Mindfulness for Top Athletes… and Me?

Mindfulness is good enough for top athletes so is it good enough for me? Our guest authors Kurt Dunkel and Stuart Singer from Wellperformance, share their expertise on this topic.

Kurt was a two NCAA All American in the javelin; finishing 2nd at the NCAA Championships twice. He also earned a Masters Degree in College Counseling from Shippensburg University (PA) and has worked in various capacities in higher education. He has worked extensively with collegiate athletes for 14 years in his role as a coach and has also worked in a university counseling center, in private practice, and currently is the Coordinator of Student Athlete Support at his Alma Mater, Shippensburg University. Kurt has a special interest in working with student athletes to reach their goals through a greater understanding of the mental aspects of performance enhancement. During his time as a coach, Kurt has helped to developed athletes who have earned 14 All American award honors as well as an NCAA National Champion.

Stuart has more than a decade of experience working on the improvement of individual and group performance. This work includes responsibility as the Assistant Director of a psychotherapy practice, director of counseling services, as a coach, and as a mental performance coach in sports psychology. Stu received his M.Ed. in Counseling, and B.A. in Public Relations and Marketing from Shippensburg University in Pennsylvania, and is currently completing his Doctorate in Sports Performance Psychology. He has coached high-school athletes in varsity soccer, basketball, track, and cross-country, and was a graduate assistant for the Women’s Cross-Country and Track teams as Shippensburg University. Stu has also developed a stress-management and performance training based on his experience and research working to improve the performance of thousands of athletes, students, and professional staff.


Understanding Why We Train

“Football is like life; it requires perseverance, self-denial, hard work, sacrifice, dedication and respect for authority.”

A central tenet that we live by when discussing skills for improving the mental side of an athlete’s performance is that the skill must make sense to the specific athlete. There is not only one correct method of approach to overcoming mental obstacles or challenges, just as there is not only one correct coaching system when training for a triathlon. In fact our goal is to work directly with the athlete in order to help uncover the right button to push that allows that individual to reach his/her potential. The following article suggests an approach for understanding why we train, why we’re willing to put ourselves through these gruelling sessions, and potentially, a new way to overcome, maybe even, embrace, the most difficult times of our training. At best we hope that the following approach speaks to you directly and provides a blueprint for improving performance, at the least we hope this suggests an alternate thought process that entices you to learn more. Enjoy…

Deny the Self, Embrace the Self, or Both?

Endurance sports are not a shoe commercial. Typically they are far from it. There is very little that is sexy about the rigors of training. Most of us aren’t really that good looking, muscular, and tan. The psycho-sexual climax that is supposed to arrive – accompanied by a crescendo of music and images – quite often does not arrive. Shoe companies have succeeded brilliantly in making the perseverance, self-denial, hard work, sacrifice, and dedication Vince Lombardi talked about very sexy. They have made it a product. Just like any other product on the market today, this product is not supposed to be looked at in very much depth.

The fact of the matter is endurance athletes know all too well the amount of motivation it takes to train and compete. Typically, an endurance athlete spends more time alone – with only themselves – than their peers. The American Heritage Dictionary defines the word Self as The total, essential, or particular being of a person; the individual. Endurance athletes spend countless hours with only their ‘self’; the same ‘self’ that we are taught, time and time again, to deny in the face of pain and struggle. Endurance athletes are often rewarded for denying the self that tells them to stop, to give up, to slow down. The mind is indeed strong and the body is often weak. Humans are capable of pushing through nearly anything and most endurance athletes have become quite adept and using endorphins and self-denial to shut off many aspects of their ‘self’.

Instead of denying the self, many endurance athletes could benefit from becoming more adept at embracing the self they deny. A practice of engaging awareness of the self which is used by many athletes (and others alike) is called mindfulness. Mindfulness would counter the conventional wisdom which says block out all the pain, find a happy place, and escape the present moment. Although escaping the self seems intriguing when the sun is beating down on you, your legs can barely function, and you barely remember your name, mindfulness would invite you back to the here and now and challenge you to be aware of the present moment.

