Healthy Living

3 Ways To Be A More Mindful Athlete

Focusing on your breath and body during exercise can improve your performance.
Mindfulness allows you to observe parts of your performance without letting intense emotions get in the way.
Mindfulness allows you to observe parts of your performance without letting intense emotions get in the way.

The medical community is abuzz with talk about the benefits of mindfulness, a form of meditation that changes the relationship you have with your focus. To be mindful means to pay attention to what's happening in the present moment without any judgment, but rather with openness, curiosity and a willingness to "be with what is." Lots of everyday tasks, such as eating or dishwashing, can either be done mindlessly or mindfully – with full attention to the sensations within each moment. Neuroscientific evidence suggests that practicing mindfulness may be associated with structural and functional changes in brain areas responsible for attention, regulating emotions and self-awareness. Conditions such as depression, anxiety, chronic pain and post-traumatic stress disorder are all improved with a regular mindfulness practice.

But many of us scratch our heads when considering how mindfulness fits into competitive sports andhigh-intensity exercise. Both competitive and recreational athletes are presumably training in order to become tough, battle-hardened warriors; thus, the idea of being present, curious and open to "being with what is" may seem silly and irrelevant. But some of the world's toughest athletes are also the most mindful. These ideas are not mutually exclusive; in fact, they're likely to co-occur, since mindfulness allows you to observe parts of your performance without letting intense emotions get in the way. As a result, it's easier to improve on your mistakes. Here's how you can bring a more mindful approach to your sport or activity:

1. Focus on your breathing.

Most of us spend the majority of our lives paying no attention at all to the act of breathing. That's truly remarkable, considering we perform the action well over 20,000 times every day. We breathe as a survival mechanism – involuntarily and mindlessly respiring to stay alive. However, there are moments when being mindful about your breathing, and using it as a means for relaxing and gaining self-control, is helpful.

When we're unaware of our breathing patterns, we breathe in and out on average about 17 times each minute. But when anxiety swells within us moments before a difficult task in the gym, for example, or anger rages in response to an error on the field, our breath cycles increase exponentially and our breathing becomes shallow, preventing a healthy flow of oxygen into the bloodstream and the brain. This change often happens without us ever realizing it.

The mindful athlete, however, has the capacity to check in on her breathing and notice the changing patterns – without judging the rapid breathing as detrimental or problematic. She's willing to simply be with her breath, which makes slowing down the cycles far simpler. And, by shifting attention to her breathing, she remains anchored in the present moment – a benefit to her when deciding not to swing at that hard outside fastball just off the plate.

2. Focus on your body.

If I were to ask you, in this moment, to shine a mental flashlight on your left arm – that is, to focus on its positioning and sensations – you would be able to do so, without even having to look down at it. We're highly capable of attending to our bodies, and doing so often provides rich, accurate information about our relationship to things in the environment. The challenge is simply listening to what our bodies have to say. For instance, recent research finds that to combat obesity, adolescents must be mindful of whether they are even hungry – a technique that requires them to focus on their bodies' sensations. People who struggle with their weight are often not conscious that they are eating too fast, which can lead to them feeling uncomfortable afterward. Learning to check in with your body while eating may prevent this.

Similarly, the mindful athlete will listen to his body with openness and without criticism. At the free throw line before two big shots, for instance, he may shine the flashlight onto his body and notice unpleasant tension in his shoulders. As a result, he may try to relax that area and slow down before going through his shot process. A less mindful athlete might rush the shot simply to "get it over with" and to escape the discomfort. The cost? Often, a missed shot.

3. Be curious about your performance.

Most mentally-untrained athletes get angry immediately and reflexively after a mistake. This population generally views mistakes as damaging – "mistakes are bad, and I guess this means I'm bad" – which heightens anxiety. Compare this to the mindful athlete, who tends to view mistakes differently.

Novak Djokovic is one of them. I had the luxury of watching the tennis star several years ago during an on-court practice session days before the U.S. Open. On his final swing of a particular drill, he awkwardly hit the ball right into the net. He didn't slap his leg, throw his racket or scream – reactions that are common among the junior tennis players I observe – but he gave a look of curiosity. The look represented the thought, "Hmm, I wonder what caused that," rather than, "I can't believe I did that!" He decided spontaneously to lengthen the drill and dedicate special attention to the flaw that caused the mistake. As a result, he learned and grew. As Djokovic demonstrates, being curious about mistakes allows you to make helpful adjustments and corrections.

Rather than furrowed brows and clenched fists, the mindful athlete will greet a mistake with quizzical expressions and thoughtful moments of silence. He latches onto a missed point or a poor shot as an opportunity to learn something, and to grow a little bit. Being judgmental about such mistakes, on the other hand, makes it nearly impossible to improve since your emotions get in the way. So before your next trip to the gym, track or field, be open to looking inward – your outward performance will reap the rewards.

3 Ways To Be A More Mindful Athlete was originally published on U.S. News & World Report.

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