How athletes of every discipline can benefit from mindfulness — in performance and life.

Kelton Wright
Former Director of Movement and Sport at Headspace

The pressures on athletes are mounting from the day they set their sights on sport. No matter the level, there are high expectations, extreme physical demands, and significant amounts of time, money and attention routed away from other aspects of life in pursuit of peak performance. Even when sport is a passion, it creates a life under pressure. 

Trainers, coaches and administrators are seeking a way to lighten the load of the pressure-cooker they find themselves and their athletes in, and many are turning to mindfulness. Meditation and mindfulness have been making headlines in the last decade for their seemingly endless benefits. But past the anecdotal evidence of finding calm and feeling steady, the science is proving out. Practicing mindfulness may not only improve performance, it may be the salve that keeps athletes balanced and focused — in the gym, in the game and in their lives.


Benefits in sport and life

Especially for collegiate athletes, the pressure is multidimensional. Keeping up with sport and school and social lives is challenging. In a 2016 report out of Northeastern University, it was said that 95% of male and 85% of female student-athletes reported higher stress compared to 52% of non-athlete students.

It’s hard to find balance between academia, travel, relationships with coaches and teammates, practice, family and every other friendly and romantic relationship. Student-athletes experience substantial stress, and this makes them more likely to practice unhealthy habits and experience psychological issues. 

Mindfulness is a key factor in reducing and managing this stress. Maintaining a meditation practice for just 10 days has been shown to reduce stress by 14%. The benefits don’t stop there. Sara Lazar, a renowned neuroscientist at Harvard Medical school, conducted an 8-week study on meditation, finding thickening in several regions of the brain:

  1. Posterior cingulate, which is involved in mind wandering and self-relevance
  2. Left hippocampus, which assists in cognition, memory, learning and emotional regulation
  3. Temporo parietal junction, working in perspective-taking and empathy

Lazar’s lab also researched the effect of meditation on the amygdala, the fight or flight part of the brain—our center of anxiety, fear and stress in general. That area got smaller in the group that went through the mindfulness-based stress reduction program.

There’s no getting around the demands on collegiate athletes. They need a tool that can help them manage, and meditation is the best tool available. Meditation improves our relationships with sleep, with pain and with people. It also builds resiliency, boosts compassion and increases focus. It’s no wonder so many professional teams have incorporated mindfulness training into their routines. 

Dr. Kristin Keim, M.A., Psy.D., a sport psychologist to college and Olympic athletes, has long been a fan of mindfulness practices in sport, but knows “the pure essence of its utility has been drowned out the past few years.” 

As the mindfulness hype grows, it can be harder to introduce as a tool. But once she convinces her clients, they report feeling less stress, more centered and grounded, and they participate in less negative self-talk. “Once they start to feel these improvements, many of my clients will add in 10-20 minutes of meditation each day.” 

So when we’re away from our athletes, and they’re struggling at home with cancelled seasons and remote learning, how can we aid in implementing mindfulness practices? 


Putting it in practice

In life and in sport, the easiest way to start and maintain any new habit is to attach it to an existing one. This tactic makes a new habit easier to remember: I meditate after I brush my teeth. Or, I meditate before I get in bed. 

In normal times, mindfulness can easily be woven into training. It helps to frame meditation as a practice equal in importance to any warm-up drill. Making it part of warm-ups, cool-downs or team travel helps to unite the team in the practice. It can also be incorporated into ice baths, physical therapy and study time. 

Now, in a global pandemic, the internet is our best implementation method. Take advantage of the Teamworks platform to communicate a meditation plan, and schedule daily 10-minute sessions for athletes and staff to adhere to. A routine will help them manage their feelings of isolation, disappointment and grief.

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Keim is seeing these issues arise with her athletes. “As my athletes started to understand that they may not have a race and competition season, many of them experienced feelings of anger, disappointment, anxiety, depression and anticipatory grief.” 

Their minds are turning toward the future and painting the worst outcome. “In order to calm my clients, I refer back to mindfulness and coming back to present and focusing on what is in their control.”

To create a mindfulness routine, download Headspace. It’s the best app for learning meditation, and its simple day-by-day structure guides users through the basics. Instead of 5 minutes of “zen” and rain sounds, Headspace teaches the fundamentals of mindfulness. Try the Stress Course with your organization, and schedule weekly sessions to talk about meditation routines, questions and findings. 

For mental health care, athletes and staff can also download Sanvello, the #1 app for anxiety, stress and depression. Sanvello allows you to track your mood, learn cognitive behavioral therapy techniques, and track your progress over time. Using it in conjunction with Headspace can help you see the effects of meditation over time. 


Getting athletes on board

Most people know meditation is good for them, but many still struggle to make it a habit. You may run into excuses like “I’m not good at it” or “I keep meaning to…”

It’s important to practice what you preach. Knowing how to talk about the obstacles of meditation is a key factor in being able to convince others to stick with it. Keim recommends coaches share positive experiences of their own and from other players. “It’s important to understand the Why and How mindfulness will help their team and players and to share their own experience of starting a practice.”

By scheduling time in advance, assigning the type of meditation (e.g., Headspace Stress Course Day 1) and creating feedback loops, you can create a structure your team and staff can stick to. Encourage athletes to screenshot their meditation streaks, use Sanvello or a journal to track their mood and work through negative thinking traps, and begin or end all academic sessions and training sessions with a shorter meditation. 

Athletes need mental support now more than ever. By building meditation into their routine, you’re giving them a skill that will prepare them for life’s biggest challenges — in and out of sport.