The qualities of mindfulness
The qualities of mindfulness non-judgmental, bare awareness, and intentional – lead to the actual functions of mindfulness. Joseph Goldstein, an eminent meditation teacher, describes the functions of mindfulness (discussed below) as: increasing concentration, developing clear seeing and perception, guiding the mind, and balancing the mind. This section highlights the value of these functions for athletes both in training and high-pressure performance situations. Essentially there are four invaluable functions of mindfulness that are essential to sport performance.
Mindfulness improves the ability to concentrate, to “hold something in mind”. With enhanced mindfulness skills, you are better able to purposefully pay attention to what you choose to pay attention to and better able to maintain such attention over time. Simply put it means you can keep something you care about on your radar, more consistently. You may think that holding something in mind is easy. Yet when you consider the many times a coach will offer the same feedback to an athlete and how the same technical piece of advice seems to quickly dissolve from the athletes’ awareness, you can better appreciate the need for the capacity of concentration.
The challenge, of course, is that you have a myriad of things to think about each moment. You get bombarded with what is happening both internally and externally – from the coaching you receive, what your teammates are saying or doing, what your opponents are doing on the field to your own internal judgments and reactions, to all of these.
Most of us tend to have very active minds and our minds can be filled with involuntary (i.e., uninvited) thoughts of what has happened, what we’d like to have happen, and some of what happening within our moment-to-moment experience. It takes great practice to purposefully sustain awareness on what you deem to be important (otherwise known as task-relevant cues for performance).
Our minds can easily be swayed by our hopes, desires, fears, and input from others. It is extremely normal to have hopes and fears, yet mindfulness helps you determine when it is wise to pay attention to such concerns and when it is best to focus on sport-specific tasks. When practicing and performing, we know that to optimize performance we must direct our attention. The challenge is keeping your attention focused where you choose to focus it and releasing yourself from the judgment, fear, and distortions that cause you to waste your energy and time.
As discussed in the previous section, when you release yourself from your judgments about things and connect with your direct experience through the clear lens of bare attention, you are able to see things as they really are. Your mind’s comprehension of what is happening becomes finely tuned with a sharpened accuracy. Jackson and Delehanty (1995) summarizes this quality of clear seeing in his book,
Basketball is a complex dance that requires shifting from one objective to another at lightning speed. To excel, you need to act with a clear mind and be totally focused on what everyone on the floor is doing. Some athletes describe this quality of mind as a “cocoon of concentration.” But that implies shutting out the world when what you really need to do is become acutely aware of what’s happening right now, this very moment.
Mindfulness supports this kind of panoramic specificity of awareness, where the mind is open and wide awake to exactly what is occurring in real time, free of distortions and at once able to focus on the specific areas of performance that will leverage best performance.
Mindfulness guards the mind
Just as a gatekeeper or guard monitors the kinds of people who are allowed to enter and exit a particular building, the habit of being mindful has the important function of guarding the mind. As you become mindful, our awareness monitors the kinds of thoughts that enter our stream of consciousness, both voluntary and uninvited (i.e., involuntary) thoughts.
Some thoughts are helpful and are given free entrance, while other thoughts are quite destructive and unhelpful. Being mindful helps you recognize such thoughts as they arise in our mind and can effectively help neutralize their negative influence. In this way, the mind is protected from the potential harm that can result from negative thinking. Mindfulness does not stop the negative thoughts, but offers each of us a different way to respond to them.
It is not just “negative” thoughts that can be problematic. Thoughts like, “I don’t need to get up and go to practice; I am the best on the team; and Everyone loves me,” can also be quite problematic. As great philosopher and psychologist William James (1842–1910) said, “The greatest weapon against stress is the ability to choose one thought over another.” And it is the power of mindfulness that gives you this ability. You can choose which thoughts to engage with, to believe, to value and you also can choose to watch unhelpful, unnecessary thoughts come and go like storm clouds in the sky.
Balancing the Mind
Related to the last function, mindfulness supports a balanced perspective on what is happening. Without this capacity to bring mindful presence to our thoughts and emotions, the conditioned tendency is to be swept away by a series of domino-like thoughts and feelings. Often a thought arises in consciousness and you tend to get lost in the content of the thought, very easily. You can think of thoughts as inner-advertisements. Imagine what would happen if, every time you heard or saw on advertisement on television, you were to pick up your credit card and buy the very thing being advertised. It might not be long before you were deep in financial debt.
This example may feel far from your experience, yet think of a time you have made a mistake and criticized yourself. And think about how that story of feeling badly about yourself, doubting yourself, lasted much longer than the initial disappointment from making the mistake.
This concludes the introduction and background to the basic concept of mindfulness and conceptually how cultivating mindfulness can contribute to sport performance. The following chapter provides an introduction to the practice of mindfulness