Mindfulness: The Power of Non-Judgmental Acknowledgment

Stay focused. Think positive. Leave the day’s baggage in the locker room.

These are all things that athletes are consistently told in order to excel on the field, the court or the ice. If you can do these things, that’s great. Performance certainly is enhanced when you are able to control your thoughts and emotions. But, sometimes, it can seem impossible to let go of negative thoughts or the stress from everyday life. It can actually be really frustrating when you try to change negative thoughts and cannot. So what do you do in these moments?

Mindfulness, or non-judgmentally acknowledging what’s happening in the moment, has been shown to help athletes improve performance. An older post on self-awareness, focused on the benefits of understanding who you are as an athlete. Simply acknowledging thoughts in the moment rather than labeling them “good” or “bad” can help you avoid getting caught up in a spiral of negative thoughts.

Just like any skill, mindfulness takes some practice. The more you work at it, the easier it becomes. Here are some ideas about how to build your mindfulness as an athlete:

  1. “Schedule” self-check-ins: Pick a few points during practice that are realistic to check-in with yourself. Breaks between drills are a great time to do this. Ask yourself a few questions, like, “what was I thinking during that last drill?” and “what does my body feel like?”
  2. Take notice of what’s around you: When you walk into your locker room or out onto the field, try to note three things you’ve never noticed before. You may realize that there are a lot of things in your environment that you have never really paid attention to. This can help increase your overall awareness and help you make mindfulness a habit.
  3. Mindfulness meditation training: Meditation takes a little more time, but it can be a good way to increase your awareness of yourself and your environment. Take five minutes during the day to sit with your eyes closed and focus on one of the following: the sounds you hear, what your body feels like, or the thoughts coming in and out of your mind. This can help you learn to increase mindfulness of yourself and your environment, without judging what’s happening.

There’s no right way to do this, so try to find a way that works for you. Once mindfulness becomes a habit, negative thoughts may become less frustrating for you. And remember, like any physical skill, it takes practice!


That Little Voice

Everyone has a little voice inside their head.  This voice is constantly there, commenting on our thoughts, feelings and actions.  Our internal dialogue has the potential to greatly influence our behaviors.  What’s your voice saying to you?

Try this:

DON’T think of a giant chocolate chip cookie.

What immediately popped into your head?  A cookie, right?

If you really like cookies your mouth may have even began to water just thinking about that giant chocolate chip cookie.

Now let’s get a little more sport specific.

Many times when we’re practicing and competing we tell ourselves what NOT to do.

For example:

  • Don’t miss the shot
  • Don’t let them score
  • Don’t stop
  • Don’t give up

Given what we learned before about the cookie, when we think about NOT doing something, what are we more likely to do?

That’s right!  We are likely to end up doing just that thing that we weren’t supposed to do.

The next time you’re challenged, try to focus on the positive.  Think about exactly what it is you DO want to do.  And avoid thinking DON’T.

For example:

  • Make this shot
  • Play strong defense
  • Keep going
  • Keep moving
  • Win the game

The positive little voice inside our head has great potential to change our actions for the better.

Preparing for the Off-Season

For many collegiate athletes, it might be unclear how to approach the off-season, especially for those that are leaving campus. When you’re away from the team-system, it’s tempting to eat junk food and lounge at the beach, but this makes getting back into practice difficult in the fall. On the other hand, the off-season is an important opportunity to rest and recover so your body doesn’t start to shut down. The key is to find a balance between maintenance and recovery. So, how can you best use the off-season to your benefit?

1. Set Goals for Yourself.

(See Goal Setting #1 and Goal Setting #2 as guides to get started).

Think about what you want to accomplish during the off-season. This might be a chance to focus on a different aspect of your game that you don’t get to put as much attention into during the regular season, like improving your speed by decreasing your mile run time. Setting and evaluating your goals can help keep you on track, without getting overwhelmed.

2. Listen to your body.

Check-in with yourself, to get a sense of your energy level and your physical and mental strength. One way to gauge this is to rate your energy level before and after your workouts on a scale of 1-10, to get a sense of how fatigued your body is. Knowing your body will help you know when to push harder and when to rest.

3. Talk to others.

Before leaving for the off-season, talk with your coaches, trainers, strength & conditioning coaches and teammates to get an idea of expectations for training loads during the off-season. Working with others can make it easier to create a plan for yourself. You can also stay keep in touch with your teammates over the summer to help hold each other accountable.

Walking the Walk #1: What does leadership look like?

Have you ever been on a team where the leadership (coach, captain, senior… etc.) just didn’t quite understand how to, well, lead? Maybe they didn’t have a clear idea of what a leader is and what it takes to really lead? For whatever reason, they couldn’t connect the dots between who they are and the role and purpose of a leader.

