You are in a crucial time in the game and notice your nerves are taking over. You are having a hard time focusing on the game because you are more preoccupied with making a mistake and losing instead of staying present and in the moment. Because of your tense body, you aren’t able to execute the skill as gracefully as you know how. So how do we battle this? Through the power of mindfulness. Practicing mindfulness outside of the game, incorporating it in your pre-performance routine, or even using it as a way to reflect on your performance after the game are some of the many benefits of practicing mindfulness with your sport.
Practicing mindfulness puts the focus on not what you are doing but how you are doing it. It is a way to have an experience with acceptance and non-judgment. By practicing mindfulness, we are creating space for our emotions instead of avoiding or suppressing them, which then would inevitably return with a vengeance. We can learn to change our perspective of emotions by not labeling them as “good or bad” but by viewing the emotion as telling us information.
So how do we practice mindfulness? A classic way is through deep breathing. As we direct our attention to our breath, we are not giving our unwanted thoughts as much power. We remind ourselves that we are inhaling and might visualize what that inhale looks like in our body, and then exhaling, focusing on how our body is feeling. It is important to try to incorporate all the senses with mindfulness. Focusing on how your body is feeling, the clothes on your skin, the smell in the air, the temperature you feel. We are not trying to completely clear our mind with mindfulness, just simply redirecting it. If we notice an unwanted thought, we acknowledge it as a reminder to redirect our focus to our senses.
A great way to put this into play is really giving your five senses a chance to enjoy that first cup of coffee in the morning, or by appreciating the sun hitting your face, or by examining the beauties of nature. By practicing mindfulness with simple activities such as these while deep breathing, we are producing a full mind-body experience, staying present in the moment. It is strengthening our holistic connection as we may begin to pay attention to where in our body is tense so we focus on releasing tension.
Seeing our emotions for what they are, as information telling us something about ourselves, we are creating space for them, not avoiding or suppressing them. We may feel a sense of clarity and confidence in our mind and thoughts after taking a step-back and focusing on the present moment. We realize that we have control in the current moment and direct our energy towards that.
So how can practicing mindfulness make you a better athlete? We begin to be more in tuned with our body, noticing our tense spots and working towards finding ways to release that tension. Any athlete understands the point of stretching before a game or practice-it’s to get loose. Mindfulness is a way to get loose because we are more intentional with what we are loosening up.
So now you are in the final minutes of a big game and notice the nerves creeping in which inevitably creates that muscle tension. You remember the benefits of your mindfulness practice and focus a couple of seconds on your breathing, recentering your actions. Your mind is now calmer to make proper decisions and the body is less tense making it easier to execute your skill. You remember the importance of redirecting your focus away from non-beneficial thoughts, as you redirect your focus to the play happening right in front of you. You have a stronger connection with your body, creating an increased confidence to trust yourself and your skill to perform.
Practicing mindfulness could help you reach your optimal performance level. After all, sports are arguably 20% physical and 80% mental, so let’s strengthen that brain!
Christina Schrader is a Licensed Clinical Professional Counselor (LCPC) who has an individualized approach to therapy and a special interest in sports injury and identity, athletic retirement and transitions, mental performance, and LGBTQIA+ and is an advocate and ally for all communities.