Mindfulness meditation for athletes
Hello everybody! I’m back for day three of our five-day “New Year, New Mindset” video series.
I am really excited and a little bit nervous today, which is usually a really good indicator of good things to come. Today’s topic is “spirit.”
I’ll get to that in a second. If you are joining us for the first time, if this is the first of the three videos that you are able to attend, then I’ll give you a little background on me and what we’re doing here really quickly before we dive into the spirit stuff.
First of all, there’s a toolkit that you can download below. It goes over the main stuff from the last two sessions, from today. Today’s has a guided meditation in it which is an extra bonus. And, there are two more days coming. You’ll get info on all of it if you download the toolkit for extra reference.
I am a sports psychology expert specializing in work with kids and teens. I primarily work with kids who (strangely enough) are just like me, or just like the old me. I was a gymnast. I quit at a fairly young age because my fear got to be too much and now it’s kind of my personal crusade to help you, or kids like you, or kids like your kids, overcome fear and live up to their maximum potential. That’s what I do.
I have a Masters in Sports Psych and a history of coaching gymnastics and competing in gymnastics. Now I work with a lot of gymnasts, but also swimmers and athletes from team sports, you name it. But my favorite is working with kids because there’s a lot of potential, a lot of potential that if you get in young, you can teach skills that last a lifetime so that’s why I really like it.
Back to our five things that create the complete athlete.
We talked about the mind on day one, which is really my wheelhouse. Then the body, which is not my expertise but it is important because if you are not fueling it correctly you cannot be a peak performer.
Now we’re at the middle and we’re at spirit. Tomorrow we’ll be on to inner circle, which is your close people, your support squad. Then, the final video will be on the team or community, so that’s expanding out to the outermost ring.
When I thought about talking about the spiritual part of sport, I started to go, “Oh gosh, there might be some resistance here from people.” So I’m going to give you a disclaimer right off the bat:
You are completely free to disagree with me.
My suggestion is: if something resonates with you, listen to that, follow that, take a tip. That’s with any of these videos. Just try to find something that can move you forward. If you disagree with me completely, that’s totally fine because not everything works for everybody but I’m going to tell you some stuff that really resonates with me in hopes that it will help you to perform better.
I’m going to work my talk around a quote by Andrew Cooper and it’s in the toolkit if you want to get that for reference and I’m just going to break down the quote. I’ll read it in full and then I’ll break it down.
The quote is:
“Sport is not the whole of life but by joining consciousness to excellence in form, it ushers us into life’s wholeness. Sport may not make one a better person but by showing much of what is best in us, it can help. It may not bring spiritual enlightenment but it does display the spirit’s dazzling glow. Sport rarely brings substantive self-knowledge, but few things so readily connect us with the source of self-knowledge: the center of our being, that place within the swirl of action where we find stillness.”
– Andrew Cooper
When I read that quote it completely moved me because it resonated with the way that I look at sport.
The first part:
“Sport is not the whole of life…”
Well, if you are a gymnast or a swimmer or many other types of athletes, you might disagree because I agree most gymnasts say, “Gymnastics is my life.” I even say that. I mean really, I’ve been doing it since I was two and I’ve never put the sport down in one way or another, but the quote says, “Sport is not the whole of life.” If you’re a parent you might agree because it’s really a blip on the radar on the entire life experience.
“but by joining consciousness to excellence in form it ushers us into life’s wholeness…”
The easy way of saying that is:
By being present for your own excellence, you get to tap into a part of life that is so satisfying.
If you think about one of your best performances and just being aware of your level of excellence… all of the things that led up to it fall into place. And everything, everything is good in the world. Really, if we’re being honest, everything in the world is always good, but it’s really easy to feel it right after you break through a mental block or right after you have a really great performance.
I like that, that being conscious to your own excellence can help you to feel like life is whole even though it always is.
The next section of the quote,
“Sport may not make one a better person, but by showing much of what is best in us, it can help.”
That’s kind of similar. You get to see what’s best in you.
