Imagine if one dropped pass, one swing and a miss, or one slip up could not only ruin your entire career, but also embarrass you in your community for years to come. This is the state of pressure in which professional athletes must excel. One bad move can cost a fortune. But, these mental pressures aren’t just for the pros.
The pressure is on for athletes on all levels, from college to high school, even all the way down to the little leagues. You don’t need millions of dollars on the line to feel an intense, often crushing (even if imagined) mental pressure while on the field of play.
The ability of an athlete to calm their mind and overcome the mental stress can be the difference between constantly battling problems with “choking,” or failing under the pressure, and succeeding when everything is on the line.
Some of the world’s best athletes have excelled in these situations, and they all share one common trait: mental toughness built from a strong commitment to resilience and mindfulness practices. From Michael Jordan, to Tom Brady to the Williams Sisters, athletes who continually perform in do-or-die situations are celebrated for their mental toughness. The good news is, much like the body, there is a way to train your brain to be resilient, and ready to achieve greatness in the face of adversity.
By incorporating mindfulness into your training. Don’t dismiss mindfulness as new-age or strictly for the meditation and yoga crowd. Athletes from some of the toughest, high-pressure sports like football, soccer, baseball, and hockey use some form of mindfulness to train their brain to become a champion. Here are 6 benefits you’ll get from mindfulness training:
1. Improved Focus and Concentration: Focus is essential. In high concentration sports like tennis or baseball, even a momentary lapse in focus can lose you the game. Mindfulness training helps you cultivate the skill of directing attention to the present moment. This allows an athlete to let go of distractions and perform at their best. Remember, pre-game hype is great. But, when you take the field to do battle for several hours, your ability to stay focused must be trained to last for the entire game.
2. Get in the Zone on Command: You’ve heard athletes and analysts talk about “getting in the zone.” But, what does this even mean? The zone, called the flow state by sports psychologists, is a state of mind where everything seems to move a bit slower, your decision making speed is heightened, and your body and brain flow as one complete unit with minimal response time.
The problem is that most athletes enter flow state by accident. The ability to enter the zone on command is an absolute game changer. Mindfulness training, teaching the brain to return to the present moment, and breathe rhythmically can help you fall into a state where your brain waves, alpha and theta, are enhanced and are perfect for enhancing performance.
Anxiety can actually cause muscle fatigue. It also burns a tremendous amount of mental energy. Flow state can not be achieved with a tired body and brain. Calm the mind, have a well rested body through mindfulness training, and flow state can be entered easily when the stakes are highest.
3. Enhanced Emotional Regulation: Control your emotions, control your opponent. This is especially true in solo-athletic competitions, like weightlifting, figure skating, or swimming. You must be prepared to deal with the highs and lows, and control your inner dialogue.
Mindfulness encourages athletes to accept their emotions, without judgment. This can also help an athlete discard negative self thinking, which can destroy performance. A perfect example is the cornerback in football. It is said they need to have the shortest memories in sports. Why? If they are beaten on a play, and let that stay in their mind, they will be beaten again and again. The ability to push that momentary failure out of their minds, and control their emotions, is critical to success.
4. Upgraded Sleep Quality: Chinese, Cuban, and Bulgarian Olympic Weightlifters, who dominated the sport for decades, are known to sleep up to 12-hours per day. Why? Sleep is essential to recovery. All athletes need better sleep quality, and not just the night before the big game. A tired brain does not function properly. Many studies have shown that even minor sleep disruptions can decrease reaction and decision making time the next day.
5. Better Body Awareness: The ability for your brain to communicate freely with your body is paramount to athletic success. To achieve a high level of sports success, it is not enough to be simply physically fit. Mental fitness is just as important. Through mindfulness training – alone, through guided hypnosis, or with a therapist specializing in breathwork – the mind and body can become fully attuned. You’ll be able to notice subtle physical sensations, feel the early signs of injury, and even make on-the-fly adjustments to your technique or form.
6. Mental Toughness: You will fail. At least once. Probably hundreds of times. All athletes do. Michael Jordan has been quoted as saying: “I’ve missed more than 9,000 shots in my career. I’ve lost almost 300 games. Twenty-six times I’ve been trusted to take the game-winning shot and missed. I’ve failed over and over and over again in my life. And that is why I succeed.”
Clearly Jordan was mentally tough. The ability to overcome setbacks, losses, and failures is paramount to athletic success. Weak-minded players do not succeed. The history of the NFL is littered with top draft picks who flopped. They were physically gifted, but the pressure of football’s largest stage was simply too much.
Mindfulness training can help develop that mental toughness, by allowing an athlete to focus their thoughts on the here-and-now, rather than dwelling on past failures or the glare of the crowd. It can also help calm anxiety and allow the brain to focus on directing the body to perform at its peak, rather than devoting energy to useless worry.