Nov 26, 2015In the Moment
Through mindfulness meditation, student-athletes at West Virginia University are learning to be aware of the present and shut out distractions, leading to enhanced performance both on the field and off.
The following article appears in the December 2015 issue of Training & Conditioning.
Standing in front of a group of West Virginia University athletes, we asked, “How much of your game is mental?” One player confidently raised his hand and responded, “100 percent.” Certainly, success in athletics depends on the amalgam of strength and conditioning, coaching, scheme development, and raw talent, but-as today’s athletes are well aware-the mental component holds equal significance.
Recently, the importance of mental training in athletics has received a lot of attention but has been haphazardly introduced. For some, “mental training” means booking a motivational speaker, playing high-energy music, or practicing visualization techniques-often with mixed results. In addition, coaches tell their athletes to
“Focus!” or “Pay attention!” yet little effort is made to cultivate these skills.
Fortunately, an evidence-based model exists for training attention and focus: mindfulness meditation. Supported by results both in the lab and in practice with athletes, mindfulness can bring the mind and body together to improve concentration, increase awareness, and enhance athletic performance.
Former WVU Athletic Director Oliver Luck first invited us to introduce mindfulness meditation to a small group of players, athletic department staffers, and sport coaches in April 2014. He had been reading about mindfulness in athletics-including how it helped the Seattle Seahawks win Super Bowl XLVIII-and was interested in exploring how it could benefit student-athletes, given how much they need to juggle on and off the field.
Our initial presentation sparked the interest of Director of Strength and Conditioning Michael Joseph, MS, CSCS, SCCC, and Head Volleyball Coach Jill Kramer (who has since moved on to Texas Christian University). They both wanted to learn more about mindfulness and bring it to the football and volleyball squads.
Together, we made a plan to incorporate mindfulness training with both teams. Over the past year and a half, we have used mindfulness to enhance athletic performance and improve psychological, emotional, and behavioral outcomes among these WVU athletes.
WHAT IS IT?
Mindfulness has been described as a state of “non-cognitive knowing.” Jon Kabat-Zinn, PhD, the Executive Director of the Center for Mindfulness in Medicine, Health Care, and Society at the University of Massachusetts Medical School and one of the preeminent authorities on mindfulness, defines it as: “Paying attention in a particular way, on purpose, to the present moment, and doing so non-judgmentally.” In simple terms, it’s waking up to life as it’s happening.
The mind is easily distracted, quickly jumping from one topic to another. When we try to focus, we often work to combat this behavior. Yet in mindfulness practice, there are no “good” or “bad” thoughts or emotions, just an ever-changing stream that passes across our awareness. By directing our attention to whatever is happening in the present moment, mindfulness allows us to focus amid any distractions.
Our simplistic explanation of mindfulness belies the difficulty in actually achieving this kind of awareness. The training requires skill, tenacity, and self-discipline.
Some of the most common mindfulness exercises are breathing awareness, re-centering, and body scans. Breathing awareness is when an individual sits in stillness and pays attention to their inhalations and exhalations. Re-centering brings their attention back to each breath whenever their mind wanders to a different thought or emotion. Lastly, body scans switch the focus from the breath to the sensations of the body, starting at the toes and moving upward to the head, literally bringing mind and body together.
APPLIED TO ATHLETES
So why is mindfulness beneficial to athletes? There are many reasons. First, it enables them to make choices about how to respond, rather than react, to challenging situations. Responding requires awareness and discernment, while reactions are reflexive and can be counterproductive.
For instance, football players often make mistakes in the form of turnovers, dropped passes, and missed assignments. Reacting to these errors may result in a costly penalty or the athlete’s removal from the game. However, a response-conditioned through mindfulness practice-can bring their awareness to the thoughts and emotions that are interfering with the game. In doing so, they can bring their attention back to the present moment and refocus on the assignment at hand.
Another way mindfulness training can help athletes is by dispelling the myth that there is an attainable “perfect mental state.” It’s common for them to put faith in statements like, “You cannot be anxious and perform well,” or, “You must think positive to obtain optimal performance.” However, these are somewhat unrealistic. Sports and life are often messy, confusing, and chaotic. Mindfulness allows for focusing and refocusing attention in the face of distracting thoughts and emotions.
A mindfulness-based intervention also has the potential to improve athletes’ mental health. They are more likely than non-athletes to develop eating disorders, substance abuse issues, and depression yet less likely to seek out mental health services. Because mindfulness training does not have to be led by a sport psychologist, practitioners are able to engage athletes in a non-clinical setting. This allows them to overcome the stigma of calling for help or self-referring to a counseling center.
To bring mindfulness to WVU football, we worked with strength coach Michael Joseph to create a mindfulness training plan called Mountaineer Mental Strength Training (MMST). The initial rollout happened in July 2014. MMST is comprised of five modules that are delivered over the course of four to five weeks during the preseason or offseason.
