This year has seen the welcome return of sport to the world stage, from football to the Olympics. Sport inevitably brings equal amounts of joy and heartbreak to competitors and fans alike, as athletes who have trained for months or even years have just one chance to achieve glory.
It is not just physical training and fitness that athletes need for these occasions, but also mental focus and clarity. Athletes are under a lot of pressure to perform to the very best of their ability, and often carry the hopes and expectations of coaches, sponsors, family, friends, and even the whole nation on their shoulders.
Some people thrive under this kind of pressure, but for others it can understandably be a source of anxiety, and it can even threaten the athlete’s ability to perform at their best. This is why many athletes employ mindfulness techniques to help them control their performance anxiety, and to focus on the task in hand.
Mindfulness is an ancient technique that originates from Buddhist philosophy, and was practiced during meditation and yoga sessions. In the West, it has been adopted for a range of purposes, across health, therapy, and educational sectors. It has also come to be a very important element of sports psychology in recent years.
Mindfulness encourages the individual to be aware of the present moment, by paying attention to the breath, mind, and body together and silencing negative internal chatter. By becoming more centred and breathing in a controlled manner, the athlete will naturally activate the body’s anti-stress response.
Controlled breathing has the effect of slowing the heartrate and allowing more oxygen to reach the brain, which helps to encourage a clear and calm state of mind. This will help the athlete to put aside any worries from the past, fear of failure, or fear of the crowd, and concentrate on the event at hand.
The techniques can also be used to manage pain, which is often the unwanted by-product of being a successful athlete. Pain and all its negative emotions can build up a state of resistance and anxiety in the mind and body, and mental energy is expended on trying to avoid it.
Through employing mindfulness techniques, the athlete is encouraged to accept the pain with a non-judgemental awareness. This does not resolve the physical issue, but it can take away the draining thoughts and feelings associated with the pain, which can sometimes be just as much of a problem as the pain itself.