Research shows that Mindfulness will increase sporting performance. For example, in one trial, mindfulness training enabled basketball players to achieve a 5% improvement in their shooting accuracy – it is on such fine margins that games are won and lost.
In this post I want to think about how mindfulness can help us all to be successful in our personal lives, our work or in our sport. I am going to focus on sport because work is boring and personal lives are diverse. But as you will see that the same issues come into play.
The recent English Premier League soccer season finished with a flurry of matches. What struck me is how often a losing coach stands before the media and says “We’ll take the positives and we move on”. Of course he (…not many shes) is not going openly discuss his true feelings… and taking the positives from defeat is good – so too is learning the lessons that must be addressed in the future. But what does “we move on” mean? Well, we have often seen teams play badly, or individuals lose concentration or make mistakes at key moment, only for these problems to be repeated in a “downward spiral of form”… so I expect that the coach means that he wants the players to feel positive going into the next game… rather than haunted …or even terrified that they will repeat their mistakes over and over.
Yet sportsmen and women spend a lot of time on fitness and technique – but do they spend enough time on gaining the mental skills that will enable them to focus upon their immediate challenges… and to be able to set aside both previous failures and also the way that today’s performance might impact up on their futures?
Now, research has shown that athletes need to avoid anxiety and low self-confidence – and they must believe in, and even envision, themselves performing well and achieving victory. That’s the power of positive thinking. Yet a string of recent poor performances can be carried from event to event. Similarly, a soccer player who has made a mistake in the fifth minute may be wary of repeating such a mistake for the rest of the game. So, it is essential that players are not distracted by the events of the past (including the very recent past) and not be distracted by thoughts of the future (good or bad). The key is to be able to focus on the current moment without these distractions. This is where mindfulness comes in. Athletes need to give their full attention to their current situation.
The relationship between mindfulness and sporting performance is demonstrated in this conference paper: “Effects of Mindfulness on Sport, Exercise and Physical Activity: A Systematic Review.” Rivera et al, International Conference on Physical Education and Sport Science, Paris, Volume: 77, 06/2011. Here.
This review looked at a number of research trials to demonstrate both ability of mindfulness to increase the “flow state” of athletes and also to increase sporting performance. (I say more about “flow“ below).
So how does mindfulness cause such improvements in sports performance?
Well, a number of papers have been successful in demonstrating correlations between mindfulness and secondary attributes that are shown to improve sport performance. For example, a paper from 2017 (“Mindfulness Mechanisms in Sports: Mediating Effects of Rumination and Emotion Regulation on Sport-Specific Coping” by Josefsson et all Mindfulness volume 8, 2017) showed that increased mindfulness reduces “rumination” and boosts “emotional regulation” leading to an improvement in an athlete’s “Athletic coping skills inventory” (a set of traits which are shown to improve both training and performance). Here.
The Athletic Coping Skills Inventory (Smith et al. 1995) is a 28-item scale and consists of seven subscales (coping with adversity, coachability, concentration, confidence and achievement motivation, goal setting and mental preparation, peaking under pressure, freedom from worry).
It is worth noting that “rumination” is described as “highly self-focussed, repetitive and unstoppable negative thoughts”. It seems reasonable that rumination, and a lower ability to deal with emotional reactions that may arise, will lead to distraction and a loss of self-belief both in training and in competition. (“Emotional regulation” refers to the capacity to manage negative and/or challenging emotions.)
I am impressed by the work in this French paper “Mindfulness and Acceptance Approaches in Sport Performance” from the Journal of Clinical Sport Psychology, Human Kinetics, 2009, 3 (4). It explores the impact of mindfulness on elite performers in the fields of swimming and golf. Here.
The first investigation within the paper looks at the ability of the athletes to achieve “flow” – a state of absorption and focus on the current moment as they prepare for, and execute, their swimming races. I have written about flow before. (Here https://rezl.com/2019/12/11/the-happiness-of-flow/) Flow is a state of engagement and heightened awareness while participating is some activity. According to Jackson and Roberts (1992), the state of flow in sport represents the psychological state underlying peak performance, which is characterized by the level of accomplishment.
The research showed that all of the elite swimmers were experiencing five of the characteristics of flow:
- the autotelic conceptual dimension (e.g., “I felt really happy, and I just wanted to go!”)
