What is mindfulness and does it have a place in football?

words by Guy Little, Tuesday 3 September 2019

Mindfulness is all the rage lately. Coaches, athletes, trainers, and psychologists talk about the use of mindfulness in footy. But what is mindfulness? What is its connection with footy? This blog will take a dive into mindfulness and its connection with sport performance.

Like a good training session, let’s warm up by starting with the basics. Mindfulness may seem like it’s been around for just a few minutes in sport, but it has been around outside of sport for thousands of years. Some believe that mindfulness stems from Buddhism, but it has been around for about 600 to 1000 years longer than even that came into existence. So, what is this not-so-new-kid on the block about? 

Put simply, mindfulness is purposefully paying attention. We can pay attention to many things. We can focus on one or several things going on inside of us (thoughts, feelings, physical sensations, breathing) or outside of us (external objects), or we can focus on a particular topic or theme (e.g., compassion to self or others, spiritual or religious themes/topics). People have told me that when they think of mindfulness, they think of a person sitting in a yoga position with their eyes closed. But, mindfulness is not always about meditation and sitting still, although meditation can be a form of mindfulness, mindfulness can be purposefully paying attention while on the move (quite handy if you are a fidgeter like me!).

Going a little deeper, the mindfulness and sport psychology boffins, Dr Sam Zizzi and Professor Mark Andersen tell us that there are several components to mindfulness: focusing on and being aware of the present moment; having an accepting attitude/open stance (not trying to order all your thoughts or internal experiences neatly); having a nonjudgmental approach to thoughts, feelings, and sensations (rather than labelling, changing, or adapting thoughts or feelings), having compassion for self and others (e.g., making room for and observing ours and others’ limitations, failures, and mistakes can influence your perspective of yourself and others), and the energy of mindfulness (being present can shift how we experience life – our focus and our perspective can change when we practice mindfulness). 

Mindfulness and sport performance

Given that we now know that mindfulness is about paying attention to the present moment, we can understand that mindfulness is probably quite important in footy! If players are in the present moment, rather than in the past and dwelling on their mistakes, they may be in a better place to make good decisions on the field and to be able to progress in a game! Some people say that mindfulness can enhance performance, and they use this rationale to suggest its use to players and coaches. But, Dr Michelle McAlarnen and Dr Kat Longshore, who have thoroughly reviewed the research on mindfulness and performance, tell us that there just isn’t enough high-quality research to make a firm conclusion about the direct link between mindfulness and performance enhancement. Dr Michelle and Dr Kat, in summarising their research in this area, let us know that mindfulness practice is likely to help with reducing anxiety, stress and depressed mood, which all may be helpful in helping players’ lives in general. Indirectly, these effects may in turn enhance players’ experiences playing footy. Nevertheless, as Dr Michelle and Dr Kat suggest, the jury is out (for the moment) on the direct link between performance enhancement and mindfulness.

The risks of mindfulness and meditation

In the media we rarely do we hear about the risks of focusing attention (either inside or outside of ourselves) on the present moment. Although psychologists who are trained in delivering mindfulness-based interventions, and other professionals who have ample experience in mindfulness training, will often be clued up on what can happen, others may not be so savvy. Mindfulness is about paying attention, and not necessarily about feeling calm and relaxed. So, you can find yourself paying more attention to feeling whatever you are feeling. If you are feeling anxious, you may feel more anxious. Or, you may experience some kind of “freak out” as, according to Wiley (2015), Willoughby Britton says.

As an example, I was at a training event a few years ago where a room full of participants, including myself, were invited to perform a mindfulness meditation to start the day to help us feel relaxed and alert. The person who led the exercise did so calmly and got us to focus on our internal states (our physical sensations and thoughts). They most likely anticipated that we would feel calm and relaxed. The instructor did not warn us about any potential side effects. As we did the exercise and I tuned into my body, I re-experienced, in my mind and body, a bike crash that I had only a week or two prior to the event that nearly saw me fall off a mountain side. I had extremely intense sensations that were beyond my capacity to tolerate. I had to do some exercises that I am aware of as a psychologist (and I practice regularly) to help ground myself and breathe through the disturbing experience. As I opened my eyes at the end of the meditation, I was not calm. I was agitated and incredibly alert. 

I share this story as we can all have good intentions about getting stuck in with a tool or technique that we want to help our players get better at footy or have a better experience in life. As Elvis once sung, “only fools rush in” and from the advice from the boffins in this field, it seems like we need to tread with caution and used trained professionals to deliver mindfulness-based interventions, rather than giving it a go with limited guidance or awareness. It is good news though, that mindfulness seems to be effective at helping reduce anxiety symptoms, general life stress as well as depressed mood for people who are more in the coping area of the continuum rather than the struggling end of the continuum.

Guy Little is the Tackle Your Feelings Program Psychologist.

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