Let’s be real, you’re probably sick of hearing about self-care and mindfulness at this point. For the past 10-months, these concepts have been driven home as important aspects of surviving in a pandemic.
With the U.S. the mindfulness industry valued at $1 billion and 50 million Americans meditating regularly, wellness has become a hot commodity. It may be easy to grow skeptical of the apps and other mindfulness programs as ineffective or just a fad.
However, dismissing mindfulness may be throwing away a huge growth opportunity for your young athletes. Daily mindfulness practice has many benefits for athletes including:
- Improved Focus & Attention
- Enhanced Resilience to Adversity
- More Poise & Relaxation
- Increased Sport Enjoyment & Motivation
- Higher Self-Awareness & Regulation
Mindfulness practices are evidenced-based performance facilitators used by some of the top athletes and coaches in the world including, Phil Jackson, Pete Carroll, Steve Kerr, Lebron James, and the U.S. Women and Men’s National Soccer teams. Mindfulness approaches have entered the mainstream of elite sports performance techniques, so why haven’t high school and college athletes caught on yet?
The Mental Training Paradox
There are a number of reasons why these tools and techniques have not trickled down to high school and college sports. Among those are perceived lack of time, a knowledge gap about the importance of mental training, and distrust of the unknown. These three factors together have been referred to as The Mental Training Paradox by Drs. Keith Kaufman, Tim Pineau, and Carol Glass with the Mindful Sport Performance Enhancement Institute in Washington, DC. The Mental Training Paradox points out that many know of the benefits of mental training, but few actually engage in structured mental training programs or practices.
Athletes spend a lot of time on sports. Therefore, it makes sense to face hesitation from coaches, parents, and athletes when someone suggests adding more time into the already packed schedules.
However, many of the mindfulness practices can be implemented during sports practice. Often mindfulness practices require only short amounts of time, as little as 10-15 minutes, each day to begin showing benefits. The main hurdle is making time to introduce these concepts to athletes.
Would you, and your athlete, give a few hours of their time now to protect the next 4-8 years of their time investment in their sport?
These are the three steps to practice and implement mindfulness in sports:
- Introduction to mindfulness skills (< 9 hrs)
- Daily structured mindfulness practice (10-15’)
- Integrate skills into daily life and training.
For many, this is a reasonable time sacrifice, especially considering the proven benefits of a mindfulness practice for athletes, such as reduction of vulnerability to injuries.
Another substantial hurdle in the incorporation of mental training is the knowledge gap amongst coaches in the discipline of mental performance and sport psychology. For example, many coaches will ask athletes to focus or pay attention, without equipping those athletes with tools to train their focus and attention. This could originate from the false belief that if someone isn’t focusing it just means they aren’t trying hard, or it could come from the fact that some coaches have not embraced mental performance practices.
In order for mindfulness practices to be incorporated in athletes’ sport and life, coach knowledge and buy in has to be high. It is important when athletes are learning mindfulness practices, coaches (and parents) should be on the same page and understand what the athletes are doing and why they are doing it.
The last barrier to increasing the popularity of mental training is simply the distrust of the unknown. For example, coaches have to give a huge amount of trust to a mental performance coach when they let them work with their athletes. This trust is why it is so important for mental performance coaches to start with building a relationship and then move onto mental training. Relationships are the backbone of coaching, especially when discussing matters of the mind.
Starting with Mindfulness Practice
Starting a mindfulness practice with your athletes can be a challenging task in the beginning, especially with meditative practices. However, this does not mean that it is completely inaccessible. Here are a few tips to work in mindfulness with your young athletes:
Start with the Why. When trying to change any type of behavior, the most important step is to explain “the why” behind the change. Mental training and mindfulness are just as, if not more, challenging than the physical aspects of training. Convincing athletes to commit to this work requires some background as to why it is important in the first place. Understanding your athlete and the pain points in their sports is the first part to effectively communicating why they should consider trying mindfulness. For example, if your approach involves citing the mindfulness research, but all your athlete cares about is getting more playing time, then “the why” you’re using will not be convincing. We need to meet athletes where they are by relating mindfulness to the things they care about.
Create a Ritual. Creating a special time and place each day to train mindfulness skills is important for building a habit. One of the ways to keep mindfulness practice consistent is to involve the entire family. Mindfulness can positively influence the lives of everyone in the household. A good example of a mindfulness ritual would be right before or after dinner, or perhaps for five minutes before children attend school. These moments will help reinforce the mental performance work that your athlete is doing and include the whole family.
Make it Personal. It’s paramount for athletes in building their mindfulness practice that they make it personal. As mentioned before, athletes need to know why they are committing to the practice, and they also need to know exactly how it applies to their game. For instance, an athlete will be much more committed to the practice if she knows it will help her manage her emotions better during tough games or stay more focused under pressure situations. One effective way for athletes to make it personal is to create their own language around mindfulness. Sometimes athletes will have meaningful phrases or mantras they create to remind themselves to stay present in uncomfortable moments. A phrase as simple as, “Do the Work” can be the difference between an effective response versus an ineffective reaction during an important game.
Work with a Professional. Mindfulness is a simple practice that has been, ironically, complicated by its newfound popularity. Typically conflated with visualization, clearing your mind, relaxation, imagery, and other mental skills, mindfulness is being lumped into categories and techniques that are, in fact, pretty different. Working with an experienced professional is key. Although mobile apps can be helpful, the personal element a professional can provide will make your investment as well as your athlete’s enjoyment of the practice go so much further.
Long Term Benefits of Mindfulness Practice
The benefits of mindfulness do not stop on the field. Mindfulness is a highly researched wellness practice and is continuing to re-write everything western medicine has known about health. Recent research has shown:
- Mindfulness practice is associated with lower levels of psychological distress including less anxiety, depression, anger, and worry.
- Mindfulness can cultivate greater emotional awareness, understanding, acceptance, and the ability to correct and repair unpleasant moods.
- Mindfulness training has led to improvements in ADHD symptoms and tests measuring attention.
Sports can be a catalyst for athletes adopting a lifelong mental wellness practice. Chad McGehee, Director of Meditation Training for The University of Wisconsin Athletics Department recently said on the Mindful Sport Performance Podcast that during the pandemic, many athletes have had the opportunity to explore mental training practices like mindfulness in lower risk environments.
Chad explains that some athletes are hesitant to try new mental strategies in their sport but trying them outside of sports reduced their hesitation substantially. In this way, athletes were able to find value from mindfulness practices in things like sleeping, recovery, test taking, and stress reduction. These low-risk introductions to mindfulness were what athletes needed to bring mindfulness practice into their sports performance.
Parents, coaches, and athletes alike tout the benefits of sports for teaching life skills. Leadership, goal setting, grit, motivation, and confidence are just a few of the abundance of skills many cite. However, how many of these things may protect against depression, anxiety, and stress? Mindfulness is a holistic solution to bring well-being into your athlete’s life, not only in performance, but in their long-term development.
Taylor Brown, M.S., CPC, is a mindfulness, mental performance, and leadership coach in Austin, TX. He was also a D1 and elite athlete, and rowing coach. He is the Founder and Director of High Performance for Enduromind Mental Performance Consulting, and works with high school, college, and elite athletes around the country. Reach out at firstname.lastname@example.org or at Enduromind.com.