Mindfulness, the latest favourite of the self-help shelves, has exploded in popularity in recent years. It is a recommended treatment for depression, is practiced by stressed out City Financiers, is offered to staff at Google, taught to children in schools, and is practiced by elite athletes such as Novak Djokovic and Kobe Bryant. Somewhat ambitiously, the Huffington post postulated that Mindfulness would change the world in 2014.
This article begins by explaining how Mindfulness has impacted the field of study at the forefront of performance enhancement: sports psychology. It then explains how Mindfulness works and finally suggests ways in which it may enhance your performance, both at work and home.
Sports psychology – from control to acceptance
The essence of a sports psychologist’s role is to empower a client to optimise their potential. Elite sports men and women are no different from the rest of us in occasionally experiencing a lack of self-belief, a loss of focus, questioning their abilities or losing motivation.
Traditionally, sports psychologists have utilised a specific set of ‘tools’ to turn performing inhibiting thoughts and actions into performance enhancing ones. Together, they are referred to as Psychological Skills Training (PST) interventions. Interventions are processes that lead to behaviour change, maintenance and enhancement. The tool most pertinent to this article is ‘self-talk.’
“Those who believe they can and those who believe they can’t are both right.”
Henry Ford was correct: our beliefs and thoughts have a huge impact on how we behave. We each have an internal dialogue with ourselves, known as ‘self-talk.’ These often-unconscious conversations are largely a function of experiences we had growing up, our environment and culture. The content of our self-talk affects our confidence, self-image, perceptions of the world and our role in it, and ultimately our performance in all areas of our life.
Sometimes the content of self-talk can be unhelpful, with psychological hurdles preventing us from achieving our goals. Take a moment to consider ways that you perceive the world, relate to other people and interpret your experiences that are unhelpful to you.
Historically, sports psychology has sought to change our negative self-talk through techniques such as thought-stopping and cognitive restructuring. Essentially, this involves taking control of our thoughts. The first step is to become aware of thoughts or beliefs that hold us back. Changing how we think impacts our self-belief, motivation and levels of anxiety.
The underlying philosophy of sports psychology is cognitive behavioural. Cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) assumes that we all have engrained habits in our thinking styles that predispose us to seeing the world in a certain way. There is no right or wrong way of viewing the world, but there are helpful and unhelpful ways. CBT helps people to view the world more flexibly, and to realise there are many interpretations of our life experiences.>
A key element of Psychological Skills Training is focus. Anything that prevents us from focusing on what we need to attend to at any given moment is unhelpful. Of course, our brains are not stupid – anxiety in advance of exams is a way of reminding us that we need to direct our attention to studying. This is useful. However, if we worry to such an extent that it prevents us focusing on the course material, this is unhelpful. Self-talk interventions enable us to direct our attention to goal-relevant factors.
In recent years however, the validity of this philosophy has been called into question. Some academics have claimed that traditional PST doesn’t work. After analysing many academic studies they concluded that PST was ineffective in improving performance (or that the improvements were so small as to be considered ineffective).
There are limitations to their argument, which will not be explored in this article. However, their contention is simple: you can’t control your thoughts. If you consider it, how many of your daily thoughts are of your own volition, and how many simply pop into you head? Do you decide what to think about, or do you ‘receive’ a thought and then just ‘go with it’? This is where Mindfulness enters the story.
What is it?
Mindfulness has its roots in Eastern contemplative traditions where meditation is used as the ‘scaffolding’ to develop the state of mindfulness. Rather than a skill or technique, Mindfulness is a way of being. John Kabat-Zinn defined mindfulness as “paying attention in a particular way: on purpose, in the present moment, and nonjudgmentally.”
The best way to understand how mindfulness differs from traditional techniques is to consider an example: the 2014 gentlemen’s tennis singles final at Wimbledon was played between Novak Djokovic and Roger Federer, with the match going to 5 sets. Djokovic had lost 5 of his 6 previous Grand Slam finals. He also had a match point in the 4th set which he failed to take. Consider some thoughts he may have been having; ‘I’m going to regret not taking that match point’, ‘I have lost 5 of my last 6 finals, maybe I just can’t do this anymore’, ‘if I don’t win this match I will never recover and the media will call me a choker.’
