The awe-inspiring flow state, have you heard of this? A state of awareness where you and your sport are one. It’s the go-to explanation for any athlete who performed with ease and had a day where everything seemed to, well, flow.
What about the term, in the zone, have you ever heard an athlete describe themselves as being in the zone? Perhaps you’ve come across this yourself, where you felt completely immersed in what you were doing, no distractions or interference could get in your way.
From my time playing and working with athletes, I know that both of these states can come and go in the blink of an eye. They’ll leave you continually searching for a way back into that desired state, where everything you did just seemed to work.
Well, I’m here to tell you, while you may have stumbled across either of these by accident in the past, they don’t have to be such elusive and mysterious states moving forward.
The flow state and being in the zone are both byproducts of something known as mindfulness.
Fundamentals Of Mindfulness
“Be mindful of what you’re doing.”
That’s a phrase I can remember my mom saying a lot growing up. The only association I made was between that and my actions back then.
However, I did not realize the importance of also being mindful of my thoughts, and the intense state of awareness and presence doing so provides.
That is the essence of mindfulness.
The word mindful means to be conscious and aware. To turn that into a state we term it mindfulness. All that is being referred to is the act of you placing all your attention onto the present moment.
While that may sound easy, it’s in fact an incredibly difficult skill to master.
When we’re talking about mindfulness, it’s based on focus. For athletes, I like to coin mindfulness training as focus training, which we will get into more detail later in the article.
To be in a state of mindfulness requires you to center your attention completely on what you’re doing. Not only with your eyes, but also with your mind.
I want you to stop and think for a moment about the last time you were completely immersed in an activity, to a point where no other thoughts stole your attention.
That’s where the real trouble lies when addressing mindfulness. The easy part is to hold concentration on a physical level. Real difficulty comes in separating ourselves from our thoughts.
To truly master mindfulness, you must become the watcher rather than that which is being watched.
Becoming An Objective Observer
What the heck do I mean by becoming an observer? Aren’t the thoughts in our heads ours? How can we separate ourselves from our thoughts?
When I first learned of mindfulness, trust me, I was skeptical. The fact I was being told I was not my thoughts really confused me. But there was one shift in understanding that really made the concept click.
You see, mindfulness practices are centered in this concept of observing the mind because it creates a disconnect between yourself and the thoughts you have.
A lot of people misconstrue mindfulness and think the practice wipes the mind clean of thoughts. While that may come to those significantly advanced who gain mastery over the most minute thought processes, it’s nonattachment we’re truly after for most of us.
If you want to hold your focus in the present moment, with complete attention given to the task you’re doing, you can’t simultaneously become attached to a thought from the game before, or what your stats will look like after this game.
All that will only distract you and take you out of the moment.
Working to not think does no good either, because by trying not to think, you are in fact thinking about the very thing you are hoping to not think about.
The only option left is to create disconnection, which is accomplished through mindfulness training. By doing so, you develop a skill that has the power to drastically elevate your performance.
Benefits Of Mindfulness On Athletic Performance
The benefits of being in a state of mindfulness are numerous. There’s a reason it has become a popular topic among the athletic community.
Professional athletes have pointed to it as a source of their success, and all who work in the sport psychology field are quick to prescribe it as a mental training tool.
But why is this? How, specifically, does mindfulness lead to better performances?
There are two key reasons I want to address that reign supreme in their direct impact on the elevation of your game through the development of mindfulness.
First and foremost is an improvement in your ability to focus.
As I said earlier, mindfulness is focus training. Any athlete knows the power concentration has on their game.
The better you focus, the more deliberate your practices will be, the more attention and energy will be effectively utilized during a game, and the less distractions will push you off course.
Once you become skilled in mindfulness, you will be equipped to center your attention, no matter what happens. That means, even in the most pressure-filled moments, you are fully focused on what needs to be done.
Anxiety is not a byproduct of present moment awareness. It lives in the future, and becomes fixed in our minds when attention drifts onto what may happen.
Knowing this, it’s easy to understand how powerful a state of mindfulness can be in reducing anxiety.
