Mindfulness: The Secret to Becoming a Better, Happier Athlete


, by Chris Case

Photography by: katyapulka

Right here. Right now. In simplistic terms, that’s mindfulness.

The concept originated from Buddhist meditation practices and is now being applied to all manner of things, including the athletic realm.

In endurance sports, an awareness emerges through deliberately paying close attention, in the present moment and without judgment, to the unfolding of experience. It’s this type of presence that has been shown to improve performance and enhance certain cognitive functions—not to mention provide calm and composure during stressful moments, either leading into or in the midst of racing.

If you’re like most of modern humanity, you are still searching for perfect life balance—who among us isn’t? Which means you are very likely juggling a plethora of activities. Between professional and personal life, not to mention training, racing, and trying to maintain a healthy lifestyle, it’s difficult to compartmentalize each distinct facet of our existence, or to become fully engaged with whatever task is at hand.

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Even though the code is hard to crack, there are several simple steps you can take to bring more mindfulness to your training and racing—everything from basic meditation to mantras, and objective analysis of our self-awareness. Everyone benefits when the power of presence is enhanced.

Easing our accessibility to mindfulness

Staying in the moment and, just as importantly, refining our ability to more easily enter a state of presence during competition is key to improving overall mindfulness.

You can’t do anything about what just happened in the past. You really can’t do anything about what might happen in the future, except to prepare.

Let’s look at six strategies you can use to improve your ability to stay present, stay focused, and stay on task.

1. Trust your training

You’ve done the work; you’ve prepared the best you can. It’s time to turn off the mind, in a sense. Don’t overanalyze what’s about to happen, or what just happened. Put your trust in the process of what you’ve achieved to get to this point. Don’t begin to think through motions, actions, or behaviors that are rote. They are within you; let them come out of you organically.

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2. Be present in the moment

“There’s a line in the popular TV show Ted Lasso about ‘being a goldfish.’ That’s because they have the shortest memory of any animal on the planet. That’s what you want as an athlete,” says Grant Holicky, co-owner of Forever Endurance Coaching, who holds a master’s degree in applied sports psychology. “You can’t do anything about what just happened in the past. You really can’t do anything about what might happen in the future, except to prepare. Right here, right now, the only thing that matters is going forward.”

Photography by: FabrikaSimf

3. Use cues to remain present

A mantra is a powerful tool used to focus your mind on a particular goal and create calm during challenging situations. Sometimes mantras are in your head: “Right here, right now.” Sometimes they’re on your team kit. Wherever they might be, they can be used to bring you back to the present, to remind you what you’re actively pursuing and, just as importantly, why you’re doing it.

“There’s a Taoist saying that roughly means, ‘You are like a boat going down the river. You can’t go upstream and change what just happened. Likewise, you can’t change where that rock is downstream. All you can do is position your boat to best deal with it,’” Holicky says.

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4. Focus on your preparation

You have a plan; you must trust the plan. You do the work; you must trust the work. (If you don’t, then you need a new plan!) If you and/or your coach have devised a solid training plan, then it’s essential that you put trust in the process, be patient with your progress, and allow your development to run its natural course.

“So many athletes get caught up in that question of what might happen—they find themselves not preparing for the moment they’re in,” Holicky says. “They’re so anxious about the race coming up that they’re not eating properly, or sleeping properly, to prepare now.”

5. Take mental breaks

Who among us doesn’t run from work to training to family time, or some combination thereof? The result is that we often bring what was happening at work onto our rides, or we take our feelings about our rides back home to our family.

You have a plan; you must trust the plan. You do the work; you must trust the work. (If you don’t, then you need a new plan!)

To prevent this, take mental breaks—even if they are only a few minutes long. This helps us compartmentalize the discrete facets of our life. Sit and be still for a couple minutes—sometimes that’s all it takes. Deliberately set aside what you were just doing; step into the next phase with a clear mind and a clear approach.

6. Meditation

This isn’t necessarily what you’re thinking. Meditation can take many forms, including the simple act of allowing the first 15 minutes of your ride or run to be a mind-clearing exercise. Listen to the wind, focus on your pedal stroke or stride, allow your breath to remind you of your physical presence in nature.

RELATED: Training as Deliberate Practice: The Importance of Exercising Mindfully

“We’re not necessarily trying to clear out our mind of all the other things, we’re trying to place the most important things into our mind clearly,” Holicky says. “That in and of itself will help to force those other thoughts out.”

Ultimately, the reason we all like to run or ride or swim—to exercise and compete—is to be one with ourselves, to be one with nature, to feel free and alive. You’re there with specific intentions: health, pleasure, passion, community, competition, whatever your reasons might be. Not only should you not forget that fact, you should focus and appreciate it in the moment. Let it all in. And push all those other distractions and disruptions out.

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