Module 1 served as an introduction to mindfulness. We reviewed some of the scientific evidence supporting its use and discussed its application in the athletic domain. We encouraged the athletes to think of mindfulness as weight lifting for the brain, building and sculpting the “muscle” of awareness.
The team’s first mindfulness exercise involved a detailed visualization of a game from the 2013 season, and we gave specific reminders of emotional events during the contest. The purpose of this exercise was to elicit thoughts and emotions about the game. Then, we worked to help the players see these thoughts and emotions as passing phenomena and get them to refocus back on the present moment through attention to the sensations of breathing.
Next, the team completed a mindful eating exercise in which a raisin was assessed through sight, feel, smell, sound (yes, raisins make a sound when you roll them between your fingers) and taste. The exercise unfolded over 15 minutes and demonstrated how objects we take for granted can often provide a new experience when considered in a methodical, mindful way. It also pointed to how preconceived notions and judgments can stand in the way of experiences of everyday life.
Module 2, titled “Winning the Present Moment,” emphasized various ways to train the mind to be in the here and now, both formally through meditations and via quick exercises to re-center focus. The main exercise in this module was developing breathing awareness. Through this activity, the athletes quickly learned that the mind has a mind of its own, and focus doesn’t just happen but requires repetitive effort. We practiced coming back to the present moment in very short periods of time, even with a single breath.
Module 3 was “Mindfulness on the Field.” We introduced the idea that optimal performance doesn’t require controlling thoughts or emotions. Labeling these passing phenomena as “bad” is a judgment that ultimately distracts from the ability to perform in a state of flow.
One key element of this module was discerning between emotionally reacting versus responding. We used video clips from college and professional football games found on the Internet to show reactions that hurt teams, such as ill-timed offside penalties and trash talking, as well as responses that reflected an acute awareness of the game and helped teams.
The activities for this module included a brief, pre-practice centering exercise, during which the players stood in a firm posture-spine straight, feet shoulder-width apart, and with an open chest. They focused on their breath and arrived fully to the practice setting. The second part of this exercise included visualizing the practice, re-centering on the breath numerous times whenever their minds drifted to thoughts about how difficult the workout would be. We ended with a body scan.
Module 4 focused on mindfulness off the field for academics, sleep, and relationships. Extra attention was paid to addressing anxiety, depression, and substance use, along with reducing stress and increasing focus.
In addition, we talked about how developing greater cognitive flexibility requires practicing mindfulness informally in daily life. Engaging in activities as simple as eating mindfully, reducing distractions, and fully engaging in conversations can help build athletes’ concentration.
During this module, we included the re-centering exercise and expanded on the awareness of breathing exercises to focus on body sensations. We also incorporated soundscapes as objects of attention. Listening to ambient sounds in an environment is another way to train awareness because they can help bring someone back into the present moment.
Module 5 had the theme, “Becoming the Mountain,” evoking the imagery so ingrained in the identity of being a WVU Mountaineer. The mountain represents stillness, stability, and strength, and we referenced it to develop a deeper sense of self in players, build self-compassion and compassion for others-notably teammates and the coaching staff-and maintain poise throughout the season. The primary exercise was the mountain meditation, in which athletes stood with their feet planted firmly on the ground, with upright bodies and open chests. They were instructed to reflect on the qualities that make up a mountain and think about how those qualities lived inside of them.
MMST was very flexible throughout all five modules, and we incorporated Michael Joseph’s ideas to integrate team messages and cater to athletes’ interests. He often suggested the use of relevant imagery to drive home our teaching points. Michael also recommended we use movie clips with a warrior ethos as part of our message.
For instance, we showed the introduction from the movie Sole Survivor to illustrate the mental aspect of SEALs in training. In addition, a sword practice scene from the film The Last Samurai demonstrated the importance of re-centering after defeat to bring the mind and body together.
Beyond the modules, we put the athletes through a visualization meditation prior to the first few games of the season to hone their re-centering skills. These visualizations guided them through their game-day routines and environment, and we often used video clips and photos to evoke thoughts and emotions that might become distracting in a competition. In doing this, the players could figure out ways to recognize potential distractions and develop a plan to address them before they occurred during a game.
Other in-season mindfulness work included weekly group sessions (minimum one time per week for 15 minutes) to build upon previously learned concepts and engage athletes in regular mental strength training. We also created a series of audio meditation exercises that players could download onto a mobile device and crafted about 20 individualized meditations for players who requested them. Dr. Brumage continues to work with the team on mindfulness meditation.
ON THE COURT
Working with WVU volleyball was a bit different because we partnered with Coach Kramer instead of the team’s strength coach. Coach Kramer had some background in mindfulness from researching the subject, and she was very enthusiastic about teaching her team ways to cultivate greater awareness, focus, and overall well-being. Her support greatly enhanced the program’s effectiveness.
Mindfulness training with WVU volleyball began in late July 2014 and continued throughout the fall season. The program involved two main components: weekly meetings and pregame meditations.
