MINDFULNESS IN SPORT
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’.