Performance Through Mindfulness

To address this write up we’ll need to make sure everyone understands Mindfulness. No it’s not some hippy trippy thing that doesn’t apply to you. Mindfulness can have a direct benefit in your day to day life and rugby performance. Mindfulness is emerging more and more in the mainstream, but also within the sports world. Winning sports teams from when Phil Jackson led the Chicago Bulls, to more recent uses with Seattle Seahawks (the Super Bowl runs), College Football powers Alabama and Florida State to the Rugby League’s South Sydney Rabbithons are all applying Mindfulness practices and getting results! Even the badasses such as US Marines are testing Mind Fitness (mindfulness) training to help them relax, increase focus and boost understanding of their environments when in combat (Hochman, 2013).

Here is one of the great things about mindfulness; you can start the practice of Mindfulness even if your club doesn’t have a Mindfulness Coach like those teams. Mindfulness is fairly basic but like any practice takes time and must be done regularly.

So think of Mindfulness as a mental state of being actively aware and attentive to the present! Simple right? When being Mindful you will observe your thoughts, body, and self, but from a distance in a totally non-judgmental manner. So what you feel physically is just there, it’s not good or bad. Thoughts aren’t good or bad, just acknowledge you have the thought and then focus on what you set out to do. Mindfulness is really living in the present moment and being aware of the experience of now.

There is the old adage (no way to know if true) but they say 90% of sports performance is mental. If that is true then it may be worth while to develop that part of our game as well as our physical skills.

The practice of Mindfulness as we know it was introduced by Jon Kabat –Zinn in the late 1970s. Mindfulness has its roots in Buddhism (but similar practices existed in other parts of the world as well). The form of deep prayer that some catholic monks practice or Sufi practitioners use are really a form of mindfulness.

How are teams using it?  When Pete Carroll took over the NFL’s Seattle Seahawks he brought in a Mindfulness coach, with the purpose to help the players focus, to increase awareness, improve clarity of thought and the ability to stay present (Gordhamer 2014).  The Mindfulness coach of the Seahawks believes that “it is ‘awareness’ that allows athletes to guide their minds, continuously toward an ideal mindset”.  Your mind can be busy, with a lot of internal thoughts and discussions, which can at time be distracting and divert from your focus on a task. Your mind may at times question if you can do something and then the doubt and those thoughts start to fill you head.

Now let’s look at that as an athlete. Is that beneficial, or is it better to be able to clear your head, be able to focus your attention? This can help in training/lifting weights, running, and we are sure it also plays a factor in a game. What if you can let those thoughts just pass? What if you are able to just realize they are thoughts and be able to redirect your focus on to whatever you want? Let’s look at right before a kickoff, if you get butterflies, would being able to clear your head and focus help you? What about being in tune with the flow of the game; being present on what is happening at that very moment vs what already happened (stuck in the past isn’t going to help you in the very next moment when the pass, or a runner, or something else comes at you). Trying to look ahead to what may happen next also distracts you from what is happening now! Can we cut down errors if we are in in the present?

Let’s go to a high stress situation, say making a critical conversion, or a penalty kick that could win the game. Now think about the stress and all the thoughts that go into the mind of that kicker, but what if he/she can just focus on that they have to do. If you see good kickers like Dan Carter or Aaron Cruden (both All Blacks), they have a routine, before their kicks. That is an attempt to get them focused. With Cruden you can see that he visualizes the entire kick, the ball traveling through the air, etc. before he kicks, he’s being mindful. He’d take a moment to clear his head and only focused on the kick, and visualizing it. Now if you aren’t mindful when going for that kick you may be full with anxiety and other thoughts, but how much easier is it to kick if all you are focused on is the ball going between the sticks?

This thought by Mitchell Plemmons is great. Plemmons says “you could choose to either respond to the stimuli being present (noticing the wind, to perhaps change the direction of your kick), or noticing your tension and relaxing the tensed part of your body, or you simply note the sensations and let the pass.” Now can that help someone like Cruden in that situation, or you? 

Mindfulness research is landing towards it being effective in sports because it helps athletes direct their attention to the current task while minimizing the external distractions (Plemmons 2014).

Sports research at Coventry University and Staffordshire University (both in the UK) has found that increased stress and anxiety, including the fear of failure (or f#*king up as we say), does have a significant affect on athletic performance in a competitive situation (Yu, 2014). So that can be in a game or in practices (if you are competing for a starting spot or game time). Stress is a given part of rugby and competition, but imagine if you are able to reduce that stress (internal or external) how much better can you feel and play!

Mindfulness helps train the brain, specifically the parts that control calmness and alert mind states. You can’t do it by just doing it, it’s like anything else you have to train through practice to develop that skills.

We took a look at some points from Dr. Ian Ellis-Jones’ article on beforeitsnews.com called Mindfulness and Rugby League where he was discussing Mindfulness and Rugby. See if you agree with Dr. Ellis-Jones’ ten reasons mindfulness and sports go together?

1.     Mindfulness improves concentration and the capacity to focus and pay attention to the moment

2.     Mindfulness improves mental resilience

3.     Mindfulness reduces distractedness

4.     Mindfulness helps a person empty themselves of self-concern

5.     Mindfulness fosters and promoted cooperation and team work

6.     Mindfulness enhanced self-confidence

7.     Mindfulness leads to a more stable and steady mind

8.     Mindfulness improves one’s ability to cope with an release stress in a positive way

9.     Mindfulness fosters ethical behavior.

10.  Mindfulness enhances esteem (how you see yourself)

So we’ve spent a great deal looking at how Mindfulness can help you on the pitch or in your training, but we feel there is one other area that this can apply to and that is an area that a lot of non-professional rugby players fail to focus on.  Recovery! 

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As the Springboks Coach Meyer said once “Rugby is a collision sport”! With that being said we all know that our bodies take a great deal of punishment, that’s from the collision and impacts of the game, but also from the physical exertion the game of rugby requires. We, also put our bodies through a lot in training (event non-contact parts). Training often includes running a lot of miles, intensive weight training and other physically demanding regiments.

So when do you recover? Better yet, how do we know what’s going on with our body in order to see what course of treatment we need to seek?

Well Mindfulness can be that first step to help us get in touch with what is going on physically and then be able deal with those issues and do what we need to do to remedy it.  A body scan using mindfulness can be a great tool! Again getting to that place where you are focused at the present moment on different parts of your body and limiting mental and external distractions can increase your awareness of what is going on physically. Is it pain or soreness? If pain what kind? Dull, sharp, constant, etc.? Does it feel stiff, soft, enflamed, etc? Doing this type of self diagnostic can not only let you know what is going on so you can try and treat it, but is really useful to anyone who may be trying to provide you with treatment who needs to know what is going on with you.

So how do you start mindfulness practice? Well, we’ll get you started on that in our next story. For now we think we’ve given you plenty to read. We’ll do a story specifically on how to start mindfulness practice and try and bring in a few experts who can help us as well.  We don’t want this thing to be too long.

Gordhamer, Soren (Feb 25, 2014). Mindfulness: The Seattle Seahawk’s Sports Psychologist Shares Why It Matters. HuffingtonPost.com

Hockman, David (Nov 1, 2013). Mindfulness: Getting Its Share of Attention. NY Times

Ellis-Jones, Dr Ian (Oct 11, 2014). Mindfulness and Rugby League. Beforeitsnews.com

Plemmons, Mitchell (2013) The role of mindfulness in sport.  Believeperform.com

Yu, Christine (June 10, 2014) Mindfulness for Athletes: The Secret To Better Performance?  Dailyburn.com

www.mind-fitness-training.org