- total concentration (e.g., “I was focused on what I was going to achieve, on what I was going to do”)
- challenge-skills balance (e.g., “I was confident about what I did before, and I knew that I could do better in the final”)
- sense of total control (e.g., “I had the sensation of being in control of what I did, so everything seemed easier! I was the one who was totally in charge of what I did, and nobody could change that!”)
- unambiguous feedback (e.g., “At this time I knew I swam very well. I had very good bodily sensations and my technique was smooth”) were present in 8 of the 10 accounts of optimal experiences.
Four conceptual dimensions were less common in the interviews:
- merging of action and awareness (e.g., “I didn’t control what I was doing anymore, as if all my movements had become automatic! Everything had become natural”)
- clear goals (e.g., “I knew I was there to do the time required, so I only had to fight against myself”),
- time transformation (e.g., “Indeed, I wasn’t aware of time anymore. Everything went very slowly at the beginning . . . and everything went so fast after!”),
- loss of self-consciousness (e.g., “Just before my race, I felt that I was one with everything…I felt myself in harmony with the environment”) were present in only three optimal experiences.
It appears that achieving the flow state is common within these athletes – so surely practice to both enhance the ability to enter into a flow state and also to remain there might be helpful to any aspiring athlete. In my previous post I explained how Mindfulness Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT) can be key here.
The second investigation used an MBCT intervention. A set of twenty elite golfers were divided into an “intervention group” and a “control group”. The intervention group was guided though an MBCT foundation course. The researchers then worked regularly with the golfers (both the intervention group and the control group) to assess their performances over a season.
The results were impressive: the golfers in the intervention group all enhanced their national ranking, while only two golfers in the control group did so. Wow!
The intervention participants demonstrated a number of advantages and improvements.
- the mindfulness and acceptance training allowed them to more effectively begin each round (“quickly settling into the swing of things!”)… producing enhanced his performance on the early holes.
- Believing themselves, more aware and lucid in their approach to golf.
- perceived that they significantly enhanced their performance in competition.
- It seems that a key was in focus and decision making – choice of club or choice of shot as well as in quality of execution
- Statistical analyses showed that the golfers improved their “activation”, which has been defined as, “the process by which individuals heighten their physiological and mental states in situations where they need to increase their energy, motivation, or focus”
So, it seems that the mindful golfers were able to settle into their game quicker and to focus without being distracted by previous holes, shots or of the consequences of their game… and thereby make better decisions, avoid mistakes and to execute shots more consistently.
It is interesting to consider how the MBCT based intervention differs from more popular sports psychology which teaches athletes how to address, or alter, their negative thoughts (or cognitions, sensations, and emotions). The mindfulness intervention here, sought to teach the golfers how to perform while experiencing any unpleasant or distracting thoughts. i.e. to playing golf in spite of unhelpful thoughts and to be able to commit to each shot by focusing on the relevant issues. I expect that some athletes would prefer one approach while others might prefer another. However, MBCT may offer the enhanced possibility of attaining and remaining in a flow state as well as other “executive function” advantage as such a focus and detachment form distractions and emotions. I was surprised to find that the statistical evidence that conventional sports psychology helps to boost sports performance is a bit thin!
Let me circle around and back to soccer. I recall England centre back Rio Ferdinand saying that England players were unable to play with abandon due to being wary of making any mistakes… and worrying about how such mistakes would be reported by newspapers. And this was during games! The thoughts of previous performance (good or bad) – are clearly going to be a distraction that all athletes can do without, and similarly, thoughts of the future and of the consequences of their performance are also a distraction. Athletes need to give their current situation their full attention: to avoid errors, to make the right decisions and to relax into their automated performance.
Many Premier League footballers earn £50,0000 to £100,000 per week or more – surely their employers do not want them to be distracted at work! It looks like an MBCT intervention might be well worth a few minutes per day.
So working on your mindfulness really will enable you to get into your flow state quicker, reduce rumination and improve emotional regulation… so that your “Athletic coping skills inventory” is raised leading to enhanced performance.
Finally, in this post, sport can be regarded as a metaphor for whatever activity you like. At home or at work we are happier when in a flow state. And we will be more effective if we are able to eliminate errors, make correct decisions (even when under pressure) and to perform to our best. So, try an MBCT intervention to boost your flow… and to focus on the current situation without distractions from the past or the future.