Credit photo: Geraindt Rowland @ Flickr

Mindfulness for Health, Wellbeing and Sport

You may have heard recently how the emerging practice of Mindfulness is being used in the sporting arena to train increasingly successful athletes, who have learned to overcome the emotional obstacles and impulsive behaviours that sabotage the careers. Mindfulness, is being promoted by the likes of Steve Peters, a renowned sport psychologist, who worked with the successful Ladies Olympic Cycling Team, Ronnie O’Sullivan, Liverpool FC and now with the England Football Team. Mindfulness trains athletes to focus on the present moment and listen to their bodies, without becoming victim to their impulses, distorted thinking patterns and stressful behaviours associated with an attitude of defeatism. This aims at creating a healthy mindset and a sense of wellbeing first, rather than focus on objective results.

For us mere mortals, however, Mindfulness can be used alongside regular exercise to help us improve our fitness levels, sustain a healthy lifestyle and promote a greater sense of wellbeing. Mindfulness recognises that if we are to remain committed to our health, it’s all about the quality of our sensory experience. If we see exercise as a chore without end, or more pain than gain then it fills us with a sense of despair when we don’t achieve the expected outcome. If we are results driven, but fail to reach the expected standard, we’re much more likely to give up. Most of us find it hard to keep up with fitness regimes and busy lives, so we accept failure too easily; partly because we haven’t honed our mindset to adapt to a healthier lifestyle. All too often, when we join the gym we focus on the superficial qualities - losing weight, looking good & being ripped. When our expectations are too high, we find it hard to commit to the goals. We become self-critical about our progress and run ourselves down; or slog ourselves to the point of exhaustion. This creates spikes of anxiety as we ride the roller-coaster. Using Mindfulness alongside exercise can reduce stress, anxiety and the self-defeating patterns which fuel destructive impulses. Peters talks about three parts to the mind which have the potential to sabotage us or create the conditions for self-fulfilment:

1) First, we have the chimp mind. The chimp mind is impulsive, reactive and very black and white, with rigid patterns of thinking and prone to stress. All humans have a ‘chimp mind’, in fact it's the oldest part of our brain concerned with survival instincts and in charge of the 'fight-or-flight' mechanism embedded in our sympathetic nervous system. It's very powerful and is usually the first part of the brain to react under pressure. The chimp mind triggers fear and anger; it makes you want to shout at other road users, square up to someone in a fight and is addicted to the rush of high risk situations. Oh and without the chimp mind, we’d be dead! We need because it protects us from real threats and without it we would be unlikely to respond instinctively.

2) Second we have the human mind. This is the part of the mind which makes rational or problem-solving decisions, capable of working towards long term goals, able to empathise with others and see more than one perspective from different angles. The human mind – situated in the prefrontal cortex of our brains concerned with language, insight and group cooperation. Where the chimp sees black & white, the human mind sees shades of grey. The human mind wants more than survival; it wants to have a sense of meaning, purpose and fulfilment in life; otherwise it becomes quickly agitated and restless.

3) Third, we have the computer mind. The computer mind is not situated in any one region of the brain, but is responsible for learning, processing and turning behaviours into habits through our conditioning. We programme the computer mind through trial and error, embedding learned behaviours in the brain. If we do something many times we make strong neural connections which create learned patterns of behaviour. The problem is, the computer can be programmed by the chimp or the human brain depending on our experiences in life and conditioning in early childhood.

So if your chimp is regularly in control of your mindset, then you’re thinking patterns are more likely to become rigid and prone to ‘fight and flight’ responses. These can trigger destructive emotions and compulsive behaviours. Often at the expense of the calm, relaxed focus that is required for you to achieve your goals. In sport the 'hothouse pressure' of competition leads athletes to doubt their abilities and talents in the face of their opponents. In this situation the chimp brain is less flexible or adaptive, due to conditioning which relies on a limited set of skills that have been drilled into you. As an athlete you may get entangled in ‘black and white thinking patterns’ without evaluating the alternatives or being able to process a more subtle strategies in order to adapt e.g. when a boxer has to fight a 'southpaw', but finds it hard to change his style and tactics to meet the new circumstances. It can mean an athlete is prone to setting unrealistic goals; only to become judgemental and self-critical when those goals aren't reached. This might lead to frustration and anger when the athlete is defeated game after game. And in turn, it reinforces a constant sense of anxiety and loss of confidence. Eventually, the athlete is faced with continual reminders of his vulnerability. Mindfulness however, teaches you to free your mind of paranoid thoughts about future performance or anxious reminders of the past. It means being responsive to the present moment and encourages you to become mentally flexible; setting achievable goals so you can move in the direction of your long term values, rather than reach out for a ‘quick fix’. This is why Mindfulness as a daily practice is so useful, because it helps us notice one simple thing - who’s in charge of your life, is it you or the chimp?

