Aug 26, 2016
More On Mindfulness
Dr. Michael Brumage and Dr. Mike Gross

Last week, we introduced the concept of mindfulness meditation (click here to review the article), which can bring the mind and body together to improve concentration, increase awareness, and enhance athletic performance. This week we offer a look at how to incorporate the idea into training.

A few years ago, we partnered with West Virginia University to bring mindfulness to its football team. Working with strength coach Michael Joseph, we created 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 previous 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 activity in this module was developing breathing awareness. Through it, the athletes 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. And 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 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, 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 used 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 of a mountain and 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.

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.

There was a range of reactions from WVU athletes on mindfulness training. Some athletes welcomed the approach, others opposed it, and 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. One student-athlete 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, but this is a slow process that requires patience and persistence. We 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.

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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