Centering in Sport

Athletes  are  often  faced  with  a  variety  of  factors that can throw off their focus on the athletic task, such  as  worry,  unexpected  events,  and  physical exhaustion. Therefore, it is important for athletes to be able to focus or refocus their attention on the athletic  task,  despite  frequently  changing  circumstances.  In  this  regard,  centering  is  a  process  by which individuals direct their attention to a central portion of the body while engaging in deep rhythmic breathing, with the purpose of merging one’s attention  and  one’s  center  of  gravity,  and  thus gaining or regaining focus.

As a technique, centering was historically incorporated into the martial arts as long ago as the first century  BCE.  At  that  time,  centering  emphasized focused thought, muscle relaxation, and rhythmic breathing. Centering has been used more recently in modern-day sports. By helping athletes focus attention on a particular central part of the body (such as the abdomen) as they engage in deep rhythmic breathing  patterns,  athletes  can  achieve  a  feeling of  physical  and  mental  groundedness  and  togetherness, which is thought to subsequently promote enhanced focus to the athletic challenges they face. When  centered,  a  sense  of  quiet  mind  is  created, as diverse thoughts and emotions are replaced by a narrow focus on one’s own breathing and body. The  narrowing  of  focus  helps  block  out  distractions  both  within  the  athlete  (e.g.,  worry)  and  in the environment (e.g., crowd noise) and allows the athlete to concentrate more fully on the task.

As  with  any  other  skill,  effectively  developing the capacity to center oneself requires training and practice.  Simply  attempting  to  occasionally  get focused  is  not  sufficient  for  the  development  of centering  skills.  For  most  individuals,  learning  to center one’s body and mind takes concerted effort. As such, athletes are encouraged to frequently practice  centering  (in  a  variety  of  contexts,  and  even when  tasks  do  not  require  a  centered  state)  until centering  competencies  are  developed.  Centering training usually begins with 20to 30-minute exercises, but, as greater competencies evolve, the time required to attain a centered state can be systematically reduced to several seconds. The technique can  be  used  with  eyes  open  or  closed,  and  in  a lying, sitting, or standing position. Therefore, once mastered,  centering  can  be  employed  by  athletes at  any  moment  and  in  any  context  just  prior  to movement. For example, a golfer can quickly center prior to putting and a hockey player can reach a centered state just prior to a face-off.

During  sport  performance,  there  are  two  primary  values  of  centering.  The  first  value  is  to help  the  athlete  minimize  internal  and  external distractions  by  transitioning  attention  away  from past-,  present-,  or  future-oriented  thoughts,  emotional states, performance concerns, or plans, and toward  the  present  moment.  The  second  value  is to help the athlete remain focused on the athletic task at hand. It is important to state that centering is often misconstrued as a method of relaxation, as the goal is often incorrectly assumed to be a reduction  or  elimination  of  emotions  such  as  anxiety or anger or tense bodily states. Yet while the individual may feel more relaxed after centering, any increase in relaxation would be merely a secondary consequence. In actuality, centering is more similar to  mindfulness  meditative  exercises,  and  in  fact, centering  historically  originated  from  the  same Asian philosophical traditions as mindfulness.

Mindfulness is a state of nonjudgmental awareness  and  acceptance  of  internal  experiences,  and mindfulness exercises help individuals consistently engage in behaviors that matter to them rather than abandoning their goals and athletic or general life values when negative thoughts, feelings, or physical sensations get in their way. In the proper use of centering,  the  individual  is  actually  not  seeking  a state of relaxation or a reduction of any particular thoughts,  emotions,  or  physiological  states,  but rather  is  seeking  a  focused  preparatory  state  for competitive  performance.  From  this  perspective, centering is a means of self-regulating attention by bringing the mind to a quiet place in which attention  is  directed  away  from  distractions  and  onto the body. Once attention is placed on the body and distractions are minimized, the athlete is then better able to focus on the competitive moment and required athletic tasks. While centering can be used as a stand-alone technique, it is often incorporated into  a  more  comprehensive  mindfulness  training practice. Yet regardless of whether it is used alone or  as  a  component  of  mindfulness  training,  centering  can  have  a  marked  positive  impact  on  the attentional processes of the athlete and subsequent athletic  performance.  In  fact,  research  has  found that  a  centered  focus  of  attention  is  highly  correlated  with  flow  states  and  athletic  performance success.

References:

  1. Gardner, F. L., & Moore, Z. E. (2007). The psychology of enhancing human performance: The Mindfulness Acceptance-Commitment (MAC) approach. New York: Springer.
  2. Nideffer, R. M. (1981). The ethics and practice of applied sport psychology. Ithaca, NY: Mouvement Publications.
  3. Rogerson, L. J., & Hrycaiko, D. W. (2002). Enhancing competitive performance of ice hockey goaltenders using centering and self-talk. Journal of Applied Sport Psychology, 14, 14–26.

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