How to Practice Mindfulness Meditation as an Athlete
Your mind needs to be an asset rather than a liability to you as an athlete. But when you play with racing thoughts, you can't control your attention, and your emotions control you, your mind has become a liability.
When this happens, your performances will suffer. This is where we see athletes performing well in practices but not games.
Because during games, your own mind gets in the way.
Luckily, there is something you can do to calm your mind and get it more in your control. On top of that, this tool will increase focus and improve your ability to perform in the zone.
The tool I'm referring to is mindfulness meditation. An important piece to any serious athlete's training program!
What is Mindfulness?
Mindfulness is a state. The state of having your awareness completely centered in the present moment.
Think about during a game, where do you want your attention to be? You want it to be in the present moment, right?
That's being mindful. You are aware and fully present.
Mindful.org describes mindfulness as an innate quality every human possesses.
This is great news for you as an athlete, because it means the skill of mindfulness is already inside you. All you need to do is work on cultivating it.
The more you can build this ability to be mindful, the more mindful you will be during games. That means the more focused and present your mind will be. Which means performing better in competition!
Best Way to Cultivate Mindfulness
The best way athletes can develop the skill of mindfulness is through meditation.
Now I know you may have an aversion to meditation, the mere mention of the word can turn you off.
But there is nothing strange or odd about mindfulness meditation. This practice has countless benefits that will improve your game.
Meditation has the effect of quieting your mind, because of the increase in awareness you will have over your thoughts.
And when I say it will quiet your mind, I mean in terms of the racing thoughts you have. When I work with an athlete with performance anxiety, for example, we first examine what they're thinking during games.
Typically this will include many racing thoughts all centered around the outcome and what will happen. The more we can calm their mind, the more control they have over their thoughts.
This means the more they can think thoughts that increase confidence instead of driving more anxiety and fear.
By using meditation, you will build the skill of mindfulness as an athlete. To do so, there's a simple technique you can use.
But before we get into the technique, let's take a look at the benefits of mindfulness in sports.
Benefits of Mindfulness Meditation in Sports
As with anything, there is a reason mindfulness meditation has become so popular amongst athletics.
There are incredible benefits that are felt by the athletes who practice mindfulness.
To back these benefits, there is brain-based research that shows all the positive reasons to begin mindfulness meditation in sports.
The research has been focused on mindfulness meditation as a facilitator for developing a greater state of awareness.
Through a practice of self-regulation, focusing on training your attention and awareness to gain a higher level of control over your mental processes, you will experience greater mental well-being and control.
Dr. Daphne Davis and Dr. Jeffrey Hayes identify various benefits gained from the practice of mindfulness meditation. All of which contribute to greater emotional control. If you would like, you can check out their full article here on apa.org. Some of the benefits include:
Rumination refers to continuously thinking the same thoughts over and over again. Usually, these thoughts are negative in nature. Having a constant, uncontrollable stream of unwanted thoughts is dangerous to your mental health was an athlete. Not to mention your play on the field.
Think about those times when you've felt anxious or afraid before a game. Did it feel like your thoughts were racing out of control? So fast you almost couldn't pinpoint what specifically you were thinking?
By practicing mindfulness meditation, you will experience a decrease in those kinds of uncontrollable thoughts before, during, and after games.
By practicing mindfulness meditation on a daily basis, there will be a reduction in overall stress levels.
Dr. Davis and Dr. Hayes point to a study where individuals were taken through an eight-week mindfulness meditation program.
At the end of the study, it was discovered that the participants who meditated experienced lowered levels of anxiety, depression, and distress than the control group.
By practicing mindfulness, a shift takes place in how you regulate your emotions. Caused by increased awareness of thought, this new regulatory ability helps us be selective in how you experience the world, and more specifically, view your sport.
Increased Focus & Attention
Out of all the benefits of mindfulness meditation, focus and attention are at the forefront.
Whenever we want to improve a skill, what must we do? Practice.
Sitting down, eyes closed, in a completely still position takes focus. Add a conscious awareness of your breath and having to train yourself to hold attention to that, and it becomes evident why there is an improvement in focus and attention.
While the objective of meditation is not to suppress distracting thoughts, this happens as a by-product of constantly pulling your attention back to your breath.
As with any growth, the daily practice of holding your attention for an extended period of time on a singular act will have a positive effect on that skill.
By developing your focus using mindfulness, this will positively impact your ability to focus during practices and games.
Managing mistakes is one of the main things I work on with athletes.
You don't want to lose control of yourself after every mistake. If you do, that will likely lead to more mistakes moving forward.
A major reason athletes respond badly to mistakes is being too emotionally reactive.
This means losing control of your emotions and having to react to everything. Instead, you want to be more non reactive.
If you make a mistake, no one should be able to tell if it upset you or not. Because you don't show it emotionally.
When you have this type of power over your emotions, your performances increase as a result. Since you aren't losing focus and having your emotions go up and down throughout the game, you end up playing with more attention, effort, and consistency.
How to Start a Mindfulness Meditation Practice as an Athlete
Getting started with mindfulness meditation is pretty straightforward. It can be practiced on your own, or you can follow a guided meditation.
If you would like to try a guided meditation, there are plenty of free ones on YouTube you can check out here.
