Imagine yourself walking up to the tee box on the 18th hole of the PGA Championship. You are leading the field, and simply have to make par to win the trophy. However, you are only up one stroke on your competition, and you must make the perfect tee shot to ensure you set yourself up for par on the hole, and the trophy that follows. The wind is fiercely blowing from left to right on the green, and you have a bad habit of slicing your shots when you are tense. Your heart is racing. You’ve never been in this situation before. Imagine the thoughts that are going through your head at this point. It would be nice if you could focus on the task at hand (hitting a good drive), wouldn’t it?
This situation is a perfect example of where the practice of mindfulness can be helpful. Mindfulness is the act of increasing present-moment awareness of physiological, mental, and environmental events without imposing judgment on the quality or meaning of them (Kabat-Zinn, 1994). In practicing mindful awareness, thoughts are noted as simple passing states in the mind that do not require action. This creates “space” between one’s perception and one’s response and enables a person to respond to situations more objectively, rather than reflexively.
The application of mindfulness to sport performance has recently become a popular research endeavor. By enhancing current moment awareness, a critical component of peak sport performance (Jackson & Csikszentmihalyi, 1999; Ravizza, 2002), some research has suggested that mindfulness exercises can help to generate “flow”, or a state of complete focus on the task or event at hand. (Aherne, Moran, & Lonsdale, 2011; Kee & Wang, 2008). Gardner and Moore (2012) hypothesized that mindfulness-based interventions for sports are effective because they help athletes direct their attention to the current athletic task, while minimizing external distractions.
In the golfing scenario described above, being mindfully aware would help you notice any intrusive thoughts, anxiety, physical tension in the body, and environmental conditions like the wind. You could then choose to either respond to the stimuli being presented (noticing the wind, to perhaps change the direction of your shot, or noticing your tension and relaxing the tensed parts of your body) or choose to simply note these sensations and let them pass. In other words, you would recognize your thoughts and anxiety as simple mental events and feelings, and realize that they are temporary states that do not have to affect your performance. Practicing mindfulness allows you to first focus on your body and your environment, and then be able to redirect your attention to what will help you perform optimally.
Becoming skilled at mindful awareness requires practicing mindfulness. Mindfulness training involves exercises such as the body scan exercise, which involves paying attention to specific areas of the body such as the feet, knees, stomach, shoulders, neck, and arms one by one. Another basic mindfulness exercise is the mindfulness of the breath exercise, which involves deep, rhythmic breathing. These mindfulness exercises can easily be found online. Practicing these exercises several times a day will help you develop greater awareness, and eventually you can translate this awareness to specific tasks and activities. For example, after practicing the body scan and mindfulness of the breath exercises, try practicing mindfulness while stretching. Notice the specific sensations in each muscle as you stretch and notice your breathing patterns.
After practicing mindfulness while doing specific activities like stretching, you can then practice mindful awareness during sport-related events. For instance, try being mindful while shooting layups, or while practicing a tennis serve. Eventually, you can try being mindfully aware during matches.
Remember, mindfulness is a skill, and therefore takes practice to develop. While training for a specific sport, consistent practice is required, with an intensity and focus to get better. This is a similar attitude to have with mindfulness practice. Practice your mindful awareness every day and eventually you will be able to use mindfulness to become fully engaged in the moment during play, being able to give full attention on what is needed to perform despite other sensations that may otherwise cause distraction.