Of course an anxious thought will still pop in your mind. You’ll begin to think about all the possible outcomes and what will happen if you were to fail. However, the key difference is you are now not becoming attached to these thoughts.
It is only through attachment that thoughts turn into emotions. By being in a state of mindfulness, anxiety will drop at the moment. And what’s even better, over time, as your natural state becomes more present, anxiety will be reduced even further.
Top 3 Ways Athletes Can Train Mindfulness
Knowing how beneficial mindfulness is to your athletic performance, I’m sure the next question on your mind is, how? How can you get into a state of mindfulness?
Well, it’s very simple to do, but difficult to master. Let me explain.
Right now, you can get yourself into a mindful state. All you have to do is bring your awareness into the present moment.
Try this: stop reading for a moment and focus completely on your breathing.
That’s mindfulness. Really, it’s that simple. But here’s the thing, how long did that last? Did a thought pop into your head? What about some noise around you, did it pull at your attention?
You see, it’s easy to be in a mindful state for a moment, but extremely challenging to remain in one for an extended period of time, especially in the middle of competition, when distractions are everywhere.
So, just as you train your physical skills to be able to master them come game time, you must begin training mindfulness. To do so, there are three techniques you can follow.
They aren’t complicated and need not take up much time each day. However, the key phrase there is each day. If you want to master mindfulness, you need to make the training of it a daily practice.
As you’ll see in each of these techniques, the act of training mindfulness truly happens when you notice your attention begin to drift and you return it back onto the present moment.
Technique #1: Mindfulness Meditation
The first technique is the most widely discussed and is my personal favorite.
To begin a mindfulness meditation practice, there are a few simple steps you need to follow:
- Step 1: Choose how long your meditation will last. You do not want to be sitting there and thinking in the middle of your practice whether you’ve gone long enough. So, decide on an amount of time and then set the alarm, so you’ll know when you’re finished.
- Step 2: Next, figure out the optimal position for yourself. Choose one with your back straight but be sure you’re comfortable. This can be sitting in a chair or on the floor.
- Step 3: Now it’s time to begin breathing. Close your eyes and turn your focus to your breath, trying to breathe in and out in a rhythmic manner. Whenever you feel your attention being pulled away from your breath, return it without any judgment.
For a beginner, aim for five minutes a day. Then work your way up to ten, fifteen, twenty, and beyond.
Technique #2: Mindful Jog/Walk
The second technique to practice mindfulness involves more movement.
Whether you don’t want to sit for meditation or you simply want to add another time during the day to practice mindfulness, walking or jogging is a fantastic option.
The rhythm you develop while walking or jogging is a perfect place to center your focus into that meditative state. Bring your awareness either to your breath or the action of your body.
You can use the same method as with meditation. As you feel your mind wander to other topics or outside distractions, quickly return your attention to the present moment. This is the act of being mindful.
I love performing a mindful walk or jog outside, because I think fresh air and being in nature enhance the experience.
Technique #3: Mindful Tasks
The last technique involves incorporating mindfulness into the daily tasks you already do.
This can be a beautiful experience because it adds meaning to a usually meaningless task.
Take doing the dishes for example. Usually, we try to allow our minds to wander while washing the dishes. The activity is not very enjoyable, so it’s natural to seek pleasure in the fantasies of our imagination.
Instead, try bringing your attention fully into the moment, being present as you wash the dishes. Now, a task you typically hate to do is bring you all the benefits discussed above.
Showers are another fantastic place you can be mindful of. It’s all a matter of choosing an activity you already do and bringing your attention fully into the moment.
There’s no doubt mindfulness will improve your performance.
If you’ve ever experienced the flow state, you know how effortless your play felt. That is where you can hope to find yourself on a more consistent basis by applying mindfulness.
Though, it’s not an easy skill to master. So, you must begin training it daily. Choose one of the three techniques from above, and get started.
Don’t aim to be perfect in your practice. Mindfulness training in action is the wandering of attention and returning it back into the present moment.
So get started, and be on your way to seeing your game improve thanks to mindfulness.