Meditation Can Make You Better at Sports, Psychologists Say

They've got a method, too.

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Aug 31 2017, 4:00pm

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You've been there. You're playing basketball, golf, or pool with your friends. You totally bone a shot. Then another. Then that voice in your head starts talking, reminding you that, "YOU CAN'T DO THIS. YOU SUCK!"

Or maybe you're running at a local 5K race. You're moving along at what you think is a pretty good clip when suddenly someone passes you. In comes the voice again, telling you, "YOU'RE SLOW. YOU'RE OUT OF SHAPE. YOU'RE NOT GOING TO MAKE IT."

What if there was a way to tell that voice in your head to buzz off? What if you could observe that inner self-doubt and recognize that it's just a thought, something you can ignore just as easily as the 3,000th @ reply on a Kim Kardashian Instagram post? What if you could will your way to get "in the zone," and become so single-mindedly focused on the task at hand (like schooling those friends who think you couldn't hit the broad side of a Costco warehouse) that the action becomes natural, smooth, almost automatic?

A team of sport psychologists say that not only is this possible, but that they've developed a method for achieving it. In fact, according to the new book Mindfulness Sport Performance Enhancement: Mental Training for Athletes and Coaches, you can learn to do all of this within six weeks.

"In sports, but also in general, people believe the mind is important but don't do a whole lot to systematically train it," says Keith Kaufman, a clinical psychologist and one of the authors of the book. "We provide a way to train your mind so that you can focus the way you'd like while you're performing, and do so in a way that facilitates peak performance."

Whether or not Kaufman's specific method works as advertised, there is a lot of compelling evidence that mindset can have a huge influence over outcome in sport. You don't have to take Yogi Berra's "Baseball is 90 percent mental, the other half is physical" word for it. A mountain of studies shows this to be true, and they date back to at least the 1980s.

That's when Canadian researchers Terry Orlick and John Partington did a deep dive into what separated the athletes who medaled at the 1984 Olympics from those who didn't. Their findings showed that the only significant difference between the two groups was mental preparation. In more recent years, a trove of fascinating research has proved out the benefits of mind training for athletes, showing that your mind can strengthen your muscles even if you aren't exercising them and that if you're an MMA badass, mind training can make you an even bigger, more powerful badass, just to name a few examples. And of course, during the 1990s Phil Jackson made the Chicago Bulls do all kinds of weird meditative shit and that worked out pretty well.

But like any form of self-help, sports psychology can feel a little squishy and sound a little woo. So perhaps that's why major sports teams and leagues were relatively slow to adopt its practices. No more. Today teams and athletes in the MLB, NFL and NBA either consult with at least one if not a team of several sports psychologists. Even some college programs, such as the University of Alabama's football team, are turning to sports psych.

And just as there are hundreds of ways to get physically stronger, from hardcore powerlifting to Russian kettlebell training to prison-style bodyweight workouts, there are many ways to train your mind for better performance. Kaufman's emphasis, as you may have gathered from the title of his book, is on mindfulness—that feels-good-but-I-don't-know-exactly-what-it-means buzzword one of your friends has said you should look into after they just started yoga classes. What is Kaufman's definition of the term?

"We look at mindfulness as a way of paying attention on purpose," Kaufman says. "You're directing your attention to the present moment, what's happening right now. You're not judging what's happening. You're just seeing what's happening as it is."


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That may sound simple, but ask yourself: How often is your mind really focused on what you're doing right this minute? When you brush your teeth, open a car door, or sit down at your desk to start your workday, is your mind there with you? Or is it thinking about something else—something you have to do later that day, something obnoxious that happened on the drive to work, or something awful you heard on the news? Science shows that our minds wander off from what we're doing every few minutes. Hard-won experience has probably shown you that your brain likes to spend most of its time thinking about one of three topics:

  1. The past (shit you can't change)
  2. The future (shit that may or may not ever happen)
  3. General bullshittery (from negative self-talk to delusions of grandeur)

None of these things are particularly helpful—especially in the middle of competition. To understand why, let's go back to the example of being passed while running a race.

"If you were to get wrapped up in your reaction to that—'Oh, I'm going to lose, I'm dead, my coach is going to get mad, my parents are going to get mad,' whatever—basically, you've got no chance to recover," Kaufman says. "You're basically going off on a mental tangent—one that's not relevant to sport performance."

When your mind is tied up with this kind of talk, it can't concentrate on the task at hand. It's essentially the opposite of flow, or being totally immersed in and focused on what you're doing. You've probably heard many athletes talk about being "in the zone." To sports psychologists, being "in flow" or "in the zone" are essentially the same thing. The aim of Kaufman's program is to help athletes achieve a flow state.

"A big argument we make is that the kind of mindfulness we're training in our program can better position you to get into a flow state," Kaufman says. "The specific mindfulness skills we train help you learn how to manage your attention in a way that may set you up to get into flow, the optimal performance state."

The program that Kaufman and his team have taught for years involves six weekly group lessons, then some daily homework. The first lesson is an introduction to what mindfulness means, and then some "present moment" practices—basically, getting people to pay closer attention to their breathing, and what happens when they eat. With each passing week, more movement gets incorporated into the lessons. By the end, the goal is to have the athletes apply that attentive awareness to the action of their specific sport.

"We actually work with our participants to develop what's called a sport meditation, which is a fully applied meditation involving actual performance of their sports," Kaufman says. "The anchors are the movements—for example, dribbling a basketball, or swinging a baseball bat, or shooting an arrow in archery. We want them to engage what we call their 'observing mind' so that they can pay full attention to what they're doing while they're doing it, but not micromanage the experience. Just be totally present with it."

Just like any sport skill, it takes practice to master the technique. Which is why Kaufman's program comes with daily homework athletes are supposed to do on their own.

"It starts with a very minimal commitment," Kaufman says. "And as the training goes on, we do some longer practices. Just like when you're doing weightlifting and add weight to the bar as you go, and we make it a little more demanding and put a little bit more of a time demand on folks."

Does the program work? Will you get to the end of the six weeks and be more enlightened—or at least be a little bit better at shrugging off your next air ball? Even Kaufman says it's hard to offer a scientific answer to that question.

"In sports psychology, it's very hard to conduct controlled research," Kaufman says. "So most of the research that we've done has been open trials, which means that we've done a lot of pre-post assessment as opposed to establishing true control groups. So we have, in the last couple of years, actually done pretty big randomized controlled trials with an athletics department which was a really big step, but most of the evidence that we have, it's fair to say is more correlation than causational."

Kaufman quickly adds that, while anecdotes are not a substitute for science, his work with teams and individuals has shown the program can be very effective.

"We generally see people do get more mindful over the course of the training," Kaufman says, adding that there are self-reporting questionnaires that can assess one's mindfulness. He continues, "We've seen that anxiety, and specifically sport anxiety, goes down. And we've seen different factors of flow go up. It's been with relatively small sample sizes, because it's hard to get huge samples when you're doing field research. And part of the reason why we wrote this book is for people to take this and really run with it, because there needs to be a lot more research on it."

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