Brain seeing the light
Our mind needs regular mental exercise. This post discusses how to keep our brain cognitively and emotionally fit.

There are many contexts in our lives when we need to be focused and attentive such as playing sport or being in an environment of learning. At those times we need to be fully present physically and mentally. We can improve concentration and attention with mindfulness training.

Researchers from the University of Miami published a study in the Journal of Cognitive Enhancement which found that mindfulness but not relaxation can make a player’s attention span more stable and keep them from losing their attention.

The study involved following players on the UM football team for 4 weeks. The first group received mindfulness training; Participants learned breathing exercises, body scan and awareness training. The second group received relaxation training, guided imagery,  relaxation exercises and listened to soothing music.

The mindfulness group had high attendance compared to relaxation group. Both relaxation and mindfulness help well-being but only mindfulness training benefitted the players’ attention.

The key to the success of mindfulness training lies in consistency. Practicing mindfulness is not something that you do now and again expecting instant results but rather setting the time every day to create in the moment awareness. Just as an athlete trains his body to build strength and muscle we need to build cognitive and emotional fitness through daily practice.

We can practice mindfulness both formally and informally which together forms the basis of mindfulness training. Formal practice involves meditation; awareness of breath, body scan and choice-less awareness meditations. There are several Informal practices such as yoga movements, eating with awareness, going on a mindful walk.

Mindfulness training involves paying attention to our thoughts, emotions and body; We call this the triangle of awareness.

There is also good evidence from neuroscience and brain imaging that mindfulness meditation reliably and profoundly alters the structure and function of the brain to improve the quality of both thought and feeling. It can help us pay greater attention, be more focused, think in more innovative ways, use existing knowledge more effectively, improve working memory and enhance planning, problem solving and reasoning skills.

As an athlete or performer of any type, the ability to modulate and control thoughts of pain and emotions can give a competitive edge and improve performance outcome. For example, in the heat of the moment if an athlete can recognize unproductive thoughts and redirect the thought through mindfulness training, anxiety and body tension will reduce helping the athlete to enhance performance.

As we practice mindfulness what arises is awareness of self. We increase our baseline clarity where we are better able to track the components of our sensory experience; What we are seeing, hearing, feeling in our body, our emotions and what we are saying to ourselves. We also increase our baseline equanimity which is an attitude of matter-of–factness with regards to our sensory experience.

All sportsmen need the ability to stay focused and work through physical pain, negative thoughts and emotions. Negative thoughts will affect what the athlete feels in his body and thus affects his ability to “stay in the race”. Conversely, our attitude towards physical discomfort affects what we are saying to ourselves and our emotions.

We call this competing stimuli an “in your head argument” and if an athlete can recognize when this argument is happening then the ability to end this argument will free up valuable energy that can be refocused to the task at hand.

The 3 A’s of Mindfulness for Athletes

Through the use of the 3 A’s an athlete can switch mental direction and get back on course:-

Acceptance:   knowing in the moment that the self-dialogue is negative and acknowledging this to oneself thus ending the in-your-head argument.
Awareness: taking a moment to take a deep breath and refocus.
Action: taking a specific action that is practiced in training to switch thoughts from negative to neutral.

Mindful awareness is a powerful tool because of the use of the brain. If an athlete can recruit the brain to assist rather than resist, then efficiency and performance levels jump.

Learn more about Mindfulness training and sport enhancement here 

Read my Newsletter article on Mindfulness here

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