New Mindfulness Approach Can Help Athletes Get ‘In the Zone’

By Traci Pedersen

Sports psychologists have developed a multi-step program based on the practice of mindfulness to increase coaches’ and athletes’ mental readiness for the game.

Mindfulness involves being aware of the present moment and accepting things as they are without judgment. When it comes to sports, athletes who are able to simply observe moments as they come and go rather than latch onto them and overthink are better able to focus on their performance rather than on distracting negative experiences.

“It’s been suggested that many coaches regard sport as at least 50 percent mental when competing against opponents of similar ability. In some sports, that percentage can be as high as 80 to 90 percent mental,” said Keith Kaufman, Ph.D., a Washington, D.C.-area sports psychology practitioner and research associate at the Catholic University of America presenting at the APA convention.

His six-session program, developed in collaboration with Carol Glass, Ph.D., also of the Catholic University of America, and clinical psychologist Timothy Pineau, Ph.D., is outlined in the soon-to-be-published book “Mindful Sport Performance Enhancement.”

There are several psychological studies that point to the importance of mental preparation, according to Kaufman. One study involved more than 200 Canadian athletes from the 1984 Olympics who were assessed for three major readiness factors: mental, physical, and technical. Of the three, only mental readiness was significantly associated with how successful they were at the Olympics.

“With popular belief and scientific evidence being in such harmony, one might expect that mental training would be a top priority within the athletic community. However, curiously, this is not the case,” said Kaufman. “We have met so many athletes and coaches who know that mental factors, such as concentrating, relaxing, and letting go of thoughts and feelings, can aid performance, but have no idea how to actually do those things under the pressures of training and competition.” Kaufman outlined a multi-step program he and his co-authors developed based on the concept of mindfulness which would allow coaches and athletes at all levels to increase their mental readiness.

Mindfulness entails being aware of the present moment and accepting things as they are without judgment. When people are able simply to watch experiences come and go, rather than latch onto and overthink them, they are better able to intentionally shift their focus to their performance rather than distracting negative experiences such as anxiety, Kaufman said.

“For example, an athlete could identify that ‘right now, I’m having the thought that I can’t finish this race,’ so rather than reflecting an objective truth, it’s seen as just a thought,” said Kaufman.

The program includes six group-based sessions that contain educational, discussion, and experiential components, as well as recommendations for daily home practice.

The training begins with sedentary mindfulness practice in which participants are instructed to focus on experiences like eating and breathing. Gradually more and more movement is incorporated, culminating in a sport-specific meditation in which athletes or coaches apply mindful attention to their actual sport performance.

The program is easily adapted to accommodate any sport at any level, from amateur to professional, according to Kaufman. It can also be adapted for use by a single performer or by people in business or the performing arts.

Recent studies cited by Kaufman points to the significant potential for this approach. Two studies found that college athletes who completed the program showed significant increases in various dimensions of mindfulness and flow, the mindset associated with being “in the zone.”

The athletes also rated their own performances higher and experienced lower levels of sports-related anxiety. In one of the studies, which involved two teams that had losing records the previous year, both teams went on to have winning seasons after using the mindfulness approach.

Source: American Psychological Association