I am going to outline a way you can begin mindfulness meditation on your own. If you stick with it and practice on a daily basis, I truly believe you will reap all of the benefits mindfulness has to offer.
Decide on a Time Frame
The first step is going to decide on how long the meditation will last. One mistake that is often made when athletes begin is just going into it blindly, not knowing when to stop.
What this leads to is your attention being centered around when to stop.
Instead, you want to decide how long you will meditate. I began with five minutes and am now up to twenty.
I always recommend athletes begin with five minutes, and then increase the amount of time when you feel like you’re ready.
You also want to decide on what time of day you will meditate. Meditation can be performed in the morning, midday, or in the evenings. Go with what works best for you, depending on your schedule.
Find a Comfortable Position
Now that you know how long the meditation will last, it’s time to find the most optimal position for you to be in for the specified time.
There are multiple positions you can choose from, but all have one commonality: your back must be straight. Not in an uncomfortable way, but just firmly held upright. This helps to ensure focus and alertness during the meditation.
One of the most common postures that comes to mind when thinking about meditation is sitting cross-legged on the floor. Yes, this is a great position...if you can do it. Unfortunately I cannot. I never did have the most flexible hips.
Luckily, there are other options you can choose from.
You can sit in a chair or on a couch. If you choose one of these, the only advice I have is to not rest on the back of the chair or couch. Sit more towards the edge so you are still holding up the weight of your upper body.
Another popular position is seated on top of our heels on the ground. This is the position I currently do, as I find it to be the most comfortable.
Bottom line, experiment for yourself. Don’t think you must sit cross-legged, but by all means, do if you find it comfortable. There is no one size fits all approach to the position you prefer to meditate in.
Set a Timer
Going along with the first point in deciding on a time frame, you want to set a timer once you’ve gotten yourself in a comfortable position.
That way, you can focus throughout the meditation practice, without having to worry about when the time is up.
My only recommendation is to go with a soothing alarm. You don’t want anything too startling to pull you out of meditation. Don’t choose a pregame pump up song for this!
Focus on Your Breath
We now come to the actual act of meditating. The guidelines can be summed up quite easily, however, practicing can prove to be immensely frustrating in the beginning.
First, close your eyes. Now you want to focus on your breath, breathing rhythmically in and out. Simply focus on the sensation of your breath.
Allow your thoughts to be, don’t hold any attachment to them. As you feel yourself begin to become attached to a thought (meaning you’re thinking about something), quickly bring your attention back to your breath.
I understand how hard this can be at times. If you are like me, then it will seem like you simply cannot focus on anything but your racing thoughts. With each attempt to bring your attention back to you breath, another thought tears it away.
But that’s okay. In fact, that’s what’s helping you train your focus.
Think about it like this; when you lose focus during games, what’s actually happening is you’re thinking about something else. What you need to do at that moment is notice you’ve lost focus, and return your attention onto the present moment.
See how similar that is to training mindfulness?
Observe Your Thoughts
It also can seem like as soon as you close your eyes to meditate, all the negative thoughts and scenarios you can think of come rushing in.
This can make someone think the practice is worthless if all it’s going to do is cause them to think in such a way.
My advice to you is, be patient. I know that’s not what you want to hear, but it’s the truth.
When I first began practicing, I had the hardest time focusing on my breath. I quit in the beginning because it made me so frustrated. Everywhere I read something about meditation, people were saying how calm and serene it made your mind.
I became irritated and thought I simply must be bad at it.
But, I persevered. Some days are better than others, as with any practice. Overall, however, I can say my life (and game, when I was playing) has benefited from pushing through the initial challenges and making it a daily habit.
Thinking that meditation was supposed to be a peaceful process, I was surprised at how difficult it was. Once again, I thought that I was doing it wrong whenever a negative thought would occur.
However, meditation works to help us gain a better awareness of our minds. Think of it like cleaning out a filing cabinet.
In order to accomplish this, all of our thoughts, negative or positive must be worked through. That is why it is imperative you take the approach of being a conscious observer.
These thoughts are not your true nature, but rather impressions that have been made on you by the external world.
Yes, it can be scary to witness them in the moment. However, the only way over is through, and so you must push through these experiences to reach a state of calmness and control.
As simple as the process can be made to sound, the practice of meditation can be frustrating and complex.
The trick when thoughts become present, whether negative or positive, is not to suppress them. Try your best to become an observer of them.
Remember, your objective is not to become thoughtless, but aware of the thoughts you have. Once you understand your thoughts, you are then capable of controlling them.
A quiet and serene mind will happen as a result of mindfulness meditation, not by the attempt to suppress thought.
Mindfulness in sports means remaining fully present in the moment.
This state provides you with many incredible benefits, including reduced stress and anxiety, less racing thoughts during games, and a calmer mind when you perform.
While there are many ways to train mindfulness in sports, I recommend meditation as the best way to reap the full effects.
Give yourself some time each day to sit down, close your eyes, and focus on your breath. As thoughts come and go, merely observe them. The practice of returning to your breath after losing focus is what’s training mindfulness.
Thank you for reading and I wish you the best of success in all you do.
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Eli is a sport psychology consultant and mental game coach who works 1-1 with athletes to help them improve their mental skills and overcome any mental barriers keeping them from performing their best. He has an M.S. in psychology and his mission is to help athletes and performers reach their goals through the use of sport psychology & mental training.eli's story
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