Strengthen Your Mindfulness Muscle

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The race was going great until I smashed the final hurdle. In an instant, my focus went from the finish line ahead to the clatter of the downed obstacle, the gasp of the crowd, and my stumbling effort to right myself as the other racers sailed by. A moment prior, looking past the hurdle had shifted my focus only a few seconds into the future. But itwas distraction enough to pull my awareness away from the here and now; away from the cadence I needed to clear that one… last… hurdle. By briefly and unwittingly shifting attention away from the present moment, I had ripped defeat from the jaws of victory.

Enter Mindfulness.

Once again, hindsight proves 20/20. My collegiate competition days now behind me,I have since learned quite a bit about the value of something called “mindfulness”in sport and many other contexts. There are various definitions of mindfulness, but Iparticularly like Ronald Siegel’s description of it as “awareness of the present momentwith acceptance.” It fits well with what athletes have to say about being in “flow,” andfostering “peak experience.”

Mindfulness practices have proven to be very effective for coping with anxiety, reducing depression, increasing happiness, and even managing addictive behaviors. But what dothey have to do with sport performance? Well, in my experience with many athletes frommany sports, mindfulness can help improve focus, make performance more consistent,reduce distraction, and even help athletes attain more enjoyment of their event. Often, these are the very factors that mean the difference between success and failure on thefield or court.

Strengthening your mindfulness “muscle”

Mindfulness practices are many and varied. I like to think of them as a family of skills. As an athlete, you know that honing a skill requires practice, and lots of it. You alsoknow that having a coach (or in the case of mindfulness, a sport psychology consultant)goes a long way toward learning skills better and faster. Nothing can replace disciplined, intentional practice with the help of an expert, but here are a few tips for setting you on a good track toward more mindful (and effective) sport performance:

Learn focused breathing. It may seem strange to think of breathing as a skill that needsto be learned; after all, we do it all the time without giving it a second thought. But mindful breathing involves directing attention to what is going on with the breath: the place where the breath enters and exits the body, the rising and falling of the abdominal wall, movement of the breath inward and outward, and even the sound of the moving air. Learning this skill opens the door to other aspects of being fully in the moment, and thereby fully focused on the task at hand.

Let your training be a venue for becoming more aware. Take periodic opportunities during practice (perhaps using a timer) to stop and ask yourself where your attention is focused. Are you immersed in the activity, or is your mind wandering off to what you’ll be having for dinner, who you’re going to call that night, etc.? If you do find your mind wandering, don’t be harsh with yourself about it! Instead, realize that’s what minds willdo, then patiently bring your awareness back to some focal point you’ve chosen. For instance, a movement, a visual cue, or a word you associate with fluid performance.

Make space for mindfulness in your warm-up routine. Pre-competition stretching provides a great opportunity for focused breathing. Not only will this get your mind centered on the present moment, but it will also help you get more out of your stretch.Many athletes actually experience more anxiety before competition than during.Incorporating mindfulness into the warm-up often helps to reduce these jitters. But it’simportant to remember that the “goal” is not to reduce performance anxiety; it’s simply to be aware. Athletes find that when they focus on fostering awareness, the rest often takes care of itself.

Allow for mindful awareness during competition, but don’t force it. As the great athletesknow, unlocking your full potential means letting things flow. Cultivating mindfulness is much like what a basketball player does in shooting 100 free throws a day in practice.The shots don’t count for any points during practice, but when game time comes,shooting is much more automatic. If you wait till game time to try to use mindfulness,your success rate will probably be about like the free throw percentage of a hoops player who never practices free throws.

The tip of the iceberg

These ideas can get you started on a path to strengthening awareness, fostering focus,and thereby improving overall sport performance. But like the proverbial iceberg, there’s a lot more under the surface! Through reading, practicing, and working with asport psychology consultant, you can take your application of mindfulness to deeperand deeper levels. Below are some reading materials that cover different angles onmindfulness within and outside of sports. Read, learn, and keep a list of questions abouthow to apply these concepts to your own experience in sports. Then contact a sport psychologist to personalize your mindfulness plan and take it to the next level!

Mindfulness-related readings:

Sacred Hoops by Phil Jackson
Way of the Peaceful Warrior by Dan Millman
The Mindfulness Solution by Ronald Siegel, Psy.D.

Luke Patrick, Ph.D. is a sport psychologist who lives in Portland, Oregon. He works in a group private practice is in Beaverton, Oregon. For more information, check out his page at

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