Aug 26, 2016
Learning to Focus
Dr. Michael Brumage and Dr. Mike Gross

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 it 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.


Mindfulness has been described as a state of “non-cognitive knowing.” Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn, 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.


How can mindfulness be beneficial to athletes? 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, volleyball players can make mistakes in the form of short or long serves, bad passes, and incorrectly reading the opposing defense. Reacting to these errors can result in further distrated play. However, a response — conditioned through mindfulness practice — can bring their awareness to the thoughts and emotions that are interfering with the match. 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.

Next week, we will provide specific examples of how to incorporate mindfulness meditation into training.

Michael Brumage, MD, is Executive Director of the Kanawha-Charleston (W.Va.) Health Department. He also serves as an Assistant Clinical Professor in the Department of Behavioral Medicine and Psychiatry and as a consultant to the athletic department on mindfulness-based performance enhancement at West Virginia University.

Mike Gross, PsyD, runs a private practice in Somerset, N.J., specializing in mindfulness- and acceptance-based interventions for athletes and is a staff counselor at The College of New Jersey. Previously, he was a predoctoral intern in the Carruth Center for Psychological Services at West Virginia University, where he helped bring mindfulness training to the school's athletes.

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