Mindfulness in Sport - Catch the Moment, Don't Get Caught in it
What is the most important play in any game? We often say “the next play.” Make a mistake, miss a shot, turn the ball over. As coaches we want our players to forget about such errors and immediately focus on the next play. Well-regarded mental skills coach Graham Betchart, who has worked with Aaron Gordon, Jaylen Brown, Ben Simmons and other NBA players talks about getting your “next play speed” under one second.
While all of this is true, the reality is that the next play isn’t as important as the current one. The present play. While we are talking about similar concepts, the idea is this: how do we keep our athletes (and ourselves as coaches) focused on the present task at hand, over and over and over again?
The key, it turns out, is right under our noses. Mindfulness has come under fire of late as a “hot trend” or as “hippy dippy” by others. Neither are accurate. Mindfulness, defined by the great teacher Jon Kabat-Zinn, is “paying attention in a particular way: on purpose, in the present moment, and nonjudgmentally” (PositivePsychology.com).
So how does this help us help our athletes? Well first off, it helps us help ourselves. We as coaches are performers in our own right, prone to the ups and downs that are inherent in the game, and in need of modeling the sort of calm, cool demeanor we would request of our players. Second, our athletes are bombarded with judgment. By their parents, by their peers, by the crowds, by us as coaches. By providing them with a simple tool to avoid harsh judgment they can begin to play in a more free, unencumbered manner. Third, by practicing mindfulness our players can sustain their focus on the most important play – the present one – time and time again. Of course, such a task is simple but not easy. And that is where our breath comes in.
We tell ourselves and our athletes to take a deep breath, and this is sound advice. However, one deep breath without intent or prior practice doesn’t have the same strength of impact as a breath coupled with a positive cue word, a mind trained to refocus fast, or the ability to recognize via that breath that our minds have off and wandered.
Take a moment right now, as you read this. Sit up in your chair. Feel the soles of your feet touching the ground fully and feel your back pressed against the seat of your chair. Sit up straight. Now, take a moment to breathe in, through your nose and in doing so, fill your diaphragm (the area above and behind your belly button) first. Once your diaphragm has filled, then continue the breath to expand the lungs and finally raise the shoulders to the top of your breath. Pause for a one count, then release out through your nose or mouth. A single proper nose breath – as opposed to breathing in through our mouths – increases the oxygen delivered to the lungs by 10-20% and reduces the workload on the heart (ScienceDirect.com).
Taking just 10 minutes out of your day to practice intentional nose breaths, perhaps using one of a variety of meditation apps such as Headspace, Calm, or Mindfulness, allows you to intentionally practice this distinctive manner of breathing. Further, it helps us recognize when our attention has wandered and brings us back to the most important moment (or play) – the current one. With practice meditating, a player is more able to recognize when they have lost their way and come back to focusing on the task at hand. Then, one deep breath when needed reminds them: I’m here, now.
Coaches, players: consider one of these apps to improve your own coaching practice and certainly pass them along to your players for their benefit. Mindfulness is not a trend, a fad, or meant for the hippy generation. It’s meant for you, your team, right here, right now!
Good Luck on your journey,