This article will focus on the emerging practice of mindfulness within the sporting environment. An overview of what mindfulness is and how it can help athletes will be outlined. Some tools that athletes can use to practice being mindful also are provided. Studies that support the theory will also be explored and a conclusion will summarise all the points highlighted within this article.

One area athletes tend to struggle with during competition is staying in the present moment. For one reason or other thoughts can sometimes drift to previous actions (perhaps ruminating over a mistake) or move ahead to what might happen in the future (a golfer missing the green on approach might foresee a dropped shot before the hole is even played out. These retrospective and fortune telling thoughts can lead to detrimental impacts on performance simply because the focus is not on the present moment.

Mindfulness teaches us to manipulate our own mind instead of letting it manipulate us. It is the opposite of being absent minded. It has for many years been used to treat clinical disorders such as anxiety and depression. However this article will focus on its application to the sporting environment. Many athletes, professional or amateur are guilty of thinking ahead or behind rather than being fully present in what they are doing.

The founder of mindfulness, Jon Kabat-Zinn defines it as paying attention in a particular way; on purpose, in the present moment. Mindfulness also involves ignoring intruding thoughts and feelings which sometimes come to us when we are trying to concentrate on the task at hand. However instead of wasting energy using tools to get rid of unwanted thoughts, mindfulness teaches that more energy could be invested in concentrating on the game.

Based on this premise, Gardner & Moore (2004) developed the Mindfulness – Acceptance – Commitment approach to performance (MAC). They suggested that performance outcomes depend on the extent to which an athlete accepts their own positive or negative thoughts and feelings (called experiential acceptance) and maintains focus on the task at hand. This theory is contrary to previous beliefs that the key to understanding bad performance was to study negative emotions and thoughts. Hayes et al., (1999) suggested that low experiential acceptance (ignoring inner thoughts and feelings) may lead the athlete to employ a number of tools to ignore these types of thoughts including self-talk or thought stopping which some supporters of the mindfulness approach view as maladaptive. Gardner & Moore (2007) suggest that rather than trying to get rid of or change unwanted thoughts, athletic performance can be enhanced through a “mindful present minded acceptance of internal experiences” along with other skills needed for optimal athletic performance such as response to external cues and pursuing the achievement of goals.

Research on the application of mindfulness to athletic performance has suggested that practicing mindful exercises in addition to physical training resulted in improved mental and physical performance. Petrillo et al. (2009) studied the effects of mindfulness training in long distance runners. Archers, golfers and runners followed a year long program of mindful sports performance enhancement (MPSE) with a view to improving athletic and psychological performance. All groups reported a significant increase in improved ability to act with awareness and overall trait mindfulness in the follow up study. The runners also reported significant improvements in their mile times demonstrating the effectiveness of the intervention.

The mindfulness approach also relates to the theory of “the flow state” which Csikszentmihalyi (1990) defines as the state of consciousness in which a person is completely absorbed in his or her actions and experiences a unity of the mind and body. It is more commonly referred to as being in “the zone.” This definition is very similar to the factors which are outlined within the mindfulness approach and it would seem plausible that through practicing mindfulness techniques the athlete may be more likely to experience “flow” characteristics which in turn can increase performance. Bernier, Thienot, Codron & Fournier (2009) investigated mindfulness and acceptance approaches in sport performance and found “flow” states (as defined above) were found to share similar attributes to mindfulness and acceptance states. Therefore we can assume that practicing mindfulness can possibly lead to flow states and eventually optimal performance. The same study also found that young elite golfers who completed a mindfulness training programme over several months all achieved their competition goals and moved up in their national rankings, compared to only 2 in a control group. The golfers in the mindfulness group also felt more confident in their knowledge of mindfulness and their ability to use it in competitive situations.

Therefore as the research would suggest, mindfulness training is fast becoming a valuable mental tool that athletes can use to help overcome any unwanted thoughts or feelings during competition. Some exercises which you can practice are outlined below.

  • A good introduction to mindfulness training is the body scan technique. It simply involves sitting comfortably in a chair and noticing how different body parts (eg: feet, legs, arms, hands, shoulder and head) all feel while resting in the chair. The body scan technique also reminds you to bring your attention back to these feelings when it drifts off to thinking about something else. There are different body scan scripts which you can buy or download. The one I have is by Dr Maggie Stanton & Christine Dunkley (www.stantonltd.co.uk).
  • Mindfulness of thoughts involves again sitting comfortably and just noticing thoughts passing through your mind and describing them factually to yourself.
  • Eg: A thought about what you will make for dinner or when you’re going to the gym.
  • Try not to explore the thought, just notice it and give it a label. Sometimes a simple thought can lead to a worry, having a negative impact on our feelings and consequently performance during competition will also deteriorate.
  • The previous exercise can also be used during training. For example a golfer who has a negative swing thought prior to a shot will simply observe that thought and maybe describe it as a “worry thought.” By “putting it in its place” they can then focus on the shot in hand.

I hope this article will be a helpful guideline to athletes who are looking for ways to deal with unwanted thoughts and/or feelings during competition. There is currently a wealth of research on this topic out there for anyone who wants to read more.