Mindfulness & Sport: a new approach for athletes and coaches

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I don’t think about the miles that are coming down the road, I don’t think about the mile I’m on right now, I don’t think about the miles I’ve already covered. I think about what I’m doing right now, just being lost in the moment” said Ryan Hall, U.S. Olympic marathoner. These powerful words emphasize how in sport and in life it’s important to be totally present physically and mentally because mind and body are closely related to each other, as several scientific studies have shown.

A good performance requires more than just a physical exertion. There is also a psychological component that influences it, which can be expressed in attributes such as motivation, focus, determination, emotion regulation, and finally awareness.

For a long time, systematic mental training was ignored in sport. It has been over a decade since when the mindfulness and acceptance-based practice models – originally developed within clinical psychology thanks to his ideator, Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn – were first applied in the sport context in order to enhance the athletic performance and overall psychological and general well-being of competitive atlete and also for the treatment of a broad range of clinical syndromes and difficulties.

A number of psychological studies support the importance of mental preparation, according to Keith Kaufman, PhD, a Washington, DC-area sport psychology practitioner and research associate at The Catholic University of America presenting at the 125th Annual Convention of the American Psychological Association on august 2017. One involved more than 200 Canadian athletes from the 1984 Olympics who were assessed for three major readiness factors: mental, physical and technical. Of the three, only mental readiness was significantly associated with how successful they were at the Olympics.

It’s been suggested that many coaches regard sport as at least 50 percent mental when competing against opponents of similar ability. In some sports, that percentage can be as high as 80 to 90 percent mental. That’s where the concept of mindfulness can be beneficial, through a program to help athletes and coaches at all levels develop that mental edge and improve their performance.

The difference of mindfulness training approaches in comparison to traditional mental training programmes is that it largely focuses on accepting injury, pain or stress and learning to manage and move past them rather than ignore or block unpleasant experiences.

Mindfulness in sport can be achieved through training focus and concentration. They are fundamental skills that are teachable and can be learned, much like other athletic abilities. The benefits are many: raising an individual’s ability to be in the present moment, which increases emotional stability and reduces stress and anxiety; training in a group setting can provide a team with the ability to work better together.