My adventures into Mindfulness and the MAC approach began when a sports team that I work for challenged me to find an innovative psychological method for achieving excellence. I chose to explore the MAC approach. Why? Simply, because good science has demonstrated its utility to maximize one’s access to their mind, and to follow, one’s performance.
LET THE JOURNEY BEGIN - WHAT IS MINDFULNESS? I like this definition: “Mindfulness is deliberately paying attention to what is happening around you and within you – in your body, heart, and mind. Mindfulness is awareness without criticism or judgement” (Jan Chozen Bays, MD, 2011, p. 2) Or you can think of it as “paying attention to what you pay attention to”. And in sport, and other achievement domains there is plenty to pay attention to when one is performing or competing. For example, an athlete will certainly pay attention to (a) the physical and mental techniques and strategies used to execute specific sport skills (we refer to these aspects as Instrumental Competencies); (b) the physical conditions of the setting where the competition is held, competitors and spectators, where coaches are located, and his or her feedback, and who are the referees (we refer to these aspects as Environmental stimuli and performance demands); (c) general personal attributes like feelings of anxiety and excitement, and predictions about what is about to occur during the competition (Dispositional characteristics); and (d) the athlete’s coping skills to regulate their behaviour during the performance (Behavioral self-regulation). These are just some examples of all the internal and external stimuli that must be attended to during a performance. I am sure that you can think of more examples and stimuli that is specific to your own performance.
DIRECTING YOUR ATTENTION
Because there is so much information that must be attended to and processed (comprehended, decision making) before we execute a movement (and an entire physical performance!) our brains develop efficient systems to avoid overload. Movements that are well practiced, like eating, are often done with little conscious thought. Being able to do the ‘simple’ movements unconsciously can be quite effective for freeing the mind to focus on other things like the conversation that you are having with someone simultaneously or the latest email on the iphone. But it is not always effective: I can’t tell how many times I’ve been on the 10 km running course only to take a drink at a feeding station only to have sports drink all over my face, shorts, and racing jersey! I really don’t enjoy that sticky feeling.
So it is important to maximize our performance that we re-learn how to pay attention to specific stimuli. And this is the power of mindfulness.
Mindfulness is a tool that performers can use to fully engage with their internal and external environments while performing.
And like most tools, without regular use it can get rusty and be less effective for when you need it most.
TRY IT OUT
When I was struggling to complete 10 minutes of mindful breathing everyday this exercise was recommended to me by my Insight Meditation teacher. It also appears in Jan Chozen Bays’s wonderful book: How to Train a Wild Elephant & Other Adventures in Mindfulness. I find this exercise helpful and doable! (The athletes I work with state that they enjoy this exercise too).
JUST 3 BREATHS
Each day over the next week (or until my next blog posting) try this exercise. As many times a day as you are able, give the mind a short rest. For the duration of three breaths ask the inner voices to be silent. It’s like turning off the inner radio station or TV for a few minutes. Then open all your senses and just be aware – of colour, sound, touch, and smell.
I recommend that you choose a focal point with your breaths. Some people like to direct their attention to the stomach fall and rise, others like feeling the breath from the nostrils, some people like the count of the breath going in and out, you pick what works best for you. The point of this exercise is NOT TO CHANGE the nature of the breath. It is only to simply be aware that you are breathing! (This is not something that usually occupies our conscious awareness, but is extremely important for performance!).
CLEARING UP MISCONCEPTIONS ABOUT MINDFULNESS
I admit that I had a number of misconceptions about mindfulness and mediation prior to beginning my journey. My bet is that you do too. Now that you’ve experienced mindfulness (hopefully you took your three breaths and have rejoined us) your perceptions/beliefs about mindfulness may have changed.
Mindfulness DOES NOT involve the intense repetition of a word or phrase. For example, that you keep your mind intensely focused on an internal dialogue where the word “ohmmm” or “one” is repeated over and over. This is a FALACY. In mindfulness the thinking mind is only used to initiate the practice – for example be aware of how your breath enters and leaves the nostrils. When the mind wanders, like it is apt to do, we gently and acceptingly bring it back to this thinking command. Mindfulness IS NOT a set of breathing exercises. You can be mindful regarding just about anything. I picked up Jan Chozen Bay’s book recently and she has 52 wonderful chapters (yes one for each week) of mindful activities that you can do. I’ve been mindful about opening doors, eating, walking, and interpersonal conversations. I can’t wait to try the exercise “seeing the colour blue” and “appreciation”.
Mindfulness DOES NOT happen in slow motion. It is completely possible (and even advisable) to be mindful in ‘real time’ as events really do unfold. I encourage my athletes to learn to be mindful during a warmup and cool down to begin with, then during certain ‘sets’ during a workout.
Mindfulness IS NOT about sustaining a focus 100% of the time. Many of the athletes I’ve been working with are concerned that they are not getting good at the practice because their mind wanders. The fact that the mind wanders is exactly the point. This is the NATURAL STATE of the MIND. The mind has a life of its own and it loves to go to one of three places: (1.) the Past, (2.) the Future, or (3.) a Fantasy Life. The ability to be mindful is reflected in the awareness that the mind wandered and the bringing it back to the instructional command (i.e., the door knob, or the conversation, or the breath, ect.). In other words you are getting good at mindfulness when you can detect that your mind has wandered from the focus and that you can bring it back to the matter at hand.
Mindfulness IS NOT a religion. You do not need to follow specific religious teachings to benefit from the practice of mindfulness. I think of it like yoga. There are spiritual teachings and language associated with both yoga and mindfulness. But to absorb the benefits of either does not necessitate that I learn these teachings. There is good science regarding the benefits to our physical and psychosocial health from the practice of mindfulness.
TAKE HOME MESSAGE. Mindfulness is a tool and the foundation for the MAC psychological approach to performance enhancement. Mindfulness can be used in a variety of ways to learn to pay attention to what our mind is attending to in any given moment. It does require a regular practice to finely hone the tool. Try it out - make a commitment to yourself to do the simple exercise of just three breaths. Then write a message about your experience in my comments section.