In a recent article (Mindfulness and Acceptance Models in Sport Psychology: A Decade of Basic and Applied Scientific Advancements by Gardner and Moore) I came across some of the underlying reasons that mindfulness can help athletes. These authors discriminate between traditional cognitive-behavioral models and mindfulness models. One difference is that cognitive-behavioral models emphasize willful attempts to control thoughts and maintain attention, whereas mindfulness is based on a more natural form of managing thoughts and attention. As a result, mindfulness requires less brain power, which is beneficial for athletes because excessive thinking can be distracting. As an athlete, think of a time you were playing in a game and you had thoughts of school, girl/boyfriends, social life, nagging parents… How did this impact your performance? Another interesting finding in the article surrounds brain activity in the right and left hemispheres of athletes. Brain imaging techniques have revealed that golfers with less left hemisphere and more right hemisphere activity performed better when putting. The two resulting hypotheses state: The first hypothesis stated the left hemisphere is responsible for verbal instruction or the things we say in our head to help us complete a task. For a soccer player taking a penalty shot they might say, “Keep the shot on the ground, don’t get under the ball, get your knee over the ball, don’t lean back…” This type of self-instruction can be distracting, which might explain why the golfers struggled with putting. The second hypothesis elite athletes require less effort of the attention centers in the left hemisphere, whereas inexperienced athletes require more effort. More simply stated, better, more experienced athletes do not need to self-instruct as much as novice athletes when performing. To bring this complex hypothesis back to mindfulness, the research demonstrates that people who practice mindfulness use their cognitive resources more efficiently. By being able to focus without making a concentrated effort, the mindful athlete can pay attention and maintain focus longer and better when playing their sport. I connected this concept to a recent experience. Yesterday I ran 17 miles. It was fairly easy for me to block out pain and fatigue for the first 13 miles because of my training with mindfulness and fitness. However for the remaining 4 miles, I really struggled with focusing on something other than the pain in my legs and the feeling of exhaustion. If I were a more experienced practitioner of mindfulness, it could have been easier for me to focus on things other than pain and fatigue.
My mom emailed me the following comment regarding this blog post. “So if you are not thinking, are you sleeping or dead?” I know that she was joking, but there is some truth to her question. Mindfulness is not for everyone. I’ve had players on my Swarthmore College men’s soccer team say that mindfulness does not work for them, and I recognize this. I was apprehensive when first introduced to the different ideas associated with mindfulness. One way I’ve helped people move past the initial apprehension and begin to understand the benefits mindfulness is to clear up misconceptions. One common misconception is that mindfulness will allow you to “turn off” your thoughts. This is not the case, and I definitely do not want this for my athletes. The tasks athletes perform require tremendous thought and focus and mindfulness helps you make sense of and respond to the thoughts in a way that will improve your play. Another way to make sense of this concept is mindfulness allows you to have a different relationship with your thoughts. Those negative thoughts that interfere with a three point shot, screen pass, final lap, or first touch on the soccer field are like a dark cloud in the sky. You can choose dwell on the cloud, have repeated negative thoughts of how rain is going to ruin your day and mood, stay in all day, and miss out on some valuable life experiences. Another possibility is that you can chose to recognize the cloud, plan for some possible rain, and move on with your life.