MINDFULNESS IN SPORT

Cosmos - - Sports Science -

To most of us “mindfulness” sim­ply means pay­ing at­ten­tion to what you’re do­ing. “Mind the step”, for ex­am­ple, is sim­ply a caution not to trip. Just as “mind the ceil­ing” is a caution to duck, lest you con­cuss your­self on a low-hang­ing beam.

In psy­chol­ogy mindfulness is more broadly un­der­stood as fo­cus on the present.

In sport it also means pay­ing at­ten­tion, but to some­thing more spe­cific; it means train­ing your­self to recog­nise what is go­ing on – par­tic­u­larly in your own head – and to take con­trol of it. What needs to be con­trolled varies with the sport, and the ath­lete, but fear and as­so­ci­ated neg­a­tive think­ing are of­ten part of it.

When it comes to chok­ing un­der pres­sure, fear is al­most al­ways a big part of it. Pre-race nerves or panic are due to the brain’s emo­tion cen­tre, the amyg­dala, hi­jack­ing your brain, says Macken­zie Havey.

How­ever, de­lib­er­ately try­ing to sup­press neg­a­tive thoughts is coun­ter­pro­duc­tive be­cause the very process of try­ing to force a thought out of­ten in­vites it in. Bet­ter, says Havey, is to quell the amyg­dala through a process psy­chol­o­gists call “af­fect la­belling”. The aim is sim­ply to recog­nise thoughts for what they are and not dwell on them, in­stead of at­tempt­ing to shove them aside as though they don’t ex­ist. “I think of it as putting a Post-it note on the thought and let­ting it go,” she says.

Re­lated to this is a psy­cho­log­i­cal con­cept called “emo­tional gran­u­lar­ity”, which is how well you can dis­tin­guish re­lated emo­tions. Peo­ple with low gran­u­lar­ity may have trou­ble do­ing more than say­ing they are un­happy, sad or an­gry. Peo­ple with high gran­u­lar­ity can dis­tin­guish the sub­tleties of de­spon­dence, de­spair, grief and gloom when un­happy.

But emo­tional gran­u­lar­ity isn’t just about hav­ing a rich vo­cab­u­lary, ac­cord­ing to Lisa Feld­man Bar­rett, a pro­fes­sor of psy­chol­ogy at North­east­ern Univer­sity in Bos­ton; it is about “ex­pe­ri­enc­ing the world, and your­self, more pre­cisely”.

Cog­ni­tion stud­ies in­di­cate that the abil­ity to dis­cern and de­scribe feel­ings is im­por­tant for ath­letes try­ing to fight off the big choke as much as it is use­ful for ev­ery­day emo­tional con­trol such as anger man­age­ment. Havey says: “Re­search shows that the bet­ter peo­ple are at that, the bet­ter they are in highly emo­tional sit­u­a­tions.”

In fact, she says, re­search finds that when peo­ple let their minds wan­der ran­domly, and there­fore “catas­trophise”, the part of the brain that lights up is some­thing called the “de­fault mode net­work”.

The whole point of mindfulness is not to buy into this. There are a lot of ways for ath­letes to train against it, in­clud­ing breath­ing tech­niques, med­i­ta­tion or sim­ply learn­ing to sit calmly, ob­serv­ing and la­bel­ing their thoughts. “Any­thing to an­chor your mind to the present,” says Havey.

might chal­lenge a client to per­form stand-up com­edy or im­prov. Some­one with­out that spe­cific fear might in­stead have to con­front a box of snakes.

Though con­trolled, such ex­pe­ri­ences can be pow­er­ful lessons. “Stress in­oc­u­la­tion is the mil­i­tary term,” Wal­she says. The key is for the chal­lenge to be scary but not so ter­ri­fy­ing that one to­tally freezes up.

There are more in­tense pro­grams. In 2013, for ex­am­ple, Wal­she col­lab­o­rated with US Navy SEALS to take Aus­tralian iron­man cham­pion Matt Poole and three other elite ath­letes –more at home in surf or white wa­ter – on a nine-day moun­taineer­ing ex­pe­di­tion in Chilean Patag­o­nia. There, they leaped across glacial crevasses, climbed treach­er­ously un­sta­ble slopes and bivouacked in a snow­storm to ul­ti­mately sum­mit a never-be­fore-climbed An­dean peak.

The Red Bull-spon­sored trip – named ‘Project Acheron’, af­ter the first of the three rivers of hell in Dante’s In­ferno – was doc­u­mented in a one-hour film (you can watch it on­line). In it, Poole echoes Ber­trand’s be­lief that the great undis­cov­ered ter­ri­tory for ath­letes re­mains “the thing be­tween your ears”.

“Ev­ery­body does the work,” the triath­lete says. “They’re su­per-fit, they train su­per-hard.” What makes the dif­fer­ence is “men­tal strength, the abil­ity to push even harder when you’ve got noth­ing else to give”.

Poole and his fel­low ad­ven­tur­ers all went on, with­out any other psy­cho­log­i­cal coach­ing, to mas­sive tri­umphs in their cho­sen sports. Will Wal­she send the Aus­tralian swim team off on some sim­i­lar adventure? No one knows, but it’s the type of thing he does, so any­one on the swim team who doesn’t like snakes or glaciers or pos­si­bly an ex­tended trek into the Out­back might be in for a sur­prise.

THERE IS A STORY Si­mons likes to tell about Aus­tralian marathon-run­ner Steve Moneghetti be­fore the 1997 world cham­pi­onships in Athens, which the sports psy­chol­o­gist got first-hand from the run­ner.

Moneghetti was one of the great marathon­ers of his time but had never earned a medal in the world cham­pi­onships. Nor did he run well in heat. As the fi­nal drew near, it be­came clear the day would be hot. Worse, a mo­tor scooter clipped him and bruised his Achilles ten­don a week be­fore the race.

But there he was at the fi­nal, so he be­gan his warmup rou­tine, all the while feel­ing “like crap”. The race started and he was promptly left be­hind by the lead pack. So he fig­ured he would aim for a top-20 fin­ish, and got into his rhythm.

At about a third of the way through the 42 km race, some­one told him he was catch­ing up. He kept go­ing. With about 5 km to go, he found him­self fifth. He fin­ished third. The bronze medal was the only one he ever won at a world cham­pi­onship in a long, il­lus­tri­ous ca­reer – and he won it on “a crap day”.

To Si­mons, this epit­o­mises hang­ing tough: “But he would say it was more like: ‘I was just go­ing to do it.’”

Which is ex­actly what Ber­trand hopes his swim­mers will do off the blocks in Tokyo in 2020. If suc­cess flows, the ac­claim and medals will de­servedly go to the ath­letes. But Ber­trand, Wal­she and a host of oth­ers will have been be­hind the scenes, work­ing to­gether to push the envelope of psy­chol­ogy and help each ath­lete, in those few defin­ing moments, to mas­ter the “space be­tween the ears”.

RICK LOVETT is a Port­land, Ore­gon-based science writer and science fiction author.

IM­AGES 01 Philippe Caron / Getty Im­ages 02 Gabriel Bouys / Getty Im­ages 03 Cour­tesy of John Ber­tand AO 04 Brian Arh / Getty Im­ages 05 Yasser Al-za­yyat / Getty Im­ages 06 Tony Mar­shall / Getty Im­ages

06 | Steve Moneghetti won a bronze at the 1997 world cham­pi­onships by de­cid­ing he was ‘just go­ing to do it’.

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