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The Mindful Athlete

What is mindfulness?

Jon Kabat-Zinn puts it quite simply: "Mindfulness means paying attention in a particular way, on purpose, in the present moment, nonjudgementally, as if your life depended on it". But what is it's connection to sports and performance?

intrinsically pleasurable for us.There are moments in life, as well as in sports where every action seems to flawlessly follow another, without any thought put into it, where self-consciousness slips away and the ego dissipates. Your awareness merges with what you are doing at that very moment and time seems to either slow down or speed up, and every action, every movement is made purposefully yet with a hint of not caring. This is called being in a state of flow. It happens when our skills are perfectly aligned with the challenge at hand and we are in tune with the present moment. This is what mindfulness practise helps accomplish. Realizing the mind body connection is crucial for jaw-dropping, mesmerizing performances in sports as well as having a healthy and fufilling life. It is a state in which we do things just for the sake of doing them because they are

“You must be shapeless, formless, like water. When you pour water in a cup, it becomes the cup. When you pour water in a bottle, it becomes the bottle. When you pour water in a teapot, it becomes the teapot. Water can drip and it can crash. Become like water my friend.” - Bruce Lee

A study done with highly skilled golfers in a competitive putting task showed that the golfers who performed better on the putting task experienced less cognitive activity, (by scanning their brains they witnessed left hemispheric alpha acitivity) or in other words they thought less, than those who performed more poorly. The golfers who did more poorly where the ones who talked to themselves too much and experienced a certain paralysis by analysis. It seems that we perform at our best when we don't think too much about how were doing, but rather just do. There more we think about how were doing, the worse we perform.

Similar results have been shown in a study looking at academic test performance. Those with self doubt and an attentional focus on task-irrelevant cues (such as if they will pass the exam, or too much internal dialogue focused on how hard the exam is) during the exam perform most poorly. Again, thinking too much made it hard to focus on the task at hand!

Tom Cruise gets a lesson on having "no mind"

The Pink Elephant Dilemma

If I tell you don't think of a pink elephant right now, what do you think happens? You think of a pink elephant. The same thing applies to having a good performance. If we don't give the brain something to think about, it usually ends up focusing on something negative by default. The key is to bring your attention to what you are doing, and this is where mindfulness practise can help us. In mindfulness, that focus is usually on the breath as it is always in the present moment.

When you quiet the mind and give it one thing to focus on, you quiet your body. When you quiet your body, you quiet your mind. When the mind and body are quiet, there is synergy that feeds pure performance.

Try this exercise:

Concentrate on your breath for 1 minute. See how many times your mind wanders.

Not so easy is it? Seems like we have a monkey up in there jumping up and down all the time!

With practise we can train the mind to not wander so much, and bring it back to the present moment. The mind wanders, we bring it back. The mind wanders, we bring it back again. With time we are better able to sustain our attention on what needs to be done, and enter a state of flow.

With all the time we spend training our bodies, we sometimes neglect to strengthen the mental muscle. Mindfulness helps train the prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain that creates a calm and alert state of mind, which helps us stay focused, avoid distraction and perform at our best. It’s one of the best ways to calm the stress response in the brain. This allows us to notice our thoughts and emotions without getting attached to them.

Here are some tips on how to become a mindful athlete:

1. Mindful Breathing

Take a few minutes out of your day, whatever time works for you, either in the morning or afternoon, or before you engage in an athletic event or exercise to pay attention to your breath. Sit comfortably, close your eyes, and start to deepen your breath. Inhale fully and exhale completely. Focus on your breath entering and exiting your body. If it helps you, count your breaths with each inhale and exhale. Work your way up to 10 and then bring it back to 1. If you get lost in thought, that is ok, just bring it back to the beginning. Start with five minutes and you can build up from there.

2. Body Scan

Practice a body scan to help release tension, quiet the mind, and bring awareness to your body in a systematic way. Lie down on your back with your palms facing up and legs relaxed. Close your eyes. Start with your toes and notice how they feel. Are they tense? Are they warm or cold? Focus your attention here for a few breaths before moving on to the sole of your foot. Repeat the process as you travel from your foot to your ankle, calf, knee and thigh. Bring your attention to your right foot and repeat the process. Continue to move up your hips, lower back, stomach, chest, shoulders, arms, hands, neck and head — maintaining your focus on each body part and any sensations there. Breathe into any areas that are holding stress and try to release it. As you engage in this practice regularly, you will become more highly attuned to what’s happening in your body. You can spend a 10 minutes or longer doing a body scan. Some great guided body scans are also available on youtube.

3. Internal and External Messages

Pay attention to your internal dialogue throughout the day. Our thoughts are not necessarily reality, but they can easily shape our mental state if we see them as absolute truths. Things like, “I can’t run that far,” or “I hope I don’t miss the goal,” are things that are pushing us away from our ideal state. Notice your thoughts and emotions, but don’t judge them or become attached to them. Just notice the thoughts for what they are, simply thoughts that come and go. The less weight we put onto these thoughts the less baggage we carry which distracts us from the present moment.

“Life is available only in the present moment" - Thich Nhat Hanh


Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1990). The psychology of optimal experience. Harper Collins: New York.

Gardner, F.L., & Moore, Z.E. (2007). The psychology of enhancing human performance: The Mindfulness-Acceptance-Commitment (MAC) approach. New York: Springer Publishing.

Kabat-Zinn, J. (2005). Coming to our senses: Healing ourselves and the world through mindfulness. New York: Hyperion.

Wegner, D.M., Ansfield, M. E., & Pilloff, D. (1998). The putt and the pendulum: Ironic effects of the mental control of action. Psychological Science, 9, 196-199.

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