It’s the night before a very important match, exam, meeting or any high pressure situation and you are lying in bed anticipating the day ahead, feeling eager to get a good night’s sleep.
Thoughts about the “outcome” are buzzing around in your head and keeping you awake. The worry about not sleeping is starting to escalate. The trouble is, the more you try to not think about the game and the more you try to fall asleep, the more awake you become. You get more and more frustrated with your thoughts, and more and more worried and frustrated about not sleeping. And the more awake you become. It has become a vicious cycle.
Hmmm… has this happened to you too?
Wouldn’t it be great if you could do something else with those thoughts and worries that are keeping you awake?
This situation is familiar to most of us, both in sport and in life. This is a good example of where our minds work against us and get in the way of the task at hand. Whether it be sleep before the game, concentration during the game, or thoughts we have after the game. Our minds can regularly feel like hyperactive monkeys, jumping around, screeching, chattering, carrying on endlessly! Especially in situations that are important to us. And these situations are the perfect scenarios of where the practice of mindfulness becomes essential.
The term mindfulness seems to be popping up almost everywhere right now. So when I am working with my netfitters, I like to call in “in the zone”. We are hearing it in a wide range of different contexts and sport is certainly a big one. It is an important concept with a very simple definition. Mindfulness is simply about paying attention on purpose. That is, managing where your attention is. So, how is it that this simple skill is really going to help in such high pressured moments before, during or after the game?
The thing is, very little of the time are we actually in control of where our attention is. We are often distracted by the thoughts, or mind wandering that occurs approximately 50% of our waking hours. Thoughts about what has happened or thoughts about what might happen, which takes our attention away from what is happening in the moment right now. And it is very difficult to perform at our best and experience moments to their fullest without paying attention.
So how do we learn to be more mindful or attentive, both on and off the court? When starting to adopt a more mindful approach to our experience, it’s helpful to start with the following three principles:
One of the biggest challenges to practicing mindfulness is remembering to do it. Therefore, practicing the skill is important to allow mindfulness to become a more regular state of being. Meditation is the exercise to train this skill, and just like it’s important to train our bodies to become more fit and skilful at our game, it’s important to dedicate this training to our minds so they are the healthiest and attentive they can be.
2) Thoughts are just thoughts
Thoughts can be described as a stream of words that come into our minds, often beyond our control. Did you here that, we can not control what thoughts we have, we can only control what we do with them. Despite what we assume, most of our thoughts do not actually require action or attention. Recognising this creates “space” between our thoughts and ourselves allows us to bring our attention back to where it’s more helpful.
3) Coming back to the moment
This centre pass is all that matters. Most netfitters have heard me call it “chunking”. Managing where our attention is isn’t about staying attentive nor staying present. Even if we become present, our monkey minds are too good at pulling our attention away again. So mindfulness is more accurately described as “coming back” to the moment, rather than expecting to stay there.
So now let’s come back to lying in bed before the big game, struggling with thoughts that are stopping us from sleeping, and bring in these principles. Firstly, a helpful meditation exercise to practice when in bed is some mindful breathing. Simply brining your attention to noticing the movement on the breath, the air moving in and out, or your chest or belly rising and falling. Not trying to control the breath but to just notice. Secondly, as soon as you notice your mind wander and you have been caught up in thought, just notice the thought as a thought by saying “Ah, there is thinking!” And then thirdly, gently bring your attention back to breath.
And just keep repeating these three steps…
1) Notice your breathing
2) When you lose focus, notice your thoughts as thoughts
3) Bring your attention back to the breath
Experiment, play with it and see what happens! These same three steps apply to any component of your game, and any component of your life. And remember, mindfulness is a skill and therefore takes practice to develop just like any sport. Practice your mindful awareness every day and eventually you will be able to use mindfulness to become fully engaged in your game, and to get the most of your performance and enjoyment in everything you do.