The two most important things to be aware of – in terms of mindfulness – are that it is a practice and it is paradoxical and very counterintuitive. First, mindfulness cannot be looked at as a means to an end, a technique, gimmick, or method to escape a negative or painful experience. Instead, it is a practice with which to be engaged. In that vein it is exactly like training. Mindfulness practice is – quite simply – analogous to the practice of anything else. It is a process rather than outcome. Second, the principles of mindfulness run counter to the human urge to escape from discomfort. The philosophy behind mindfulness is that when you truly engage the present moment, most of the annoying mind chatter, assumptions, preconceived notions, unconscious associations, and negative mental patterns disappear. Jon Kabat-Zinn, the director of the Umass Medical Center’s Pain and Stress Reduction Clinic describes aversion to pain as more accurately an aversion to suffering. The brain begins to suggest to us that pain is just around the corner and we begin to worry about preventing that suffering. However, he further explains that if we truly experience that pain that you actually begin to realise that you have a range of options for dealing with physical pain, even intense pain, beyond simply being immediately overwhelmed by it. This is what being aware, or mindful, is truly all about.

You don’t have to spend much time at endurance events to see plenty of competitors who are thoroughly unaware and in a great deal of pain. There are those who use their sport as an escape from their problems and their personal demons. Using endurance sports as an escape from inner turmoil is typically only a short term solution. The focus of this article is on highlighting the difference between silencing the inner voice versus listening to the inner voice. The body has an innate wisdom – as most athletes know. Within the body lies a storehouse of answers. Mindfulness invites us to look inward at what is happening in the body in the present moment to find clarity and insight.

So what specifically can the body tell me that will help my performance and how can I do this? This is a two part question, and the response to the first part is very simply: your body will provide you with what you need to know. It may be unexpected and it may be something you didn’t realise you were even consciously thinking about. The key is to turn your ear inward and pay attention to what you experience.

Quite often, there are three things that endurance athletes do that can lead to performing at a sub-optimal level. First, the lengthy, monotonous, and gruelling nature of endurance sports creates an environment ripe for a loss of focus which becomes dominated by past and future thinking. During a competition:

  • How often have you been consumed with reliving struggles and past failures?
  • How often have you thought about whether your training adequately prepared you?
  • Did I hydrate enough?
  • Did I eat enough?
  • Will my calves cramp like they did last race?
  • How will I feel at mile 50?
  • Will I finish?
  • What will the finish be like?
  • Can I make it up that next hill?

There are literally thousands of thoughts that can occur during training or competition which are at best not useful, and at worst totally destructive. Generally, these thoughts have the same theme. Instead of being grounded in the present moment, they are either focused on the past or future. The practice of mindfulness is one that invites us to be very present in the current moment, which is the only moment we have any control over.

Second, most people – and athletes – have a tendency to have thought processes which are riddled with judgement, criticism, and negative thinking. Just as athletes can get lost in past and future thinking, they can also get lost in negative patterns of thinking.

Some sports psychologists who use a cognitive behavioral approach may tell us to counter the thoughts with the opposite thought. When you feel weak, tell yourself you are strong.

Mindfulness takes a bit of a different approach. It would recommend not judging the thought, just acknowledge it and bring the attention back to the present moment. For example, one might become lost in a pattern of thinking that arises from disappointment about the competition conditions. “I am so hot, I think this heat will dehydrate me, I never do well in humidity. Why did this heat wave have to hit and why couldn’t the organisers start the race earlier. I am so angry.”

Pretty soon, you can get lost in discriminatory and negative thinking. The practice of mindfulness invites us to simply acknowledge what is happening within our minds without judgement and return the focus to the here and now. So at the moment you catch yourself in a negative pattern, you would just acknowledge it and bring the focus back to what we would call an anchor.

