When we zone out in class or go through the motions at practice, we are being mindless or on autopilot. Mindfulness is about bringing your full awareness to the present moment through paying attention to your experience as is, on purpose and nonjudgmentally. It’s the idea that as thoughts come up we can notice them, accept them, and guide our attention back to the present moment task, over and over again. As an athlete, the ability to focus on the task at hand without being weighed down by thoughts is essential. However, mindfulness isn’t about pushing thoughts and feelings away. To better understand this, consider the following metaphor:
Have you ever tried to get work done while watching TV or listening to music. Are there moments when the TV totally pulls your attention away from your work? And the more you think about how loud the TV is, the harder it is to focus on your work? Are there moments when you’re so engrossed in your work that it’s almost as if someone turned the TV down. That’s the idea with our thoughts- when we directly try to suppress them/turn them down, they get louder. When we continually focus on bringing our attention to the task at hand, they quiet down over time, and we perform at our best when our mind is quiet.
Mindfulness is a way of training our brain to be in the moment and better able to handle internal and external distractions. As an athlete, you can benefit from regularly practicing mindfulness meditation outside of your sport. A simple mindfulness meditation is to focus on your breath for 5-10 minutes. When your mind has wandered away from the breath, as it naturally will, congratulate yourself for noticing and guide your attention back to your breath. You may feel like you have to guide your attention back to your breath one thousand times, and that’s okay! With consistent practice, this is likely to feel easier over time.
While playing your sport, you can incorporate mindfulness in several ways. You can focus on your breath to anchor yourself in the present moment. You can complete your warm-up in a mindful manner, focusing on the sensations in your body and paying attention to the movements. You can identify a focal point that applies to your sport, and repeatedly work on bringing your attention to that point of focus. For example, as a lacrosse goalie, my main focus was on seeing the lacrosse ball. Focusing on seeing the ball well and continually guiding my attention to the lacrosse ball helped me stay in the moment, as opposed to getting lost in thought about past goals scored or caught up in worries about missing the next shot. There are several apps that offer guided mindfulness meditation, including Headspace and 10% Happier. In addition, it can be helpful to work with a therapist or sport psychologist who specializes in mindfulness-based techniques, in order to learn how to harness the full power of mindfulness meditation.