.

There are two incredible apps that give you access to meditation practices that include some that are geared specifically towards athletes. They are:

Creating a mindful practice can be a powerful component of your preparation. Start by bringing your attention to just one breath remembering every breath counts!

References

Bernier, Marjorie & Thienot, Emilie & Codron, Romain & Fournier, Jean. (2009). Mindfulness and Acceptance Approaches in Sport Performance. Journal of Clinical Sport Psychology. 4. 10.1123/jcsp.3.4.320.). As well as enhanced self-regulation, efficiency of working memory and improved attention control Mardon, Nick & Richards, Hugh & Martindale, Amanda. (2015). The Effect of Mindfulness Training on Attention and Performance in National-Level Swimmers: An Exploratory Investigation. The Sport Psychologist. 30. 10.1123/tsp.2014-0085.

A. Coffey, Kimberly & Hartman, Marilyn & L. Fredrickson, Barbara. (2010). Deconstructing Mindfulness and Constructing Mental Health: Understanding Mindfulness and its Mechanisms of Action. Mindfulness. 1. 235-253. 10.1007/s12671-010-0033-2.

Lazar, S.W., Bush, G., Gollub, R.L., Fricchione, G.L, Khalsa, G., Benson, H. 2000. Functional brain mapping of the relaxation response in meditation. 11(7): 1581-1585

Li, Chunxiao & Kee, Ying Hwa & Shan Lam, Lok. (2018). Effect of Brief Mindfulness Induction on University Athletes’ Sleep Quality Following Night Training. Frontiers in Psychology. 9. 508. 10.3389/fpsyg.2018.00508.

Röthlin, Philipp & Birrer, Daniel & Horvath, Stephan & Grosse Holtforth, Martin. (2016). Psychological skills training and a mindfulness-based intervention to enhance functional athletic performance: design of a randomized controlled trial using ambulatory assessment. BMC Psychology. 4.

Röthlin, Philipp & Horvath, Stephan & Birrer, Daniel & Grosse Holtforth, Martin. (2016). Mindfulness Promotes the Ability to Deliver Performance in Highly Demanding Situations. Mindfulness. 7. 10.1007/s12671-016-0512-1.

Sauer, Shannon & Walsh, Erin & Eisenlohr-Moul, Tory & L. B. Lykins, Emily. (2013). Comparing Mindfulness-Based Intervention Strategies: Differential Effects of Sitting Meditation, Body Scan, and Mindful Yoga. Mindfulness. 4. 10.1007/s12671-012-0139-9.

This Yoga for Swimmers article is brought to you by Swimming-Specific Yoga the world’s top resource for online yoga classes and content designed for swimmers and multi-sport athletes.

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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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