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Mindfulness For Athletes
What is mindfulness?
Mindfulness is generally described as the state of mind that comes from paying attention on purpose, in the present moment, non-judgmentally.
The practice of mindfulness involves paying attention to external events (what's happening around us) and internal experiences (thoughts, feelings), as they occur, without labelling them as good or bad and without trying to change or eliminate them.
The purpose of mindfulness is not to stop the mind from thinking. It's to be aware of the impermanent nature of thoughts so we don't get attached to any momentary mental storyline. By stepping back to observe our immediate attitude, we create space to think, speak, and act in line with our values.
"It is not the presence or absence of negative thoughts, physiological arousal, or emotions such as anxiety or anger that predicts performance outcomes; rather, it is the degree to which an individual performer can accept these experiences and remain attentionally and behaviourally engaged in the performance task."
Gardner & Moore (2007), p. 16
What is meditation?
Meditation is a formal practice of a particular state of mind, such as mindfulness, to train attention and awareness. There are three common types of mindfulness meditation, all of which can be practiced on their own or in combination with one another:
a) Focused attention meditation, where attention is concentrated on a chosen object or event, like the sensation of breathing, passing sounds or awareness itself.
b) Open monitoring meditation, where attention remains open to whatever arises in the immediate experience, including thoughts, feelings, and sensations.
c) Loving kindness meditation, where attention is focused on developing love and compassion for oneself and others.
Meditation and the brain
Meditation can influence functional and structural changes in the brain.
It has been shown to cause a reduction in amygdala activation (part of the brain responsible for processing emotion and fear) in response to emotional stimuli, and an increase in hippocampus (memory) and prefrontal activation (attention and self-control).
Research also suggests people who have meditated for years, compared to non-meditators, have larger cortical folding in the insula, a part of the brain involved in emotional processing, self-awareness, and decision-making.
Additionally, mindfulness meditation is associated with increased alpha and theta brain oscillations, strongly indicating its positive effects on relaxation and mental health.
Meditation for performance
Those who regularly meditate can reap a number of health and performance benefits. Meditation has been shown to improve psychological symptoms of stress, including anxiety and depression, and improve sleep quality and pain threshold.
Meditators are also more likely to experience flow states, and use attentional control, emotional control, goal-setting, and self-talk strategies during performance.
Learning to observe thoughts and feelings, rather than get caught up in them - a mindfulness skill called defusion (i.e., not being fused to thoughts and feelings) - is key for sustaining attention and reducing distraction during performance.
The skills of defusion and acceptance, practiced in meditation, are theorized to help train the mind for performance in 3 major ways:
1. They help us detect emerging thoughts and feelings that could disrupt performance (e.g., worry, fear).
2. They help us tolerate and manage unpleasant thoughts and feelings.
3. They help us stay focused and let go of internal and external distractions.
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