Let’s talk elite athletes. They are the most physically gifted of all of us. Their frames, hand-eye coordination, balance, poise and power inspire jaw-dropping wonder. Their physical abilities to pay their bills are remarkable.
While it’s easy to focus on their physical gifts, the mental fortitude of champion athletes is potentially far more important. By understanding their bodies, athletes may alter their brain function and become more resilient to stress, according to a new study of the effects of mindfulness meditation on brain function in serious athletes.
The 2015 study, published in the journal Frontiers in Behavioral Neuroscience, was undertaken after a frustrated BMX coach wondered how he could help his athletes handle the anxiety associated with high-level competition. Looking for answers, he asked scientists at the Center for Mindfulness at the University of California, San Diego, if they’d be interested in studying his seven-man team.
Study director Lori Haase put the seven team members of the U.S. BMX team through an unusual mindfulness training program designed to maximize psychological performance. The baffled athletes scoffed at the word “mindfulness,” so instead, Haase renamed her methods “tactical training.”
The athletes endured seven weeks of tactical training, where they were taught to focus on their bodies and tune out noises and other distractions. Among other exercises, the scientists asked them to mentally scan their bodies, carefully noting how each limb and internal organ felt at that moment. During these exercises, the team of scientists had the riders breathe through straws and stick their hands in ice water to help them focus on the immediate, uncomfortable physical sensations instead of looking toward the next.
To the athlete’s surprise, all seven riders scored higher on self-awareness assessments of during testing and, more importantly, competition. Brain scans conducted showed their response to stress changed At the end of the study, the mindfulness exercises better equipped the athletes for the psychological demands of racing. They reported fewer instances of choking or freezing when faced with a high-pressure startline.
The study focused on seven young male athletes. While the study sample was small and uniform, it makes a strong case that self-awareness practices could help athletes handle the stress of long endurance ventures where you need to embrace discomfort to be successful. When you’re already suffering at mile ten of a fifty-kilometer race, exercising mindfulness could help ground you in the moment. There is nothing more anxiety provoking than looking towards the many miles ahead early on in an endurance event.
According to Haase and the results of her study, focusing on your feet and your next step rather than the next mile could even potentially reduce the perceived effort and increase performance. James Herrera, the former head coach of the BMX team noted improvements in races after the study finished, stating that the athletes were calmer in the start gate allowing them to out of the gate a little faster.
Luckily, you don’t have to solve math problems while breathing through a straw or meditate while submerged in ice water to practice mindfulness (although, you can if you want). Easy and effective approaches include breathing exercises where you focus on each breath while analyzing how you feel in that moment. If you have trouble carving out time on your own, try one of the many meditation apps like Headspace or MINDBODY.
We may not all have the chiseled physique or the natural talent of an elite athlete. But we can all train our minds for peak performance and see improvement.