Lately, several of my clients have been successfully using mindfulness techniques to traverse some of the adverse situations they have encountered. Most notably, an athlete who travelled all the way to Europe for their last chance to compete in the World University Games. While at the location for the event and only a few days before it was set to start, they found out that the games were cancelled due to Covid concerns. When talking about the situation afterwards together, the athlete commented that there was a brief moment of disappointment, then quickly a realization that they had no control over the situation, followed by a release of disappointing and negative thoughts and emotions and a move towards actions to salvage the trip and make the best of it. They ended up competing in a local event before traveling back home and came back with a feeling of pride about the way the situation was dealt with (along side feelings of disappointment about the missed opportunity). This example really emphasizes some of the possibilities that a mindfulness approach to mental training can have.
Up until about a year ago, I was not very well versed in the world of mindfulness, let alone in its effectiveness in high performance environments. However, after a recommendation from a colleague, I started researching the topic more and more and found that it aligned almost perfectly with my beliefs about topics such as mental training, performance and dealing with pressure. I am aware that mindfulness can have a reputation of being soft, and therefore some people believe it might not be well suited for high performance environments but their is mounting evidence (in experimental studies, case studies and professional experiences) that it is indeed a more than viable approach to unlocking peak performance in athletes. In this blog, I hope to explain what mindfulness for athletes is and why I believe in it.
What is mindfulness for performance?
To describe how mindfulness in sport differs from a more 'traditional'* approach it is best to use a metaphor. Imagine mental performance as a running track with several lanes and the goal is to run 100m as fast as possible. However, sometimes there are hurdles on the track. These hurdles represent mental obstacles that an athlete might face along their way during competitions. For instance, feeling nervous before or during a race, having doubts about one's abilities or only thinking about the outcome not the process. A traditional approach to mental training would say: "lane 4 is the fastest lane, so let's prepare to remove any hurdle from that lane", in other words, try to achieve a perfect mental state in which no mental obstacles exist and optimal performance can be realized. In short, it tries to control the situation and the athlete's mind. This is great when it works, but when the mental state isn't perfect, the athlete might lose time trying to get over a hurdle or in the worst case, hits it while trying to get over and falls, completely disrupting their performance. On top of that, sometimes it is almost impossible to foresee all hurdles before the race starts which can lead to anxiety and worrying about what hurdles might pop up during the competition.
Mindfulness training approaches the same problem completely differently. It does not spent a lot of time and energy on creating a free lane but rather works on giving the athlete the ability and confidence to identify when a hurdle might come up and how to switch to a lane that doesn't have a hurdle on it (for instance, switch from lane 4 to lane 2 in the picture above). This approach can achieve two different things. First, the athlete learns to become resilient through adaptability, allowing them to deal with any situation, even unforeseen ones, while performing at their highest level. Second, it removes anxiety before the race about, if, when and where any hurdles might appear since the athlete feels confident that they can deal with them no matter what. In other words, mindfulness can give athletes control over their mental performance by giving up control over a situation and allow them to be confident, mentally though and resilient through being flexible, adaptable and courageous. I truly believe that this approach can unlock new levels of performance from athletes while at the simultaneously reduce stress, anxiety and worrying.
How do you train mindfulness for sport?
The example above shows how mindfulness approaches teach athletes to deal with obstacles and optimize performance. In order to master this, mindfulness training focuses on its core principles of recognizing, releasing and refocus. In essence, to achieve a mindful mindset, an athlete learns to be aware of negative and distracting thoughts and emotions, how to release those through accepting and defusing them and finally how to refocus on the task at hand using personal values and game plans. Working directly with a Mental Training Consultant will help athletes understand the idea behind each step, how to practice them as well as how to apply them in a competition environment. The development of these skills is highly personal and focuses on discussing personal experiences, using metaphors and stories. It helps athletes understand how their brain functions and what they can do to enhance those functions. In my experience, athletes who start working on mindfulness techniques get as much satisfaction from achieving better performances as starting to understand how they interact with their own brain and minds.
If you are interested in learning how to use mindfulness to unlock your potential, click here to set up a free consultation call and find out what JWK Mental Performance can do for you.
*I use the inverted commas since mindfulness is based on ancient eastern philosophy so you could argue that it is more traditional that western approaches
About JWK Mental Performance Training
Mental Performance Consultant
Founder & Owner JWK Mental Performance Training
Growing up in the Netherlands, I became interested in mental training through my own observations as a soccer athlete. I witnessed over and over how teams with less talent would beat more talented ones simply because their minds operated more effectively.
Since then, I have made it my objective to use science-based techniques to unlock that in every team and athlete I work with.
Over the years, I have been involved, either as a mental performance consultant or as a coach, with numerous high-performance teams and individuals such as professional athletes, university and collegiate varsity sports teams, national level individual athletes and provincial level youth teams. These experiences have given me the ability identify and improve mental performance on both an individual and team level. I especially focus on creating and nurturing effective performance environment that provide athletes with the optimal conditions to thrive.