Mindfulness in Sports Psychology

Mindfulness  is  a  state  of  non-judging  awareness and acceptance of internal experiences. This state has been achieved through evidence-driven mindfulness-based interventions that are useful for the treatment  of  psychological  concerns  and  for  the enhancement  of  performance  among  athletes  and other  performers.  This  entry  describes  the  basic processes  associated  with  mindfulness,  the  intervention components that enhance these processes, and the usefulness of mindfulness interventions for the enhancement of athletic performance.

Exploring Mindfulness

From  the  general  public  to  sport  psychologists, most  would  agree  that  optimal  performance seems  to  require  athletes  to  maintain  a  fully engaged and absorbed focus on the athletic task, a state often referred to as “flow.” Yet there are many obstacles to maintaining that focus, such as crowd  noise,  pressure  to  succeed,  physical  pain, and thoughts about possible failure. These obstacles  are  inevitable,  and  data  indicate  that  efforts to control these variables (such as trying to ignore pain,  crowd  noise,  and  thoughts  and  emotions that  seem  to  be  getting  in  the  way)  are  largely ineffective. In contrast, mindfulness interventions help athletes develop a nonjudging awareness (the ability  to  be  aware  of  one’s  experiences  without judging them as good or bad, right or wrong, etc.) of  internal  and  external  experiences;  an  acceptance  of  their  internal  cognitive,  emotional,  and physiological  (i.e.,  bodily  sensations)  states;  and a  willingness  to  experience  internal  and  external states  while  continuing  to  engage  in  behaviors that  are  consistent  with  what  really  matters  to them in athletics. Importantly, the goal of mindfulness practice is not to reduce, avoid, or change athletes’ subjective distress or increase characteristics  such  as  confidence  and  positive  thinking. Rather, the goal is to develop the skills necessary to  engage  in  present-moment  attention  without  becoming  entangled  in  internal  or  external

experiences, without judging these experiences as right or wrong or good or bad, and without trying  to  alter  these  experiences.  Instead  of  engaging in behaviors in order to reduce uncomfortable experiences  (known  as  experiential  avoidance), mindfulness  encourages  experiential  acceptance, which is defined as a willingness to pursue (rather than avoid) one’s goals (e.g., practicing hard during  each  practice)  and  values  (e.g.,  maximizing athletic skill) regardless of how or what one may think or feel at any moment.

Along this line, mindfulness can be described as being with one’s internal processes (i.e., thoughts, feelings,  bodily  sensations)  regardless  of  what they are, rather than doing something with those processes  in  an  impossible  attempt  to  create  the perfect  internal  state  or  situation  within  which to  perform.  For  instance,  this  approach  helps athletes  learn  that  they  can  perform  well  while at  the  same  time  experiencing  a  variety  of  internal  states  (e.g.,  frustration,  tiredness,  worry)  or dealing with an array of external distracters (e.g., opponents, poor officiating, coaching behaviors). Athletes can therefore shift from a perspective of “I  want  to  perform  well,  but  I  don’t  feel  confident  today  and  I’m  irritated”  (a  perspective  that encourages  experiential  avoidance  strategies)  to the  perspective  of  “I  want  to  perform  well,  and I’m not feeling confident today and I’m irritated.” This  shift  enhances  the  athlete’s  ability  to  nonjudgmentally  accept  internal  experiences  (even if  they  do  not  feel  good)  and  by  doing  so  helps the  athlete  maintain  awareness  and  attention  to the  immediate  task  at  hand.  By  developing  the capacity  to  perform  well  while  experiencing  a wider range of internal states and among shifting environmental  situations,  athletes  can  function more  effectively  by  maintaining  an  increased capacity to remain task-focused as circumstances inevitably change.

Mindfulness Techniques

A number of mindfulness exercises are used to convey  both  the  impossibility  of  eradicating  or  controlling the array of normal processes that athletes experience and the perspective that successful performance does not require an ideal physical, emotional, or cognitive state. Surely, if athletes had to feel physically sound, think only positive thoughts, and feel no negative emotions in order to perform well, few athletes would be able to perform on any given day. The same reality applies for all humans within any life context.

Mindfulness  techniques  include  a  variety  of meditative-type exercises that develop the ability to  (a)  become  aware  of  one’s  internal  and  external  experiences  and  recognize  the  inevitable  and transient nature of these experiences and (b) recognize  the  costs  of  attempting  to  control,  avoid, or  modify  experiences  judged  as  “negative”  versus  the  benefits  of  a  nonjudging  awareness  and acceptance  of  internal  experiences.  A  primary mechanism by which mindfulness exercises work is  by  developing  a  decentered  (i.e.,  distanced) perspective  about  one’s  own  thoughts  and  emotions  and  recognizing  that  thoughts  and  emotions are internal events that inevitably come and go,  do  not  have  to  be  evaluated  or  altered,  and do  not  have  to  direct  one’s  behavioral  choices. Mindfulness  techniques  do  not  alter  the  content of  athletes’  internal  experiences  at  all.  Instead, they  alter  the  relationship  athletes  have  to  their internal  experiences.  So,  mindfulness  does  not attempt to change the frequency of thoughts and emotions, the type of thoughts and emotions, or the  intensity  of  thoughts  and  emotions  in  order to  promote  optimal  performance  but  instead advocates  that  athletes  can  function  optimally while having these experiences. This leads to both on and  off-field  behaviors  that  promote  more functional athletic performance, from disciplined practice   behaviors   to   committed   competitive behaviors.

Mindfulness practices include various exercises that can range in length from 5 to 45 minutes and often  involve  sitting  in  place  and  allowing  attention  to  move  from  aspects  of  one’s  body  (e.g., breathing,  parts  of  the  anatomy)  to  the  various thoughts, sensations, and emotions that naturally come  and  go.  Ultimately,  mindfulness  practices create  a  climate  within  which  athletes  become aware  of  their  cognitive,  emotional,  and  physiological states; accept and allow for the presence of  these  internal  experiences;  maintain  focus  on task-relevant  stimuli  and  contingencies;  develop the  capacity  to  self-regulate  attention  as  desired (i.e., direct attention as needed to perform better); and  embrace  behaviors  that  are  consistent  with their goals.

References:

  1. Aherne, C., & Moran, A. P. (2011). The effect of mindfulness training on athletes’ flow: An initial investigation. The Sport Psychologist, 25, 177–189.
  2. Gardner, F. L., & Moore, Z. E. (2007). The psychology of enhancing human performance: The mindfulness-acceptance-commitment (MAC) approach. New York: Springer.
  3. Kabat-Zinn, J. (2005). Coming to our senses: Healing ourselves and the world through mindfulness. New York: Hyperion.
  4. Moore, Z. E. (2009). Theoretical and empirical developments of the mindfulness-acceptancecommitment (MAC) approach to performance enhancement. Journal of Clinical Sport Psychology, 3,291–302.

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