A leader is typically seen as someone who directs a group toward achieving specific goals. Seems pretty straightforward, but directing a team in achieving a goal is an incredibly difficult task. So, how can you help your team take the steps toward achieving goals?

A great way to understand how you can better direct your team is to look at someone who clearly understands how to lead and learn from them. Great leaders can act as a guide to help you understand what it takes to best lead your team.

Here’s what you can do:

  • Make a list of great leaders (Don’t feel the need to confine yourself to sport either!), some examples: Pat Summitt, Tom Brady, Hillary Clinton, Steve Jobs, Martin Luther King Jr., or even a friend or family member.
  • Using this list, write down as many of their leadership skills as you can
  • Chose 4-5 to focus on that you believe are especially important: For example: motivating, respectful, positive, sets a good example, and reliable

Taking the time to learn from leadership models can go a long way in making you a better leader. Importantly, it’s never to soon to start gaining leadership expertise. Just like any other skill, it takes dedication and practice to develop great leadership skills. Look to great leaders as models to take your first step in becoming a better leader today.

Confidence building #3: Convince yourself confident

Our last voyages into confidence building involved becoming more aware of what makes you confident, and using videos and modeling to increase your confidence. A third way to build confidence is to convince yourself to be more confident.

Here are two ways to approach it:

1) You can physically make yourself feel more confident. So take a minute, and picture this…you’re walking onto the playing field, you feel good about yourself and your upcoming performance, and you’re fired up, ready to go. Now think…what does a confident YOU look like, to someone else?

Seriously…think about it.

Or think about some famous people who exude confidence – President Obama walking out to give a speech, Tom Brady running onto the field to lead a game winning drive – what do they look like?

Ok…what’d you come up with?

Most likely, you stood up straight, looked forward, head up, shoulders back. These are some of the more common signs of confidence, and you probably came up with others too. The good news? You can make yourself do all of those things! In doing so, you will actually feel more confident. Our bodies are conditioned to feel more competent when we present ourselves that way.

At West Point, cadets are taught to “walk with a purpose”. You can do the same…walk with a sense of purpose, and you will feel the confidence come alive.

2) You can also tell yourself to be more confident. Think about a statement that makes you feel this way – “I’m ready for this.” “I’m fast.” “I’m strong.” “I’ve prepared all season for this.” “This hard work will pay off.” Telling yourself this (when you really believe it), will help you to feel more confident. And I’m guessing when you don’t feel confident, you’re not telling yourself these things.

So next time you notice that your confidence is waning, make a conscious effort to go out there – head high, shoulders back, eyes straight ahead – and think to yourself “I’m so ready for this.” Notice how good it feels. You’ve done the work, now it’s time to reap the benefits.

Seeing Is Believing

Imagery can be referred to as the pictures or images that go through one’s mind.

Do you have a vision of what you look like when you perform?  Does this vision match your ideal self during practice or games?  If you are looking to enhance or maintain a mental image of your self or your performance, imagery training may be beneficial for you!

The brain is a powerful tool that allows a capacity to create experiences in the mind.  Whether you are imagining a performance, or physically performing, similar structures in the brain are being used.  In many ways, your brain does not know the difference between imagery and actual activity.  This allows performers an ability to prepare strategies, enhance and automate routines, build confidence, and hone focus.  Imagery training allows awareness and understanding of emotions.  Through purposeful and positive imagery, performers can learn to elicit more productive emotions while performing.

Give it a try: What do you want to imagine in your next performance?

Write down your own imagery script, where you are achieving a goal, or having a joyful performance.  Imagine yourself in a successful position, and visualize yourself doing it over and over again with great achievement.  Pick out as many details as you can about the environment. You can try including productive emotions in your imagery practice. What do you hear, see, feel, smell, or taste?

Have fun with your imagery, and remember that many top performers visualize success before it happens.  Prepare yourself by seeing and believing!

Quality Practice

10,000 hours!  This is the amount of time that it takes to become an expert in your field, according to Dr. Anders Ericsson, the world’s leading researcher on expertise.  But not just any practice counts.  The time needs to be spent doing quality practice.

Many of the best athletes in the world employ quality practice.  Quality practice involves deliberate intention and effort, with full engagement in your activity.  Quality practice is hard work; both physically and mentally demanding.  The goal of quality practice is performance excellence.

Elements of quality practice:

Challenge – quality practice is hard on the body and the mind

Repetition – quality practice involves performing a behavior again and again

Consistency – quality practice is most useful when done regularly over the long-term

Feedback – quality practice involves critically examining your performance

Improvement – quality practice seeks to continually get better

Try it:

  • Choose a specific part of your game that you would like to improve (it can be physical or mental).
  • At your next practice, intensely focus on this skill.
  • Repeatedly train this part of your game by fully engaging your body and mind as you work hard to challenge yourself.
  • Do this again in the following practice and continue to challenge yourself day after day.
  • Evaluate yourself or get feedback from a teammate, coach or even video.
  • Adjust or change your goals based on this evaluation and as you get better.
  • Maintain this persistent effort and continually work to improve.