Of course our minds want to go to what’s worst in us because that’s the way we’re wired as a species.
For example: if I’m running away from a tiger and I’m not a fast runner, I’m going to be really hyper-aware: “I am not a fast runner. I am not a fast runner.” Because then I know I need to climb a tree to get away from the tiger. So my mind is set on being negative.
But, when I do something amazing and everyone around me goes, “Wow! That was the best routine you’ve ever done!” Or, “That was the best (whatever), you were excellent!” You can’t help but see: “I am excellent.” And that just reinforces the goodness in the world and in ourselves.
Then the next part is:
“It does not bring spiritual enlightenment but it does display the spirit’s glow.”
Think about a time when you watched somebody have a peak sport experience. The Olympics, for example.
I watched those gymnasts and it was peak experience after peak experience. Watching Simone Biles fly through the air like gravity was no issue. I look at her and see the glow. That’s something that anybody has access to if they’re willing to put in the effort that she did and to really invest their heart in something like she did. It’s a glow that you know you’ve felt if you felt it, and you know you’ve seen it if you’ve watched some of these great sport performances happen.
It’s one of the reasons I think that people like to watch sports. Because you’re watching these people just glow with their heart and soul having been invested in this amazing process.
Finally, the last bit of the quote is,
“Sport rarely brings substantive self-knowledge but few things so readily connect us with the source of self-knowledge, the center of our being, that place within the swirl of action where we find stillness.”
That, the way I see it, is intuition. Intuition is really important for me, and again you’re welcome to disagree, I will not take it poorly. But this is my way of looking at it: There’s a still small voice within me that always knows what’s the right decision, that conscience, that intuition.
When we get sidetracked by other things, like fear, or wanting to go for a goal to the point of bulldozing through life and ruining other things, it makes that little voice, that little intuitive voice smaller and smaller. Then the ego, or the fear, or whatever negative thinking gets REALLY LOUD. We have to train our minds to let that kind of settle like a snow globe so that the little still voice can be there, allowing us to know what’s true and right for us.
That glow, that connectedness, that intuition, that is what I call Spirit. So that is my very long way of explaining what today’s talk is about.
It’s that stillness… that calmness… that okayness… that peace that I think everyone who’s an athlete (or even a human really) wants out of life. And sport is just a really cool way to get that more and more.
It ties into what most of my research was on in grad school and that was on flow theory. Basically flow theory is the theory that when you have certain things aligned, your body takes over. You become completely immersed and you have these peak experiences where you’re working really, really hard but it doesn’t feel hard and everything falls into place. You’re not even aware you exist because you’re completely enmeshed with your experience.
If you’re a swimmer, you are one with the water. If you’re a shooter, you are one with your gun. If you are a gymnast, you are one with the floor, and the air, and the bars. There is no separation. That experience is what I keep talking about: these peak experiences where everything is great and right.
There are people who research this for a living. How cool, right? What they have come up with are certain characteristics that you have to have in order to get into this flow state. The one that really stands out to me and feels applicable to this talk is present moment awareness.
Present moment awareness
Think back, if you’ve ever had one of those peak experiences (which I hope you have, and if you haven’t, I hope you’ll get one). I guarantee you were completely present in the moment. You were not worried about the future. You were not lamenting about the past. You were present.
In order to unlock maximum performance, you must be present.
That loud voice might be yapping at you the entire time when you start to practice being present. And the little voice is inside there just waiting, just waiting for the snow to settle so that you can hear it and get your clear direction.
Again, this is the way I see the world and it’s okay if you disagree, but sometimes you have to come up against that loud voice before you can allow it to quiet down. You have to train your mind to say, “Oh well, that’s the loud voice… Let’s calm down and get quiet and listen to the quiet voice.”
One of the best ways to train your brain to actually do this is through mindfulness or meditation.
There are a lot of different ways to do this and really the main points are: you have to get yourself kind of still, at least when you’re learning. Be present.