An area athletes and sports people tend to struggle with during competition, is staying in the present moment. For one reason or another their thoughts can sometimes drift to memories of failure (by dwelling on past defeats) or projecting ahead to a catastrophic loss in the future (e.g. a footballer who approaches a penalty kick might foresee is even played out). These retrospective and prophetic fantasies can lead to detrimental effects on performance simply because the mind cannot focus on the present moment – what matters is right now. Mindfulness, however, teaches us to regulate internal mood states and emotions to create a less anxious mindset, without causing paranoia or anxiety. It is the opposite of being on auto-pilot or absent-minded. It is used to treat anxiety and  based on the practice of meditation. However in this article, I will focus on its application to a health & fitness environment. Many athletes, professional or amateur, are guilty of thinking ahead or clinging onto the past, rather than being fully present in whatever activity they are practising.

Mindfulness is about paying attention in a focussed way and concentrating on the present moment. It involves letting go of intrusive thoughts and feelings which sometimes divert us from the task at hand. However instead of wasting energy fighting off unwanted thoughts, mindfulness teaches this energy can be  attuned to our instincts and physiological sensations; as a guide to enhanced performance. Based on this principle, Gardner & Moore developed the "Mindfulness, Acceptance & Commitment" approach to performance (MAC). Their studies suggested that performance outcomes depend on how much an athlete accepts both negative & positive or thoughts, while maintaining their focus on the task at hand. They used techniques such as Mindfulness of Breathing to reduce anxiety; body-scanning to identify specific sensations in the body; and relaxed concentration to hone their instincts for 'being in the zone’. This contrasts with previous studies which claimed that bad performance was down to negative emotions and self-talk. However, rather than trying to get rid of unwanted thoughts, athletic performance can be enhanced through a "mindful present" in which there is an unconditional acceptance of internal experiences whatever they are. As well as responding to internal sensations and physical cues that help us to respond better to the needs of our body.

By practicing mindful exercises in addition to physical training you can improve your mental and physical wellbeing. Mindfulness does not concentrate on the outcome, or seek to measure performance according to quantifiable data e.g. increased speed miles/hour; measuring weight loss in kgs, or how many hours of exercise/day. Instead it focuses on paying attention to the quality of the athlete's experience in the present moment; approaching new techniques step-by-step; appreciating success; valuing their achievements and adapting to situations in the here-and-now. This approach creates a much more self-aware athlete, who evaluates rather than judges success and defeat. Mindfulness creates a "flow state” in which someone is absorbed with his or her actions and creates a unity of experience in the body and mind. Some sports people refer to this as "being in the zone”, which enhances performance as well as health and wellbeing.

At Counselling in Twickenham, Enduring Mind, you can use these basic techniques:

1) The body scan simply involves sitting comfortably in a chair and finely attuning yourself to different bodily sensations (in the feet, legs, arms, hands, shoulder and head) while resting. The body scan reminds you to bring your attention back to these feelings and sensations when it drifts off to anxious thoughts. It helps develop and fine-tune the body, so as to identify areas of physiological strength, vulnerability or injury.

2) Mindfulness of thoughts involves sitting comfortably and just noticing thoughts passing through your mind and describing them factually to yourself, in order to create a sense of acceptance and understanding, rather than trying to avoid them or becoming entangled and fighting against them.