Better Self-Care: Improved Mood & Performance

As student-athletes, it can be difficult at times to balance the demands of a busy schedule at school and on the playing field. However busy your schedule, it can be extremely beneficial to include taking care of yourself in your “to do” list. Intentionally taking time to rest and re-energize, both physically and mentally, can actually help you perform better. Below are some suggestions for ways to incorporate self-care into your schedule:

Allow yourself time to recover and refuel, in order to be more effective and more energetic throughout your day:

  • Make a clear plan for yourself.
  • Get enough sleep (strive for 8hrs/night), eat properly, and make sure to hydrate before rigorous physical or mental activity.
  • Listen to your body (stay tuned for a future blog post on how to accomplish this).

Acknowledge what is going well, rather than only focusing on areas for improvement, as this can boost your confidence and improve your overall mood:

  • Make a note of two things that went well for you as a student each day.
  • Jot down two things that went well for you as an athlete each day.
  • Next time you call home or your best friend, try starting off by talking about what is going well for you. – You can also ask about what is going well for the person you are talking with, so they can experience the benefits of this practice, too!

Appreciate and recognize those who support you, to help brighten their day and your day, and to increase your awareness of the support you have when experiencing a stressful or difficult situation:

  • Say thank you to a teammate or coach that helped you out at practice.
  • Write an e-mail (or maybe even a hand-written note!) to someone important to you.
  • Take a moment to make a list of the people you are thankful for. You might be amazed by how big/strong your support system actually is.

Communication Counts

Effective communication is a great tool anyone can use to help yourself and your team play at full potential.  As an athlete or a coach, you are constantly communicating.  With words and actions, on and off the field, you are setting the tone for your approach to sport and how you relate to other members of your team.

A couple tips to communicate effectively:

Have a Clear and Consistent Message

Being clear and consistent helps to define expectations and creates accountability.  This helps push your team to reach its potential.

Be Positive and Productive

Make it clear that you’re trying to help someone or the team get better.  Being positive creates an atmosphere that unites people toward achieving a goal.  Be productive with your feedback, always have a purpose for what you’re saying and doing.

No matter your role on a team, whether you’re a coach, captain, upperclassman, or underclassman, there are numerous opportunities for you to take the initiative and communicate effectively.

Just Breathe

A skill that has immediate athletic enhancement is breathing. Deep breathing.

Taking a deep breath, has shown benefit time and again to athletes and performers looking to enhance their game.  All athletes breathe, the question is, are you getting the most out of your breathing?

Some athletes are shallow breathers during competition.  This type of breathing can build stress and tension throughout the body, while depriving muscles of energy.  A lack of energy in sport can often inhibit performance.  Luckily, there is a way to combat this issue: a purposeful deep breath.  Here are a couple of reasons why you may want to integrate deep breathing into your next performance:

1: Deep breathing facilitates performance by increasing oxygen in your blood.  Greater amounts of oxygen in the blood stream, yields greater amounts of energy for muscles on the field, court, or sport arena.

2: Deep breathing slows your heart rate, calming your physical and mental state, while reducing anxiety, tension, and nerves.  The reduction of anxiety and stress allows you to have more confidence and greater concentration toward athletic tasks.

Breathing although seemingly simple, is a complex and powerful tool.  It brings the richest, most vital source of energy to our bodies, while simultaneously relaxing it. If you are looking for an energy boost with a relaxing effect, start breathing. Deep breathing.

Remember that like any physical skill, mental skills need to be practiced and given a fair test of time.  Try the following at practice, in class, or wherever you have a moment.

Deep Breathing

1. Lay down on your back or stand in a comfortable position.

2. Take a deep breath.

3.  Put one hand on your abdomen and the other on your upper chest.  If you are taking a complete deep breath from the diaphragm, the hand on your abdomen will move out with the inhalation and in with the exhalation, while the hand on the chest remains relatively still.

4. Think of your belly as a breathing apparatus not your upper chest.

5. See your stomach rising and falling against the rest of your body.

6. Take multiple deep breaths and feel the energy entering your body, and ultimately relaxing you.

7. Repeat breathing exercises for several deep breaths or for several minute increments.  (If breathing correctly this can relax you in 5-10 breaths)

8. Repeat breathing exercises when you are feeling stressed and overwhelmed in a game setting or when you need momentary relaxation.

Some examples of when you can use deep breathing in sport are:

  • Before heading onto the field/court
  • Before/after killing a penalty
  • After a stressful game
  • While talking to your coach
  • While sitting on the bench
  • Try it Now!