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