Mindfulness in Sports

Mindfulness in sports is about creating mental space. Mindfulness is a formal approach to training the mind. When you intentionally notice, accept without judgment, and then let your thoughts go, you’ve achieved a degree of mindfulness. Sounds very light, airy, and maybe a little “out there” to some athletes, but stop for a second and think of how nice that would feel.

Notice the thoughts. Accept them without judgment. Let the thoughts go.

As you can imagine, the benefits to this are immense…but so is the skepticism of this technique in the sports world.

Let’s talk a little about how mindfulness helps athletes specifically.

Mindfulness in Sports Explained

Think about a time in sport when you felt overwhelmed. Often this happens to athletes after an error. Picture this. You’ve just made an error. The thoughts start spinning.

  • I can’t believe I just did that.
  • I’m going to get taken out for sure.
  • My team was counting on me and I let them down.
  • What if we lose and it’s all on me.
  • You know better than that.

You’re feeling: Devastated. Embarrassed. Defeated.

You notice your face get hot. You feel sick. You cannot focus on the next play because the last one keeps running through your mind. The tunnel vision starts. You no longer see the field. You almost forget where you are and how to play your sport.

If you’ve been there (and most athletes have), that was probably super tough to read. Your mind takes you back to your similar experience.

Just imagine if you could see it differently.

You make an error. The thoughts listed above appear. You decide to let them go. They’re just thoughts. They only stick around if you attach to them. You inhale, release the thoughts like you’re releasing a balloon into the air, exhale, remember why you play this game, and get next play ready. (You probably have a routine for this, if you’ve worked with a Sterling Sport Mindset consultant.)

Which feels better? Scenario 1 or Scenario 2?

Of course it’s 2. Scenario 2 has you ready for whatever comes next, which is the goal when you’re in competition.

You may be thinking “that’s great, but easier said than done.”

Fair. That may be true, initially. Then you decide to do the mental reps and it’s as easily done as said. Boom.

Now that you’re on board with mindfulness, let’s talk about benefits.

How is Mindfulness in Sports Beneficial?

When you play, are you present? Can you let thoughts and feelings arise and then let them go?

Athletes who can do this experience a number of sport (and life!) benefits. We know that mental training for sport is essential, here’s where mindfulness fits in.

Creates space to choose a response. With mindfulness, athletes aren’t at the mercy of the unintentional, and often unhelpful, thoughts that pop into our head. Instead of automatically believing those thoughts and setting off the thoughts-feelings-actions chain, athletes have the opportunity to pause. Consider the thought. Let it go. Respond instead of react.

Helps manage intensity. Mindfulness provides the space so we don’t let our emotions run us. Mindfulness doesn’t mean losing intensity. Can you be mindful in the moment and in your zone of optimal functioning? We’d argue that you need to be mindful to be in the zone! Your awareness of thoughts and feelings will allow you to let go of thoughts that don’t serve or distract you from finding your optimal performance intensity level.

Allows focus in the moment. Athletes are much less distractible when they have a regular mindfulness practice. If something (a spectator, opponent, random bird flying overhead) shifts your attention, you can quickly shift back. Mindfulness means athletes are fully present in their experience. That is when focus is at its best, when athletes are all in and free of distractions.

Brings a sense of perspective. Mindfulness allows athletes to enjoy the moment, be grateful for the experience, and see their purpose more clearly. Athletes are able to remember why they play and see where this moment fits in a bigger picture. Mindfulness can even reduce burnout symptoms.

Techniques for Mindfulness in Sport

Breathing: This is an underrated mental training technique. Being able to focus on your breathing allows your heart rate to slow down, your body to relax, and your thoughts to stop racing. When we’ve been able to slow down and breathe, we are able to be more mindful. Box breathing is a simple yet effective technique. Mentally draw a box or square as you breathe. Line across: inhale. Line down: hold. Line across: exhale. Line up: hold.

Meditation: Mindfulness meditation is the practice of focusing on the present moment. Simply, to meditate you would 1) find a quiet place to sit 2) close your eyes 3) notice your breath — maybe do some box breathing at first 4) notice the thoughts that arise 5) return to the breath. Your mind will wander. You will follow your thoughts. You may even spiral with them. When you notice this, do not judge. Simply return to the breath. Start with 5 minutes and work up to as many as you’d like. There are many great meditation apps out there. Calm & Headspace have athlete-specific meditations. Athletes who embrace meditation often have great insight when working on other sport psychology techniques.

Body Scan/Compass: Do a body scan. It’s like it sounds. You can start at your feet…or your head…you’ve got options here! Briefly scan or check in with your body. Note any tension or feelings of relaxation as you scan. Like in meditation, there’s no judgment, just noticing. Bonus: You can turn this into a Body Compass activity. When you have a decision you’re pondering. Do a body scan. Notice how the situation feels to your body. Your body will help act as a compass as you make your decision.

Gratitude/Appreciation: Take note of what you’re grateful for. What do you appreciate in life. It could be your supportive parents. Maybe it’s the sunrise on your morning run. No matter how big or small (we’re not judging our gratitude), write it down. It’s helpful to keep a journal or find an app that lets you track your gratitude. List at least 3 things a day and watch your outlook change. You’ll find yourself experiencing the good in each day.

Next Steps

If you’re intrigued by mindfulness and how it will help your mental game, read about the Sterling Sport Mindset approach to sport psychology, then sign up for a mini session!