The practice of mindfulness has application across so many different areas of life. Research shows how mindfulness meditation can support mental health, encourage better decision making, and significantly improve the relationships around you. However, the impact mindfulness can have within sport performance isn’t as widely recognised.
My career within both professional sport and psychology has given me a unique understanding of the relationship between mindfulness and sport performance. I’ve developed a particular interest in how one reaches peak athletic performance, and one thing has become very clear to me - it cannot be achieved solely through physical training, it requires training of the mind.
Performing under extreme pressure
For the players, coaching teams and support staff during the lead up to an AFL grand final, it may just be the most pressure they’ll ever feel.
They’ve spent the season - and their careers - preparing their bodies to withstand the physical stress of eighty minutes of football, played at the highest level, but from the 15 years I've spent involved with professional football I’ve learnt that what it will come down to on the day is how they’ve prepared their minds.
Players prepare their whole lives for - if they’re lucky - one shot at an AFL premiership. Each year, millions of people watch the game on TV, and the criticism for a missed step, kick, or dropped pass can be relentless.
The stakes could not be higher. I played in six AFL finals, and the pressure is like nothing else I have ever experienced. It’s a blur. Everything is quicker, and the roar of the crowd is deafening. With the game in progress, I remember spending a lot of emotional energy worrying about the outcome, the finality of it. Lose and the season is over. Thoughts would race through my head: “What does that mean for me, my career? Our team’s future?”
It is human nature to make mistakes. However, in the high-pressure environment of sport and AFL, there’s often a belief that mistakes are not allowed. I remember making mistakes during the game and dwelling on these because of the intense pressure, coupled with deafening boos from the crowd.
The MCG with 90,000 people watching your every move can be a very lonely place, and players need to be prepared.
Training your mind to pay attention
In one finals game, the coach told the team before we they ran out, “righto boys, today I want you to be cool, calm and collected”. The game started and one of the most experienced players promptly gave away about six free kicks in the first quarter. That’s the thing with mindfulness. You can’t just tell yourself to remain calm under pressure. You have to train it.
Mindfulness is a skill of attention control, and similar to playing a guitar, riding a bike, or playing tennis, the more you do it, the better you get. As you become more skilled, you’ll find it becomes more and more noticeable when your attention begins to wander.
You’ll become more effective at returning your attention to the present, and focussing it on where you want it to be. Say, the ball or your positioning on the field.
Putting it into practice
Meditation is one of the most effective ways of developing the skill of mindfulness. I’ve seen athlete’s performances significantly improve by developing a meditation practice and putting it into practice on game day.
Through Smiling Mind’s work with elite sporting clubs, we see athletes who meditate in the morning find they receive the benefits of controlling their attention more effectively throughout the rest of the day’s training or game. A practiced meditator can tap back into the feelings of control and calm that a mindful practice creates, even when they’re charging head first into the biggest game of their lives.
Try practising the following exercise before your next training session.
1. Start by taking three long, deep breaths before allowing your breath to settle back into its natural rhythm.
2. Now, each time you breathe out, begin to count. For example: Inhale, exhale, “one”. Inhale, exhale, “two”, and so on.
3. As you do this, make sure that your attention is actually on the breath. If your attention wanders off (which it will!), simply start counting again at one.
4. See if you can get to ten and then start again at one.
5. Try not to get frustrated, just keep breathing and counting. Be honest with yourself - if your attention wanders off, no big deal, just start again. And again. And again. This will teach you to use the awareness of your breath to sharpen your concentration.
Remember, if you mind wanders, you haven’t failed. You’re not meditating ‘incorrectly’. The idea is to simply notice when it wanders, let go of whatever had distracted you, and come back to just being present again.
Developing the skill of mindfulness, which takes practice, won’t ensure you will succeed, it won’t guarantee a grand final win, and it won’t solve all life’s problems. But it will give you the best chance of reaching your performance potential, even in the face of adversity.
If you can quieten your mind and refocus off the field, there’s all the more chance that you’ll be able to do the same when the siren sounds.
As in life, having a winning team often comes down to those that handle the pressure of the big moments. And the best performers do not leave this to chance. While you can still perform well with your thoughts dwelling on the past or worrying about the future, you won’t reach your performance potential. It’s impossible.
Ben Robbins is a Smiling Mind Facilitator and earning his PhD in Clinical Psychology. He was a professional footballer for 10 seasons and used mindfulness to help manage the high levels of emotion, stress and pressure associated with this environment.