One of the best ways to do this is just to bring your focus to your breath.
While you’re listening to my voice, pay attention to the sound of my voice and just notice your breathing.
Then you can even start to listen to the silence between my words and continue to pay attention to your breathing.
Just feel your body
Be in your body, be in each of the senses.
You can even close your eyes if you’re not driving and if you’re in a place where you can do that.
You can close your eyes and just start to focus on your breathing. And while you’re doing that, you’ll probably be distracted by thoughts, fears, worries, planning or maybe it’ll be completely calm but chances are you’ll get thoughts that’ll come in. That’s that loud voice. What you do when that happens is bring your focus back to your breath. You don’t judge the thoughts. You allow the thoughts to be there. “Oh, hello thoughts.” They come in and you let them go.
One way that’s worked for me is to imagine that I’m putting each thought in a balloon and holding it and then letting it go. And up it goes… I can watch it in my mind until it goes up, up, up, up, up, and then it disappears.
There’s that little bit of stillness and calm every time that it goes up and then it releases. You can do that or you can just breathe, remembering that every time your mind gets clouded with thoughts or fears or worries, you’re just practicing. Allowing it to settle. Allowing the calm to come back. Allowing yourself to get back into your breathing. And you’re teaching that small voice to get louder and that big voice to get quieter.
This is something that you have to do more than once, you know, just like physical training and mental training.
Spiritual training takes effort and it takes time
Some people who teach meditation say, “Just let your butt hit the pillow every day.” You know, your meditation cushion. You don’t need a special cushion. It doesn’t even have to be in a chair. I often do it in bed before I go to sleep because I go, “I’m going to do it before I go to sleep and it’s now or never.”
If you just make a commitment to “Let your butt hit your pillow once a day” and spend at least a couple of minutes just breathing and noticing. Notice the loud voice. Sometimes it’s really uncomfortable because it’s like, “AHH! This voice is so annoying!” But, then you’ll have times where it’s just so peaceful. Then in your life and in the gym and in your sport, you will start to notice that you’re happier, that you can regulate your emotions, and that you feel more connected to the people around you.
Just because you’re used to acknowledging, “Oh well, that’s just fear.” Or, “That’s just ego.” Or, “That’s just worry.” And it’s okay. And you don’t have to judge it. When you just let it be, the amount of stress goes down significantly.
Other forms of meditation
So we’ve got breath meditation. There’s also mantra meditation. This can be like “Om,” you can look up mantra meditation to find some suggestions of mantras. I like things like, “everything is as it should be. Everything is as it should be.” Or gratitude. Just, “Thank you. Breathe. Thank you.” Or counting, “one, two, three,” up to 10 and then start again. One through 10, start again.
If you’re a swimmer, you can do this in the pool. Count to 10, start again.
Dedicate a little bit of each practice to being completely mindful.
If you’re on the balance beam, just feel your feet. Feel your feet on the beam for as long as you can for one minute. If you’re brushing your teeth, do it with your non-dominant hand and feel the strangeness. Anything that’s unfamiliar you tend to be more plugged into.
Practice mindfulness every single day
Writing is another way I recommend, especially if you feel really jumbled up with fear or overwhelmed by overthinking.
Just get out a journal and write. Write what’s going on, freeform. There’s no wrong way. Just let all those thoughts, loud thoughts and the quiet thoughts, all play together on the page. Then at the end, you’ll notice that you’re more calm. You don’t have to judge your thoughts. It’s important that you don’t. Just let them be.
In the toolkit there is a quick five-minute mindfulness meditation that’s guided so you can practice it. I recommend doing it in the morning if you can but if it’s the end of the day or never, just do it. Just spend between two and five minutes, and then once you start to like it, you can ratchet it up to seven, maybe 10 minutes. You’ll start to notice that it has a big effect on your performance.
That is it for Spirit today and if you have any questions, please feel free to reach out. I hope that this will give you something to take away so whatever you resonated with today, take it into your sport and find that peace, calm and excellence in yourself.