Up Your Game Through Mindfulness
Studies show present-moment awareness improves performance
Most therapists, in sports psychology or otherwise, instruct clients to focus on their breath, in order to move their attention away from mind chatter about the past and the future, and bring it into the body.
“Mindfulness is just about opening up the mind-body connection, so your brain is aware of what your body is telling you, and your body is aware of what your brain is telling you,” says licensed professional counselor Pam Gundlach.
As anxious thoughts about the future or regretful memories of the past build up, our bodies respond physiologically by releasing a host of “stress hormones.” This cascade often results in tightness in the chest or throat, shallow breathing, cold hands, digestive problems or other uncomfortable sensations in our bodies. Those symptoms alert us that we’ve gone into a fight/flight/freeze, or stress, reaction.
“We create these scenarios that don’t exist,” Soda says.
Mindfulness simply involves noticing these body sensations, negative thoughts, or both.
Once we acknowledge what we are feeling and/or thinking, we become more present and realize, “oh, I can do something about this,” Gundlach says. “You’re in charge of what you think; the more you become aware of what you’re doing in a situation, the more you can change it.”
Simply put: “We only have a choice in the present moment,” Bowman says.
How mindfulness expands
“Mindfulness is much more than meditation,” Bowman says. “Meditation is wonderful, but it scares people. Anything you do when you’re drawn into the present moment is a way to be in the here and now, whether it’s listening to music, gardening, running, yoga or painting. It’s (about) being in that flow.
“It’s what you bring to an experience, not where you go to find it. It’s an inside thing. It’s just learning how to access it.”
Soda takes the “scary” out of meditation by chunking it down to “eliminating distractions through a brief centering in a quiet spot.”
In other words, just placing your entire focus on your child, spouse or friend as you interact — “being present, or just trying to be present, is a way to express our love and our dedication in our relationships,” Bowman says. “(It communicates) what you and I are experiencing together is at the top of my list, and who doesn’t want to feel that?”
Those wonderful, peaceful feelings also apply to us, whether it involves self-acceptance or greater sports performance, artistic expression or intellectual pursuits.
“Excessive thinking can cause anxiety and fear,” Bowman says. “It’s distracting — and makes it very hard to perform well. When you hold onto things and don’t let go, that builds up in your body and you’re going to see it in your performance — in sports, in being a CPA (or other professional), and eventually in your body (as disease).”
Soda suggests quieting the mind by viewing a thought as a leaf on a tree that just lets go and flows away, down a river. We pay full attention to what we are doing now, and then what we are doing in the “next” now, rather than burdening our brain daily with to-do lists.
“If you are clear, you tend to do everything better,” Soda says. “As I feel my body and appreciate the moment, I take the focus off the mind’s thoughts … then, things throughout the day don’t bother you as much, because of how you centered yourself.”
Of course, no one claims perfect mindfulness.
“It sounds easy, but when you’re actually presented with (a stressor,
it’s not),” Soda says.
Yet, the goal, be it in athletic, professional or personal enhancement, “is that you don’t have to worry about self-talk because you’re in the moment,” Soda says.
Gundlach points out how athletes must constantly refocus their attention.
“You need to move into what’s going to help you do your best,” she says. “It definitely, definitely has to be practiced — and it will drop off — so you have to refocus, and bring it back into your life.”
But whether your motivation involves better physical performance or stronger relationships, mindfulness isn’t complicated; it’s empowering.
“Mindfulness is just awareness — awareness in you, awareness around you, and how you react to that when you become aware,” Gundlach says, “and that can change everything.”
— BY Kimberly Nicoletti
You’re in charge of what you think; the more you become aware of what you’re doing in a situation, the more you can change it.”
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