3) Mindfulness of breathing helps reduce symptoms of the ‘fight-and-flight response’ when you are focussed only on success or failure. It helps you condition yourself to regulate internal emotions and reduce anxiety. It teaches us to attune to our bodies; treat ourselves with more self-regard and create a healthy mindset. But Mindfulness does not lead to a loss of motivation, performance or our competitive edge.

By learning Mindfulness at Counselling in Twickenham, Enduring Mind, you will learn the benefits of staying in the moment:

Self-awareness: a non-judgemental awareness of ourselves, or acceptance of our strengths and limitations in the present moment, which can lead to more realistic expectations, achievable goals and challenges. Very often we exercise to lose weight or improve performance, but that isn't something that's going to happen overnight. We need something to hold onto right now - the benefit of enjoying the moment and our own sense of wellbeing. Having a purpose will give you something to focus on in future and something to work towards. Some goals to focus on might be: to finish your planned workout; strengthen specific muscle groups (e.g., "I'm going to focus on working all the muscles in my abdomen"); challenge yourself (e.g., "I'm going to focus on working as hard as I can during cardio-vascular training" ); work on a specific area of fitness (e.g., "Today I'm going to build my endurance"); feel better about yourself.

A stronger connection to your body: When you focus on each exercise, the muscles you're working and what you're actually accomplishing, you get more out of each exercise with each workout. If you find yourself racing through the exercises, thinking of all the things you should be doing instead, remember why you value your workout. Focus instead on your sense of wellbeing, the improvements to your health, increasing levels of fitness and endurance and the sensation of strength and confidence that creates. Try to embody these ideas: this workout will give me more energy; I'll feel really good about myself when I finish; I'll sleep better tonight after this workout; I'll feel less stressed.

A healthy, more sustainable lifestyle: When you focus on what you're doing, you improve the quality of your embodied experience and, as a result, the quality of your workout and your sense of accomplishment.

More sense of fulfilment and satisfaction: When you know exactly what you're working on, how each exercise feels and whether you're getting the most out of each exercise, you can end your workout knowing you did your best. Slow down if you find yourself rushing through your workout, thinking you just want it to be over? Doing this at breakneck speed is counter-productive. If you think doing it faster will improve your performance, it won't. Remember, you need to set this time aside for your workout and value it. Take your time with each activity, each movement and each sensation, particularly strength training or with injuries. Focus on your form, on your motion; your abilities and limitations. Think about your posture, your core and the rest of your body. What muscles you're working. Can you feel them contracting and relaxing? See just how much better your experience is when you take your time.

Less Prone to Anxiety & Defeatism: less likely to give into anxiety or a sense of failure and defeatism. Remind yourself to focus on breathing - breathing is the simplest way to deal with stress and dwell in the current moment. If your mind wanders during your workout or you may feel the pressure of demands and deadlines building up. Close your eyes and take a breath to bring yourself back to the moment. You're exercising right now and that's all you need focus on. You'll deal with other issues when the time comes.

An Ability to Adapt & Achieve Higher Performance: to set meaningful goals and expectations, as well as learning to develop more adaptive modes of exercise to reach those goals e.g. paying close attention to the needs of body, mind and soul. You will only build on your performance if you acknowledge achievements and success, not simply your weaknesses, mistakes and failures.

Being More Mindful of Your Workouts: Finding flow in a world of distractions is the practice of becoming more fully aware in the present moment, non-judgmentally, rather than dwelling in the past or projecting into the future. That sounds good, but how do we actually bring that to exercise? Evaluate and reflect on your exercise after you finished. Remember your accomplishments and how good it feels when it's over. Give yourself time to cool down and take time to stretch and relieve the muscles you worked on. Take a moment to lie down at the end of the workout for a final relaxation and a chance to really feel the effects of your hard work. You don't have to be obsessive during every living moment. Sometimes, we really do need to zone out or let our bodies go as the mind wanders. Start by being more mindful and paying attention to what you're doing and how it feels. Notice what you want to experience from the workout. You may discover that changing how you exercise can inspire more mindfulness and more satisfaction.

Less prone to Injury or Exhaustion: the more focussed you remain, the less likely you are to push yourself beyond the limits of your endurance and self-sabotage. If you are absent-minded, focussed on other concerns or worries; or if you envisage failure you are far more likely to sustain an injury.