Dr. Gross began each weekly session with a guided meditation, which was immediately followed by focused dialogue. The guided meditations were similar to those we used with the football team, utilizing body scans, breathing meditations, and mindfulness of sounds. Focused dialogue, an open discussion about the players’ thoughts on the mindfulness practice, allowed the athletes to process their experience and gain a greater conceptual understanding for it. During these dialogues, the players expressed a healthy blend of skepticism and curiosity, which seemed to facilitate their growth.
Given that athletes have a tendency to strive for perfection, it was common to hear the volleyball players say things like, “I am not doing this right. My mind keeps wandering.” These statements provided excellent opportunities for Dr. Gross to reinforce that it is the nature of the mind to wander, and the true goal of mindfulness is to recognize where it has gone and bring it back to the primary object of attention.
Additionally, the weekly meetings allowed Dr. Gross to address a number of other topics such as relationships, coping with stressful life events, academics, and sleep. Similar to how athletes can be reminded to bring their attention back to the breath when dwelling on a past serve or contemplating future outcomes during a match, they can learn to refocus when having difficulty sleeping or when worrying about upcoming midterms.
At the request of Coach Kramer, we also facilitated pregame meditations for each match. These were recorded on an iPhone and emailed to her, and she downloaded the audio recording for the team to listen to. Each meditation lasted approximately two to four minutes. In most instances, the team listened to the pregame meditations together in the locker room before going out for warm-ups, but Dr. Gross conducted them in person a few times, as well.
The sessions typically involved abbreviated meditations, including breathing exercises, body scans, and reminders to pay attention to the breath and body. A central message in the meditations was that although the mind can get caught up in worrying about future outcomes or past mistakes, the match unfolds in the present moment. As such, Dr. Gross encouraged players to notice when the chatter of their minds distracted them from the task at hand and bring themselves back to the present moment by using their breath or another object of attention, such as the temperature against their skin, feel of the volleyball, or the sensations of contact arising from their sneakers against the court. (See “Mind Over Matter” below for a script from a sample pregame meditation.)
Dr. Gross has since moved to New Jersey where he has continued to develop mindfulness-based training programs for athletes. He is currently working on implementing mindfulness training for The College of New Jersey men’s basketball and Coach Kramer’s new team at TCU.
WVU athletes gave us both positive and negative feedback from the mindfulness training. Neither team wholly accepted the concept-some athletes welcomed the approach, some opposed it, while many watched with curiosity, waiting to see whether it worked for their teammates or not.
With football, special teams and skill position players embraced mindfulness most eagerly. We anticipated this, as did Michael Joseph, because this group is always looking for an edge to improve their performance and time on the field. However, we also had interest from a handful of other players on offense and defense.
Of those who took to mindfulness, one player reported he was using visual cues in the stadium to refocus his attention during games. Others privately told us of their small triumphs, such as paying complete attention to their drive home from campus, hearing the sounds of the day with fresh ears, or pushing through workouts when becoming aware that their minds were leading them to quit.
Any new idea introduced into the busy lives of student-athletes should show some benefit if we expect them to accept it, so it has been a slow process that requires patience and persistence. We continue to focus our attention on the players who want to work with us but remain open to those who are less enthusiastic. Mindfulness isn’t the only way to mentally train, but for athletes who choose to spend the time and effort to know their own minds better, it is a powerful tool to help them in many aspects of their lives.
MIND OVER MATTER
When leading pregame meditations with the West Virginia University volleyball team during the 2014 season, Mike Gross, PsyD, LPC, then a predoctoral intern in the Carruth Center for Psychological Services at WVU, would create unique scripts for each session. In some instances, he would begin with an inspirational quote to get the athletes in the right frame of mind. Then, he would guide the athletes through a brief centering exercise, as follows:
Make the primary focus of attention a sense of the body as a whole sitting here-feeling your skin, perhaps even the indoor air against your skin. Notice your posture-the sensations of contact of your feet against the floor, your back and thighs against the chair, and a sense of the shoulders, arms, and hands. Simply resting here now in this awareness of the whole of the body. In touch with whatever rises. Pain, soreness, tension, tingling, pulsing. Just resting here without having to do anything with what comes up, but simply noticing it.
The next stage of the meditation would bring the athletes’ awareness to their breath:
Now let’s shift our attention, making the primary focus of attention the breath. Just riding the waves of the breath as it flows in and out of the body. Perhaps noticing the rise and fall of the belly with each out breath and each in breath. And if the mind starts to drift, just gently bring it back to the breath.
Lastly, Dr. Gross would help make athletes aware of the sounds in their environment and send them off to pregame warm-ups:
And again let’s shift our attention this time, making sounds the primary focus of attention. Notice what is here to be heard. What sounds do you hear outside of the locker room? What sounds do you hear inside the locker room? Open your ears to even the slightest of sounds in this room. Even noticing the sound of silence. And now when you’re ready, open your eyes and commit yourself to play today’s match moment by moment and point by point.
Note: This script demonstrates a sample meditation. It is only intended for use by those who have training and experience in mindfulness practice.