The third point deals with this notion of having an anchor or a mechanism to engage with in the present moment which aids in drawing one out of discriminatory and past/future thinking patterns. As stated before, the mind has a tendency to wander and can even be self-destructive in nature. Having this anchor to draw the mind back to the here and now is very useful. It is particularly useful when this anchor can be found in the body or in physical movement. One of the most commonly used anchors for endurance athletes is the felt sensation of the movement in which they are engaging. What does the arm carriage feel like? What about the foot strike? How is the posture? All of these bring the mind back into the body. What may be the most widely used mindfulness practice is that of following the breath. The breath is critical to aerobic athletes so it is thus very useful to bring the attention away from the chatter of the mind and settle into the rhythm of the breath.

The previous three techniques have proven very useful for athletes to bring more awareness and mindfulness to their training and competitions. The following are useful suggestions which outline simple practices you can do to integrate mindful principles into your day to day life. There is a natural and obvious tendency for these habits to permeate other areas of your life such as work, and even competition. So, again, practice is the name of the game as they can and should be used in all phases of everyday life. In fact, in order to be able to use mindfulness in the most difficult moments of a race or training it is essential that you’ve practised at other moments as well:

1. Turn the ear inward.

Day to day life demands constant focus and attention outward. This outwardly focused attention is highly developed in most of us. Turning the ear inward means exactly that; shifting the part of you that can listen and be mindful internally rather than externally.

2. Create quiet time.

Most of us are busy people. Jobs, family, training, hobbies, pets, electronics, travel, and a myriad of other things stimulate us and busy us to no end. One should be purposeful about creating a routine, a ritual of quiet time. Set aside time and eliminate all distractions. Relax the central nervous system and hit the reset button. Give quiet time the same importance you do training time. Or better yet, think about how you can create quiet time during busy time. Essentially, with quiet time you are training as well; training the mind and body to have a more open relationship.

3. Silence the mind chatter.

How many thoughts, feelings, and reactions do you have in a minute, hour, and day? How many images are you bombarded with in an average day? What chatter goes through your mind when you should be focused on something else or even when you don’t have to be focused on anything? Listening inward to the body while the mind is chattering away is like trying to have a meaningful conversation at a dance club.

4. No expectations.

This is #4 but it is truly rule #1. If you have expectations about what you will ‘accomplish’ from turning your attention inward, chances are you will not gain any new insights because having expectations means that you are relying on your conscious mind rather than focusing on what arises from the body.

5. Turn your attention to the core.

Listening to the gut and trusting your heart are clichés with a great deal of wisdom and usefulness. Research has shown that those with an ability to focus inward have greater awareness, are able to adapt to stress more positively, and are able to integrate new patterns of behavior than those whose ability to focus on their core is less developed. Turn the attention to the core, listen to the sensations, and ask questions. If are able to describe what you are experiencing, feel free to connect what you are experiencing to your other senses.

6. Keep practising.

This is part of the training process. The mind will chatter. You might fall asleep. You may not get the answer you were expecting. Listening inward may feel foreign, but then again so did that first triathlon.

Joseph Campbell provided us with a wisdom that is so simple that it is often overlooked. It is simply, “Follow your bliss.”

We know there is a fine line between pushing through physical pain for the joy of the sport and using physical pain as an escape from emotional distress. Any activity or sport; particularly one as demanding and time consuming as triathlon, contains within it the capacity for great pain and great joy. Becoming more aware of your present experience, your motivation, your desires, your reactions, and engaging in that experience may paradoxically open up previously unforeseen aspects of your development as an endurance athlete.

About the author
Bob Brotchie

Bob Brotchie is a counsellor, life coach and creator of Conscious Living by Design™. He writes for Anglia Counselling, is featured on various other websites and introduces us to many guest writers all covering topics related to mental health and wellbeing.

Bob provides bespoke counselling services to clients in the privacy and comfort of a truly welcoming environment at his Anglia Counselling company office, located near Newmarket in Suffolk, England. Bob also provides professional online counselling, for local, national, and international clients. The therapeutic models offered are bespoke to the client’s needs, especially those in receipt of 'childhood emotional neglect' (CEN), whilst integrating a mindful approach to psychotherapy and cognitive behaviour therapy (CBT) principles. For clients experiencing trauma and/or phobia, Bob offers EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitisation and Reprocessing).

Mindfulness for Top Athletes… and Me?

by Bob Brotchie time to read: 10 min
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