Top athletes in a number of fields are getting a competitive edge through mindfulness. Already pushing their physical limits in the gym and on the practice field, the mind has become the next training ground for elite performers.
In football, the Super Bowl champion Seattle Seahawks are well known for their commitment to mental excellence, driven by their head coach, Pete Carroll. He has a staff that works with players on developing mindfulness, so he can more easily direct each player’s focus:
“We don’t talk about mindfulness that much, but that’s how we operate. We focus on what’s right in front of us. We don’t care about the other team or the environment we’re playing in. We just take every game as if it’s the most important in the world and focus right on that. That takes great mindfulness.”
Michael Gervais is the sports psychologist who works with the team on meditation, visualization and more. His key to reaching peak performance is developing confidence:
“Confidence is the cornerstone of great performance… And it comes from just one place: what we say to ourselves… you have to have a disciplined mind to focus on when you’ve been successful in the past and to bring that success into the present. Part of the training is being mindful, on a moment-to-moment basis, of whether you’re building or taking away from your confidence. The second part is being able to guide yourself back to the present moment and adopt a positive mindset about what is possible.”
The players have bought into the system as well. Pro Bowl free safety Earl Thomas describes his practice as essential to changing his perspective:
“When you’re quiet and don’t say anything, you start to see the unseen. That’s why people need to be observant and listen. When I turned my ears to listening, I improved, personally and in everything.”
“You’ve got to [meditate]. That’s how you get into the flow. That’s why I do my little dance, my back pedal, because I’m flowing with the offense. However, you’re going to get at me, I’m going to adapt. I’m going to flow with you like water.”
Quarterback Russell Wilson describes what they do in Seattle to think and perform at an elite level:
“We do imagery work and talk about having that innovative mindset of being special,” Wilson says. “We talk about being in the moment and increasing chaos throughout practice, so when I go into the game, everything is relaxed.”
That success has increased acceptance of mindfulness training in football, but it can also have other benefits. The University of Miami football team is part of a study examining mindfulness practice and its relationship to growth of the hippocampus, an area of the brain that shrinks from the rigors of football.
This success is not limited to football. Phil Jackson, the “Zen Master” is well known for his introduction of mindfulness into the daily routine of his basketball teams. His ability to make mindfulness practice accessible to his players and get buy in from his stars is part of why he won 11 NBA championships as a coach:
“A lot of our players in the NBA are from deeply religious families very much like my background… anything that would be a conflict of their religious beliefs I didn’t want to touch or get them upset about it… so we talked about mindfulness as being as much as we pump iron and we run to build our strength up, we need to build our mental strength up… we need to build our mental strength so we can focus, get one pointed attention, and so we can be in concert with each other in times of need… you do that through mindfulness. You reset yourself.”
Derek Fisher won multiple NBA titles under Phil Jackson, and now is implementing a mindfulness program for the New York Knicks, the team he now coaches:
“I think it falls into the category of mental performance. We’ve seen that evolve in professional sports in recent years where instead of always focusing on improving your performance in just the muscles and the bodies and the shooting, there is a very big muscle up here that also needs training sometimes,” Fisher said. “And so mindful training, mental performance, we take it seriously.”
During his tenure as a coach Phil Jackson worked with two of the greatest players in NBA history, Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant. Not to be left behind, LeBron James famously has been captured doing breathing exercises during the NBA Finals.
The Boston Red Sox recently created a behavioral health department to supplement the efforts of their mental skills coach Bob Tewksbury. The new department’s emphasis will be on teaching mindfulness.
Top tennis player Novak Djokovic practices meditation and is known for his visits to a Buddhist center in Wimbledon village to recharge during the two-week long Grand Slam.
Mindfulness has also reached space (well, the subatmosphere at least). Felix Baumgartner’s famous jump almost did not happen due to his issues with claustrophobia. Dr. Gervais helped Baumgartner visualize success and practice mindfulness to overcome his anxiety and successfully make the jump.
Dr. Steve Hickman and researchers at UCSD have tested mindfulness training with olympic athletes and found that the same techniques to reduce anxiety and increase compassion can also help anyone reach peak performance:
“We know pretty conclusively that mindfulness training can help people with chronic pain and illness and this has been the focus of mindfulness training for 30 years. We also know that there is an amazing parallel between what we teach in mindfulness and the brains of peak performers.
“People have wondered if there is a ceiling effect and whether people who already have attributes of mindfulness might not achieve the same benefits. It’s looking like peak performers can benefit from mindfulness training and this means recreational athletes, as well as other peak performers in business, academia and other fields, could likely benefit, too.”
What’s holding you back? Take inspiration from these top performers and get started on your mindfulness practice today.