These negative thoughts are likely to detract Djokovic from the only important thing at that moment: focus on executing the next shot. Traditional techniques would have him switching to more positive thoughts such as ‘I’ve won 6 Grand Slams already so of course I can do this.’ Negative thoughts would have been replaced by positive ones.
Cognitive diffusion and reperceiving
Rather than fighting thoughts, being mindful involves noticing and accepting them. When teaching mindfulness in schools I use the analogy of a ‘thought train’ – thoughts come and go but you don’t need to get on the train. You decide which thought train you get on. In this way, you are no longer hijacked by thoughts. In ‘noticing’ his thoughts, rather than ‘getting involved’ with them, Djokovic is now able to more skilfully decide where he focuses his attention. This is known as cognitive diffusion – rather than attempting to alter the content of thoughts, we alter our relationship to them. This shift in perspective (reperceiving) enables us not to be immersed in the drama of our personal narrative.
To many, this sounds crazy: embrace negative thoughts and unpleasant feelings. Why would you ever want to do this? A monk once explained to me that when bad things happen to us it is as if we have been shot in the heart by an arrow. That is bad enough, but we have a tendency to stick more arrows into ourselves. For example, being made redundant is the first arrow, the self-inflicted ones are fears of never getting another job, running out of money etc. Self-inflicted arrows are often thoughts about things that may or may not happen. Mindfulness helps us to focus solely on the first arrow. It doesn’t prevent negative thoughts, but rather enables a performer to accept them and yet remain engaged on the task at hand. It is noticing experiences without having to control or avoid them.
This Mindfulness and Acceptance approach (MAC) teaches clients to observe and describe experiences, rather than judging and controlling them. In doing so, it reduces worry and anxiety.
Specific ways MAC enhances human performance
Attention, concentration and focus
Consider every aspect of your life where both your inability to focus and your tendency to be distracted have negative consequences. Examples of this abound. One of the biggest inhibitors of academic performance in children is their ability to concentrate. Their minds wander and they get on the thought train without any awareness of doing so. Yet children also worry about things – academic results, what other children think of them etc. Worry leads to distraction.
Adults are no different – notice the next time in conversation your mind drifts to something completely unrelated. Do people or ‘things’ anger, irritate, upset you to the extent where, in the moment, you are controlled by those emotions and your attention cannot be shifted to something else? Be honest!
Academic studies have found evidence suggesting Mindfulness improves certain aspects of attention; the ability to be selective in directing the focus of one’s attention; the ability to switch the focus of one’s attention; the ability to detect mind wandering; and executive attention, which is the ability to allocate our attentional resources between tasks.
Mindfulness allows you to turn your attention from being focused on yourself (your thoughts and emotions such as worry or anger) to being focused on the task confronting you now.
Productivity and stress
By skilfully directing your attention, you will be less easily distracted and, I cautiously suggest, potentially more productive. With stress, the link is less tenuous: viewing events from different perspectives, allied to an ability to re-direct your focus, will allow you to feel less anxiety and to ruminate less. Knowing that all emotions and thoughts are temporary allows us to be more tolerant of unpleasant feelings.
Awareness and empathy
Mindfulness practice develops metacognitive awareness. In layman’s terms this is ‘thinking about what you are thinking.’ We all too often sleepwalk through life, controlled by our habits. Habits can be mundane such as which hand you hold your toothbrush in, or they can be more unhelpful such as how we experience other people and interpret things that happen to us in life.
Greater awareness allows us to dis-identify from prior patterns, in turn giving us greater clarity, more flexibility and less automaticity in our thinking. Experiencing emotions, even strong negative ones, in greater depth and more objectively serves to counter our habitual tendencies and supports a more enriched life.
Within any relationship, more flexible thinking and objectivity allows us to cultivate an invaluable skill: empathy. Understanding how other people feel and experience their worlds is important in so many ways. Although difficult to quantify, it does not detract from its role in corporate success.
The bottom line
Mindfulness is no panacea. It won’t change your life overnight. There are caveats to the scientific evidence of its effectiveness; often the results are contradictory, we don’t know how long benefits last, some of the studies have questionable methodologies. The list goes on.
However, as with anything, the more frequently you practice and integrate being mindful into your life, the more you will reap the rewards. It is probably a safe assertion that most of us wish to feel less anxiety, enjoy better relationships, be more ‘present’ and to savour life more. Mindfulness puts us on the path to achieving goals that continue to elude us.