Mindfulness & Performance - Jason Sisneros
Mindfulness is most likely a term that you have heard before. In this article we’re going to take a deeper look at the term, concept and application of mindfulness from a few popular perspectives in order to help you incorporate mindfulness as a practice into your daily life. In short, mindfulness is an awareness of the present moment without judgement. Through mindfulness, we are fully engaged in what we’re doing; free from the roller coaster of thoughts and emotions that race through our heads because we are paying attention, on purpose, as Dr. John Kabat-Zinn explains in his 1991 book Full Catastrophe Living: Using the Wisdom of Your Body and Mind to Face Stress, Pain, and Illness. Considering that the Laboratory of Neuro Imaging at the University of Southern California, found that the average person has about 48.6 thoughts per minute, or roughly 70,000 thoughts per day, we have plenty of opportunity to put mindfulness to practice.
So, what are we paying attention to? At the root of mindfulness is the act of observing our thoughts and feelings -- without judgement. Eckhart Tolle, spiritual teacher and author of books like The Power of Now, describes the act of mindfulness as “being the observer”. From the observer point of view we are aware of thoughts and emotions as they come and go, but we are not latching on to any of them. Mindfulness immediately breaks a passive cycle of scattered thoughts and emotions. As we practice we become more in control of our brain because we are aware of our separation from our emotions and we can recognize the ones that serve us well, which is crucial if we want to reach our highest level of performance.
Let’s take a look at one of the most common areas where mindfulness can help us improve, negative thinking. Consider negative thinking, a perception of past failure, or pessimism that tells us whatever we’re trying to do now won’t likely work because of a past experience ingrained in our brain. Clearly, unaddressed thought patterns of failure do not serve us well. Neuroscientists have recently discovered that our pessimism, and similar ideas stem from a part of the brain called the caudate nucleus. Both hemispheres of the brain have their own caudate nucleus located near the center of the brain sitting astride the thalamus. Caudate nuclei “play a vital role in how the brain learns, specifically the storing and processing of memories. It works as a feedback processor, which means it uses information from past experiences to influence future actions and decisions.” Our ability to notice what we are noticing is called, dispositional mindfulness. In this application, “Mindfulness also allows athletes to become aware of personal thoughts, feelings, and other internal stimuli and encourages athletes to focus on personal values or processes of sport related skills and game strategies instead of focusing on performance outcomes (Pineau, Glass, & Kaufman, 2014). Awareness and acceptance of the present moment may allow athletes to focus less on negative thoughts, which may provide athletes with more energy and focus for the athletic tasks at hand (Pineau et al., 2014).”
Imagine that you are walking up to take a penalty kick. As you walk up to the penalty spot, your brain will relay memories of the times we have taken other penalty kicks. You may find that the memories of missed penalty kicks are attached with a sinking feeling in your gut. You are nervous, you don’t want to miss (or you may already believe that you will miss) and the fear of repeating a “failure” focuses our brain on…. you guessed it, failure. At this point are you likely to take your best penalty kick, or miss? Our ability to execute is always there. Whether the penalty kick goes in or not is secondary to the execution of quality that gives us a chance at scoring the goal. Mindfulness helps us process thoughts and emotions, place awareness where it best serves us and lets the outcome play out how it may. Keep in mind, whatever you are going to do, you are going to “execute” something. In our analogy, if our players are mindful, the outcome may not be that we make every penalty kick, but it will be that they execute their best penalty kicks and more often than not those will find the back of the net.
Mindfulness is not passive. As a process you must ask your mind to focus attention, as Dr. Ellen Hendriksen explains in her July 12, 2017 article in Psychology Today. She points out that “mindfulness was created to keep us living in the present, but many are confused as to what it feels like and how it occurs.” The direction of our own awareness is powerful, especially in a world of constant stimuli and distraction. When you observe your own thoughts; how many of those are your own and how many seem to be on auto pilot? Have you ever experienced negative self-talk, complaints and judgments of others, day dreams of the future while the present moments continue to slip away? How many times have you been at a practice, in a classroom, in a meeting, sitting at the dinner table (you name it) -- and been mentally vacant from the experience of the moment? It’s the incredibly rare person that doesn’t know what I am talking about here. Mindfulness is the skill required to be fully engaged in the present. Here are some ways that Dr. Hendriksen recommends to start practicing mindfulness today.
Mindfulness experiment #1: “The Hourglass”
Remember Dr. Kabat-Zinn’s definition? Paying attention, on purpose, in the present moment, non-judgmentally. The “on purpose” part means you can direct the object and range of your attention. Here's a classic exercise. Start by keeping your attention wide. Notice, without judging, whatever’s going on around you right now: your thoughts, your senses, your breath. Who knew there could be such cacophony in just sitting and paying attention? After about a minute, narrow your attention to only your breath. Notice the sensation of air moving into and out of your nose, your throat, and your lungs. If your mind wanders away, which it will, try to gently bring it back and focus again on your breath. Then, after about a minute, expand your attention again to a wide scope. This shifting of wide, narrow, wide gives you different perspectives and helps you practice paying attention “on purpose” in just three minutes.
Mindfulness experiment #2: Observe Your Thoughts
This is a good exercise for people who hate to sit still. In this exercise, simply watch the thoughts that come into your head for a few minutes. Don’t try to change your thoughts. In contrast to some mindfulness exercises that involve more concentration, this one is more about awareness. It’s totally okay if your mind jumps around or goes too quickly. Let it. Follow it. And don’t judge it.
Mindfulness experiment #3: Mindful Listening
This is another good one for the “non-judgmental” part of the definition. Choose a piece of music—it can be a song you love or one you’ve never heard before. Put on headphones and close your eyes. Allow yourself to listen to every part of the music—the guitars, piano, drums, vocals—without showing an opinion, good or bad. Just listen and experience the music without responding. If your mind starts getting distracted and making a grocery list, just bring it back to the music. Tune in to what you’re hearing in the moment.
There is a great deal of information available about mindfulness. These are just a few examples, but hopefully you find value in learning more and go beyond this brief article to practice mindfulness in your own life. Though the concept is simple, mindfulness takes practice and results take time, so give it some time and some practice. It won't always be easy, but the results will be worth it!