Humans have made incredible advances since the dawn of our existence. We have gone from hunting, gathering, and scavenging to simply speaking into our devices and having whatever basic needs (or comforts) we desire delivered to our front door. And although technology continues to excel, the human brain has not evolved away from its primary responsibility: keeping us alive and safe.
Consequently, this default operating system is wired to continuously scan internal and external environments, and direct our attention toward threats–both real and perceived. This works very well for our basic functioning and survival (eating, sleeping, shelter) as well as ensuring our safety. It helps us to react quickly to catch something midair when it’s knocked from a shelf, and keeps us out of the way from a car speeding down the street. Unfortunately, this default operating system does not help us very much in high-pressure, high-precision situations, or with chronic stress that often appears in our lives.
Whether you run, compete, play a sport, or just want to be more present with your kids, a tool called performance mindfulness can help override your body’s natural stress response, to feel more centered, focused, and ready–for anything life throws your way.
What exactly is performance mindfulness?
Many athletes know to hold their attention toward what they can control and influence yet many athletes also (incorrectly) believe that they have control over their thoughts and emotions. (Anyone who has ever stepped on a Lego in the middle of the night knows that the immediate pain and knee-jerk reaction of anger was not intentionally chosen.)
However, the choice of our behavior in any situation is our own and more easily within our control. We can choose to act in alignment with our emotion or we can override that default programming and choose to act in alignment with our values or with the behaviors that are more likely to yield the results we ultimately desire. Becoming aware of this internal system of attention, thought, emotion, body sensation, and behavior is the core of performance mindfulness. The key to using this model to our advantage requires us to observe what we are putting our attention toward, accepting what is, and intentionally selecting to focus on the behavior we want to do next.
This is, of course, easier said than done. And like any muscle, the mind requires a significant amount of time, practice, and repetition for performance mindfulness to work well.
What performance mindfulness looks like in practice.
Recently, I was working with a young woman who was a rising star in the golf world. Many considered her the next Mickey Wright or Paula Creamer–and she too, had believed she was close to having some staying power. (To maintain confidentiality, I will refer to her as Maria moving forward.)
Despite her success, something had suddenly changed, and Maria feared she no longer had the “it” factor she seamlessly possessed before. She began to doubt whether she truly belonged at the pro level, and her scores had started to affirm that belief. Where in previous competitions that Maria knew she could win, feeling excited and confident, she now noticed a pulsating, trembling feeling in her hands–particularly when standing over easy, 5-foot putts in contentious rounds. She desperately hoped the feeling would go away. She wished it would stop. Instead, it worsened. Maria had never experienced this, and the sensation always seemed to flood her senses during her most crucial competitions. Obviously, less than ideal timing.
Thankfully, like many elite athletes, Maria’s advantage was that she still believed she could turn her performance around and she was willing to meet this new challenge head-on. What Maria did not know, was that performance mindfulness–a novel concept to her–would be the approach that helped her most. And so, our work began.
Performance mindfulness as a tool.
Using mindfulness, Maria began to take note of her thoughts, emotions, and body sensations at various points throughout her tournaments. In the beginning, we would break down each round, shot by shot. Upon reflection, Maria quickly realized that in those clutch moments of competition, she would shift her attention away from the line she wanted the ball to travel, and instead focus on how her hands were feeling. However, during days when she felt more confident and less pressure, she didn’t notice pulsating and trembling in her hands.
While the post-game reflections helped Maria build her awareness, the observations were not the only key to improving Maria’s performance. The next task, accepting, would prove even more important. Moving forward, Maria would need to observe when she experienced the sensation in her hands, and then simply accept that it was her body’s natural response to the stress.
It may surprise you (as it did Maria) that many elite athletes have similar experiences under peak levels of pressure. There is nothing wrong with the athlete (or their brain) when they begin feeling less than confident, and notice distracting body sensations or negative self-talk. It just means that the brain needs an operating system update, in the form of mindset training.
To retrain Maria’s brain, we introduced a “priming” exercise into her daily routine. We started with something easy and manageable: a short mindful minute of breathing each morning. Once Maria had the breathing exercise down, we introduced imagery. Maria would center herself with the breathing, and then envision her day and the competition. She would bring to her mind’s eye a solid performance, as well as her hands shaking. It may sound counter-intuitive, but it was important for Maria not only to contemplate what would go well, but what might not go well. This is what helped with the acceptance.
If Maria could use imagery to anticipate the nervousness and her body’s physical reaction to that emotion, she could also use imagery to see herself being successful despite the way she felt. It was all about building intentionality. She would imagine looking down, feeling the anxiety, and noticing the pulsating and trembling in her hands. And then, Maria would imagine taking in a deep breath, accepting her state, exhaling, pulling back her putter, and seeing her ball travel down the line exactly where she wanted it.
Once Maria learned that she could hold both truths at the same time–the gnawing, annoying sensation in her hands, and her ability to sink a putt—things started to change. She naturally began to implement the third area of performance mindfulness: intentional attention. Instead of getting derailed with the higher-pressure putts, Maria was now able to notice her confidence slipping and her hands trembling, then intentionally redirect her focus. She had prepared earlier in the morning that she might feel this way, and when that time came, Maria knew that all she needed to do was to follow her plan. Ultimately, she found confidence in her routine of awareness, acceptance, and refocusing attention to where she needed it most.
I still check in with Maria from time to time, but the distressed young woman I once knew is not the person who walks into my office. We discuss her performance mindfulness routine each time we meet, examining what works well and what is worth improving. And it still requires practice—not every game she plays is perfect or goes according to plan. Becoming skilled in performance mindfulness takes time—it is more complex than the flip of a switch, and is different for each athlete and their sport. However, with time, practice and patience, performance mindfulness is a skill that any athlete or individual can use to optimize the way they think to ensure they perform at the highest level possible.
Even those who may not be athletes at all are utilizing this mental training. The one constant is that these people want to enhance their mindset to improve how they think, feel, and perform to grow in the areas of their lives that require the most concentration and attention.