COLUMN: Are Top-Level Athletes Really Mindful?

Everywhere you turn, teaching and preaching mindfulness is used as a portal to the good life and true happiness. I’m now all in. 

Our daily lives, relationships and the keys to surviving this crazy world would all benefit from being and acting more mindful. For clarity, let’s define mindfulness. Google mindfulness and its core components and plan on spending the day sifting through the myriad of definitions and elements. For the purpose of this article, I’ll do the leg work and share two popular working models for mindfulness.

Ellis Edmunds, Psy.D. defines the SOAP model of mindfulness:

Separation from Thought. Most thoughts have little truth to them and are often not very helpful.
Observing Yourself. We step into a space of just observing ourselves.
Acceptance of Emotions. You are telling your emotions: “I see you and accept you just the way you are.”
Present Moment. To bring our attention back to the here and now. 

The University of Minnesota’s Earl E. Bakken Center for Spirituality & Healing defines the big M (mindfulness) as follows:

Intention—to cultivate awareness (and return to it again and again)
Attention—to what is occurring in the present moment (simply observing thoughts, feelings and sensations as they arise)
Attitude—non-judgmental, curious, and kind

To further your mindfulness, breathing, meditation, fitness, yoga, and journaling are all great activities we should do daily. Truly, we all need to find time to work toward the best version of ourselves.

The mindfulness movement does have its critics.

Thomas Joiner, a research psychologist at Florida State University who primarily works in the area of suicide prevention, wrote a book (Mindlessness: The Corruption of Mindfulness in a Culture of Narcissism) critiquing the culture that surrounds mindfulness: meditation, yoga and other similar wellness and well-being concepts that purport to be grounded in spirituality.

Joiner claims that Western practitioners often espouse a shallow, self-absorbed, narcissistic and selfish distortion of mindfulness. In particular, he claims that the focus on self-acceptance and self-love can easily descend into extreme narcissism and self-centeredness. According to Joiner, Eastern practices of mindfulness and meditation also have the potential to lead to narcissism, entitlement and arrogance. However, other parts of the culture and the practice may limit the descent into extreme self-centeredness. Within Buddhist mindfulness, there is a focus on collectivism and service to the group, which may prevent a descent into extreme narcissism.

Joiner does distinguish between authentic and false mindfulness. Authentic mindfulness is non-judgmental moment-to-moment awareness of everything. This includes the external world and other people, as well as your internal world. Authentic mindfulness involves seeing yourself as a small part of a large universe. When you are authentically mindful, you have an awareness of things outside of yourself including other people and the environment. 

The sports performance world and life coaches love to talk about the zone, flow and being present. Neuroscientists have given us insight into the inner workings of the brain and how we can learn and develop more efficient neuronal pathways to perform better. The academic world can debate and define full versus less in peer-review articles and in classrooms but in practical terms, how can we give meaning and guidance to the “Just do it, don’t think” holy grail end game in performance?

Okay. Stay with me now. Performance at the highest level is about to start. How can we go from mindfulness to a state of minimal thought in order to make better movements and decisions at high rates of speed and in limited time?

The master teacher/coach is always looking to add new tools and teaching points. Consider adding mindless teaching when working with the elite, especially as a mindset for high-level competition.

What is Mindless? Is it bad, good, or at times the mindset of the elite performers?

Alexander P. Burgoyne, Ph.D. in cognition and cognitive neuroscience at Michigan State University shares the following:

“Mindlessness is a state of unawareness, of going through the motions without being consciously aware of your surroundings or your inner states. It can be described as on autopilot or responding robotically, without conscious awareness of what you are doing, thinking, or feeling.”

Burgoyne continues:

“Although mindfulness has its merits, psychological research has also revealed that in some circumstances it’s important to be mindless. That is, as we develop skill in complex tasks, we can perform them with increasing facility until attention seems to be unnecessary.

“Underlying this state of ‘automaticity’ (as cognitive psychologists call it) are mental processes that can be executed without paying attention to them. These processes run off without conscious awareness—a chain reaction of mental events. We don’t perform all tasks automatically, but many can be performed this way once they are well practiced.

“Research has also revealed that paying too much attention to what you’re doing can have damaging effects, particularly when you perform well-practiced skills. In fact, this is one reason why some experts appear to ‘choke under pressure’: they think too much about the mechanics of the task at hand.”

Riding a bike, brushing your teeth and driving to work on the same road for years are situations where mindlessness wins the prize. Ask elite performers about their mindset during high-level competition and you will hear less about thought and more about instinct in their post-game interviews.

Mushin: A Zen expression that means mind without mind. It is defined as a mind not fixed or occupied by thought or emotion and thus open to everything. Simply, both a negative mind and a positive mind are dangerous as they pull us away from the present. We all know that mind wandering and preoccupation with thoughts are not conducive to peak performance.  So why fill players’ heads with tricks and “tools” that may hinder their ability to be mindless?

Zen Master Takuan Soho would make a great hitting coach with this insight:

“When the swordsman (hitter) stands against the opponent, he is not to think of the opponent, nor of himself, nor his enemy’s sword movements. He just stands there with his sword which, forgetful of all technique, is ready to follow the dictates of the subconscious. When he strikes, it is not the man but the sword in the hand of the man’s subconscious that strikes.”

Mindful, mindless, potato, potatoe.  Are they the same thing?  Maybe not. Perhaps we should be careful in filling up players’ minds with strategies, self-help cues and well-intended positive noise to improve their ability to be thoughtless in competition.

Perhaps, mindful is a stepping stone to mindless. We need to be mindful of our own innate strength and be mindless of the noise, deterrents, belief systems and stigmas attaches to the ”how, who and what.” In essence, the mindset of being mindless is to surrender to your instinctual prowess.

So, if the mindset for elite performance is more mindless, how can players achieve this?

How about a new mindset to consider in improving performance? It’s tough to overthink and easier to go mindless if you surrender to the present landscape around you. Isn’t the present really the space and time that exists outside the athlete’s world as they prepare to wield the sword?

 What if Eyeful was part of the mindless model? I would describe Eyeful as follows:

  • As much as one can or wants to see.
  • An awareness and choice to remain curious about the external environment.
  • A non-judgmental connection to the outside world.
  • A desire to have one’s visual system as primary sense.
  • Effortless seeing with a diffused level of attention on the object and the surrounding space.

Every coach and player wants new drills and new cues. On recent visits to teams and individual players, the following terms helped change mindsets and improved game speed performance:

  • Shut up and see. Looking is not seeing.
  • Play with your eyes, not your thoughts.
  • Less is more. Effortless effort wins the prize, both in mechanics and thought.
  • Space is invisible to the eyes, but the brain craves space as comfort food and as a predictor of time.

Be authentically mindful when time permits, go mindless and eyeful during game time.

Tony Abbatine is a Performance Coach for several NCAA baseball programs in the area of vision and mental skills and lectures across the country on the same topic. He has consulted with over 12 MLB teams and hundreds of players over the last decade in the area of visual psychology. 

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