Mind vs. Matter: The New Frontier For Athletes To Conquer

Jul 9, 2015

Most athletes know about pre-game “butterflies”. They may start to feel a bit nervous, or on-edge, as anxiety builds before the start of a big game. Their hearts may race, leading to sweaty palms-the effects of the stress hormone, adrenaline, rushing through their bodies.

Trainers, coaches and athletes have long recognized such pent-up stress or anxiety pre-competition, yet new research into mindfulness training is changing our thinking about the pre-competition jitters. This research will lead to new approaches for athletes to recognize and more effectively cope with ever present stress and mental anxiety leading up to competitions. Since research indicates that the mind can actually limit or impair the body’s performance , it’s important that we focus attention on training not only our bodies, but our minds as well.

Mindfulness approaches can include techniques such as mental training, meditation and yoga. We are now beginning to realize that such mindfulness techniques for athletes may play an equally, if not more important role--along with physical conditioning--in improving athletic performance during competition. By strengthening the mind-body connection to sharpen mental focus, it may be possible for competitors to develop a greater advantage, placing them “in the zone” where they can perform without mental stress which can inhibit performance.

On the other hand, when the mind has too much “noise”—either past thoughts of failure or anticipated anxiety associated with competition, a stress response (fight or flight) response is triggered, preventing athletes from living in the moment or staying engaged and focused in the competition.

The bottom line is that our mental state prior to competition can trigger a stress response, and this response can ultimately affect performance, decision-making, judgment and athlete behavior. And research supports this notion that elevated levels of stress, anxiety and fear”—can directly impact athletic performance— especially fear of failure.

How do you at least regulate and combat stress to perform at your optimal state? Promising research indicates that certain mental exercises and “brain training” may actually reduce or mitigate the body’s stress response and enhance the foundation of our mind-body connection. In fact, a recent study demonstrated that a person’s perception of a greater sense of mindfulness actually led to a higher state of flow—defined as when you are “in the zone” or the moment, and ultimately linked to improved performance. According to the study, those with higher flow received higher score in self- talk, setting goals and emotional state and level of attention.

The real value of brain training actually derives from helping us to regulate and control the function of a specific part of the brain that is integral to mindfulness—the prefrontal cortex. This part of the brain is so vital in allowing us to remain focused and mentally alert in the face of multiple distractions. The end result of training this part of the brain can therefore allows us to reduce the naturally occurring stress response in the brain—yielding a calmer approach and a sharper focus.

Meditation combined with focused abdominal breathing also helps to lower blood pressure by reducing levels of stress hormones such as cortisol as well as epinephrine. Lower blood pressure can produce a soothing and calming effect, allowing better focus and decision-making during competition.

At the same time, the insular cortex of the brain also becomes activated during meditation, enhancing the mind-body connection and leading to better self-perception and awareness, ultimately improving alertness and our interpersonal experience. The value in this effect lies in our improved ability to feel or sense changes in functioning in our body--such as a muscle cramp or pain in a joint--even before we have a true awareness of this which could ultimately affect performance.

While a bulk of current research helps us understand the mind- body connection and reduce the impact of such adverse effects in the first place, a more useful and relevant goal may be to actually prevent negative thoughts or emotions from developing in the first place. This can be accomplished by training the brain using mental exercises that strengthen the mind body connection. Such methods focus on tuning out distractions, both with and without noise and training the brain to adapt to stressful situations, with the goal of attenuating the stress response.

Training the mind to tune out distractions, and achieve a sharper focus is much like training the body’s muscles to make them stronger and more powerful.

Mindfulness Exercises

1. Focused abdominal breathing - Slow, deliberate and focused abdominal breathing can help to produce a clear state of consciousness, helping athletes to become more in touch with how they use their respiratory muscles. The net effect of such breathing can help athletes self-adjust and course-correct if they develop anxiety or stress prior to competitions. Sitting in a comfortable position, close your eyes and place a hand on you mid abdomen, feeling the rise and fall of each breath. The focus should be on breath entering and leaving your body. You can practice for 5 minutes per day and work up t 10 to 15 minutes depending on your schedule and time.

2. Apps For Mindfulness - I recommend using Headspace, an app which can help you to sharpen your mind, while leading to a focused yet relaxed state of being. The advantage is that you can have a meditation therapist talk to you and guide you through a sequential series of steps to achieving relaxation. You need to practice this only 5-10 minutes per day. Try to do this in the same place every day for 10 minutes per day.

3. Positive thoughts and Corrective Thinking - Focus on positive messaging in an effort to correct negative thoughts related to approaching competition. Try to alter negative patterns that can reinforce bad habits and set you up for failure. Focus on completing a task, visualizing success and team work at the same time.

4. Practice Body Scanning and Awareness - Practicing body scans can help you to sharpen your mind, creating a greater awareness of your body since they occur in a systematic fashion. Lying on your back, with eyes closed palms upward, focus first on your toes. Notice how they feel. Tense or relaxed warm or cold. Then gradually move on to your feet. Notice the sole of your foot and gradually work your way to your ankle, calf, knee then thigh. Then switch to the opposite foot, continuing upward. You can gradually and methodically work your way up to your hips, low back, arms, chest and shoulders. Take note of any sensation in each body part or limb, breathing into any areas that are holding stress, trying to release it.

The end result of engaging yourself in these exercises can lead to a sharper mind with greater focus, reducing anxiety and stress, allowing you to be better prepared for competition.
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