You’re about to compete at the biggest meet of your life. You’ve been training for years for this moment, and you FEEL it. Your knees are weak, your arms are heavy; you feel like you might see your last meal all over your sweater. You know you shouldn’t let your nerves get the best of you, but there’s just nothing you can do about it. Or is there? What if you could emotionally remove yourself from the situation, while maintaining control, and even subjectively improving your experience? That’s what mindfulness training is all about.
Mindfulness has been defined as “the awareness that emerges through paying attention on purpose, in the present moment, and non-judgmentally to the unfolding of experience moment by moment” (Kabat-Zinn). You train yourself to maintain focus on what you’re doing, and creating an understanding that thoughts and emotions are passing states. In some sense, developing mindfulness is like changing how you experience thoughts and emotions from an all-encompassing virtual reality to a movie theater screen: it’s still an immersive experience, but you are better able to create passive detachment from what you’re viewing.
Biologically, the key brain structures for mindfulness are the Amygdala and the Prefrontal Cortex (PFC). The amygdala is best known as the emotional center of the brain, while the prefrontal cortex is the primary center for planning and interpersonal interactions. Each region acts to inhibit the other in certain situations. When you’re suddenly overtaken by emotion or stress, amygdalar activity increases drastically. This effectively shuts down your prefrontal cortex and activates other parts of your brain to create the stress response we all know and love. So when you’re about to give that big presentation at work or in class and your thoughts are racing, it’s not just you. Your brain’s ability to think rationally and dispassionately has been hijacked by your amygdala. Mindfulness training, like meditative practice, has been shown to decrease amygdalar activity while increasing the strength of the connection between the prefrontal cortex and the amygdala. This allows the PFC to keep the amygdala more in check.
Another result of an overactivated amygdala is the ubiquitous experience of performance anxiety. It’s hard not to have your sympathetic nervous system keyed up when you’re about to perform in a competition you’ve been working toward for months or even years. Many of the uncomfortable symptoms of anxiety-- like sweaty palms or a knotted stomach--are simply physiological responses to arousal. So much of the psychological anxiety we couple to these visceral feelings is just that: psychological. Noting and being aware of your nerves can help you better understand that nerves are simply a part of the process of completing a task that you’re invested in (Rotella). Using mindfulness, you can create comfort from your discomfort, and more readily remind yourself that your anxiety is simply your body telling you that you’re getting close to your goals.
Still, even as it’s become more popular, meditation gets a bad rep for being some woo-woo malarkey pushed by weirdos who are always talking about their “practice”. However, one of the most important aspects to remember about meditation and mindfulness is that they really are a practice. No one can completely quiet their mind for an extended period of time on their first try, and people who do it longer and more frequently are better at it and see better outcomes (Goleman and Davidson). In a 2017 study, researchers noted that the sustained focus of mindfulness is a trainable skill (Jekauc et al.). Social media and apps like Headspace and Calm are increasing casual access to meditation, making it easier for anyone to start on their journey. Thankfully, meditation practices run the gamut from formal Vipassana (or Loving Kindness) practices to simply being present while doing something as mundane as chores. Renowned teacher and monk Thich Naht Hahn has spoken about the meditative nature of being present with each step while walking (Plum Village). It’s always most efficient to follow a formal practice, but you can achieve mindfulness at any time.
A more specialized type of mindfulness is Visualization. Visualization is exactly what it sounds like. Focus your mind and settle into an image of whatever aspect of your sport you’re trying to improve. A weightlifter might visualize their position over the bar as they start to pull the bar off the floor, or as they dip into their jerk. Try to fully immerse yourself in the moment and consider how you feel physically and emotionally. Feel details as minute as the smell of the competition hall. Very purposefully visualize yourself completing whatever action you’re focused on in the exact manner that you want to execute it.
Neurologically, a particular type of cell called a mirror neuron is key in allowing us to learn while watching others. These neurons will activate areas that are important for motor control simply while you are seeing an example movement, and researchers have found that focused visualization practice activates similar patterns. This means that you can improve your neurological imprint of complex movements simply by utilizing mental imagery.
Mindfulness practice has also been shown to increase the probability of entering what’s called a flow state. A flow state has been defined as an “optimal experience”: a moment in which you’re completely absorbed in and fulfilled by whatever task you may be doing. There are many factors that can increase your possibility of creating a flow state. Setting clear, attainable goals, measuring progress, and maintaining focus on the task at hand all augment your ability to achieve flow (Csizkzentmihalyl). An ordered mind is key to achieving flow, and mindfulness practices aim to cultivate just that. Settling into a completely focused state for competition will only improve your results, and mindfulness can help you do that more often.
Back to the big meet. You’re about to see if all of your preparation will pay off. As your time comes, you start to feel the tension in your body and mind rising...but it’s not a problem. You’ve meditated consistently for a few months now, so you’re more in control. You’ve visualized this moment over and over again, so it feels familiar to you. And you’ve gained comfort in the fact that some nerves are going to be unavoidable, so you simply look at them as a sign that you’re close to achieving your goals. You might even settle in enough to achieve a state of flow, where the only thing you’re focused on is the task at hand, and you know for a fact you can handle it. Interactions between your body and mind are powerful, and mindfulness training is just another way to improve those interactions.
Kabat-Zinn, Jon. Wherever You Go, There You Are: Mindfulness Meditation in Everyday Life. Hyperion, 1994.
Rotella, R. J., & Cullen, B. (2016). How Champions Think: In Sports and In Life. New York: Simon & Schuster Paperbacks.
Goleman, Daniel, and Richard J Davidson. Altered Traits : Science Reveals How Meditation Changes Your Mind, Brain, and Body. New York, Ny, Avery, An Imprint Of Penguin Random House Llc, 2018.
Jekauc, Darko, et al. “Effectiveness of a Mindfulness-Based Intervention for Athletes.” Psychology, vol. 08, no. 01, 2017, pp. 1–13, www.scirp.org/Journal/PaperInformation.aspx?PaperID=73192, 10.4236/psych.2017.81001. Accessed 22 Oct. 2019.
Plum Village. “Turn Every Cell On | Dharma Talk by Thich Nhat Hanh, 2005 11 12.” YouTube, 2 Nov. 2018, www.youtube.com/watch?v=jrncYE3g4oc&t=1442s. Accessed 21 July 2020.
Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. Flow : The Psychology of Optimal Experience. New York, Harper [And] Row, 2009.
Comments will be approved before showing up.