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Mindfulness and Sport: How are they connected and why is it important?

If you want to train hard in preparation for rep trials or pursue a career as an elite athlete, mindfulness and mental strength is just as important as physical fitness. Top athletes and coaches across Australia and all around the world attribute mindfulness to their performance and career achievements, however mindfulness can be overlooked and undervalued as physical skill and fitness is prioritised. 

But when it comes to sport, you cannot consistently perform at a high level if you don’t prioritise your mental and psychological strength and practice mindfulness. 

To share more information about this topic and help people just like you understand the important role of mindfulness for athletes and how to implement mindful practices, we’ve joined forces with Surfing Australia’s Sports Psychologist Jason Patchell. In this article, we’ll explore the connection between mindfulness and sport and chat about why mindfulness is important in a sporting context. 

What is mindfulness?

Mindfulness is the ability to live and act completely in the present moment and be acutely aware of your surroundings without being distracted by external factors. Mindfulness is being attentive and aware of personal thoughts, feelings and other internal stimuli by practicing moment-by-moment awareness and being fully engaged with whatever you are doing in the present moment. 

Mindfulness helps people build a resilient mindset and positive outlook and has so many benefits, including decreasing stress and anxiety and improving happiness, mood, confidence and focus. Mindfulness has a big impact on mental health and wellbeing too so it is not surprising that it is an important element in the training schedule of elite and high-performing athletes. But first, let’s explore mindfulness for athletes and how mindfulness and sport are connected. 

How is mindfulness and sport connected?

Mindfulness helps people tackle the highs and lows of everyday life which in a professional sporting context, is obviously heightened. On top of performing physically and kicking goals, scoring points or making runs, professional athletes have to deal with injury, exhaustion, mistakes and bad performances, lapse in judgement, lack of self-confidence, anxiety, competition, burn out, criticism, pressure, rehab and injury and loss of motivation, which are all taxing on the mind and can impact, or limit, physical performance. 

But these things don’t have to derail athletes – that’s where mindfulness comes in! 

Mindfulness gives athletes at every level a competitive edge and enables them to perform at their best and remain focussed, even in high-pressure situations. 

Patchell, who has worked with athletes across different sports and categories says “mindfulness is about paying attention to the present moment in a non-judgemental way” and for elite athletes, it is an opportunity to understand and navigate high performance environments on a regular basis. By practicing mindfulness, athletes can block out external pressures, conflicts, stressors and triggers and gain focus and clarity when they need it most.

To share a real-life example, if you spend the whole game thinking about a stuff up from last week or a missed pass earlier in the game, you are distracted and not living in and reacting to the present moment. As a result, you may miss an opportunity to create space on the field, take advantage of an opportunity to intercept a pass or be slow to react to the opposing teams strategic play. Mindfulness gives you the ability to block everything else out and focus on the play at hand and your moment-by-moment movement, which is so important in sport. When you have clarity and focus, you make better decisions and ultimately, perform at a high standard. 

How does mindfulness help elite athletes? 

Patchell says athletes can’t go wrong with a better understanding of mindfulness. At a recent Blokepedia event, he said: 

“In traditional sports there has been less of a focus on the psychological and emotional skills. I think it is slowly changing, with elite sport the margins are becoming less and less. So they are looking at the emotional and psychological capabilities of athletes more.” 

When we asked Patchell how important an athlete’s psychological and emotional state is to their performance, he said it was absolutely critical. 

“I think an awareness of our internal states is critical as well as a capacity to regulate when possible. Athletes also have to understand that we can’t always control our internal states (e.g. presence of fear or anxiety) and learning to be able to maintain functioning in a task in these situations is vital,” he said. 

Mindfulness also helps athletes deal with the nature of professional sport and the highs and lows of competitive, high-performance environments, including…  

  • Overcoming doubt and fear, especially in extreme or dangerous sports
  • Dealing with life on and off the field 
  • Remaining calm and focussed, even in high-pressure environments 
  • Acknowledging emotions and feelings 
  • Maintaining clarity and calm in a crucial moment 
  • Adapting under pressure and in distracting circumstances. 

Mindfulness isn’t just for athletes who perform at an elite level – it is also practiced by many elite sports coaches, including Australian netball coach Lisa Alexander who said in a recent article for the Sydney Morning Herald that a positive mindset is critical to high performing athletes, teams and coaches. Before the Diamond’s second game in the Constellation Cup series last last year, Alexander focused on a positive mindset and mindfulness practices before the big game, which the Diamonds went on to win to level the series. 

How can athletes develop mindfulness? 

Patchell says there are a number of practical activities that athletes can do to develop mindfulness, especially if they haven’t explored it before and don’t know where to start. 

“Choose a mundane activity (e.g. brushing teeth, eating breakfast) and deliberately pay attention to the sensory experiences (such as taste, smell, texture and sound) without judgement or evaluation. Athletes can start with day to day activities and progress to practicing being more mindful with activities and experiences related to sport, such as feeling the chalk on your hands when preparing to bowl. Be creative and consider experiences associated with key moments in and around performances.” 

“Breath is another great tool to connect us to a mindful experience. Simply be aware of your breathing without trying to change or alter it,” he said. 

Ex-Wallaby Nick Cummins also spoke about this in a recent Instagram Live chat with us. Nick talked about taking a few minutes first thing in the morning to sit in nature, be with yourself and just count every sound you hear and every smell you can sense. It’s about setting that time for yourself, absorbing nature as a grounding experience and building a positive and mindful foundation for your day.  

As expected, meditation is also important and a really common mindful practice for athletes of all ages and abilities, and there are lots of apps that are great to help get you started, including ‘Headspace’ and ‘Smiling Mind,’ which are both great as they provide a step by step entry into mindfulness. Headspace also has some guided meditations specifically designed for athletes, which you can find here.

If you’re ready to get started, meditation is a good way to start your mindfulness journey, so pop in your headphones and find a quiet space for 10 minutes every morning or night (or both) and start learning the art of meditation. 

Finally, Patchell recommends Jon Kabat-Zinn’s “Wherever You Go There You Are” as a must-read for young athletes who want to understand mindfulness principles and practice mindfulness in their own lives. 

Now that you know what the connection is between mindfulness and sport and why it is important and gives athletes a competitive edge, you can start working mindfulness into your routine and practice it on a daily basis, because it will really help you play to your potential, especially if you have rep trials or a big game or competition coming up! 

If you want to work with a PlayBook coach to work on your own mindfulness practices, browse PlayBook and find a coach to help you hone your physical skills as well as mentor and support mentally, psychologically and emotionally progression.