Athlete Mindfulness

As the holiday season is now around the corner, it's easy to get caught up in the hustle and bustle. I decided for this post to revisit a topic I've touched on before - mindfulness & meditation. Presence is something I've been consciously trying to work on for the past few months. After the passing my dad, it was a huge wake-up call to live in the moment and soak in every memory as it happens because you never really know what tomorrow holds. Being mindful and more aware of my breathing has helped me be more present in these passing moments. To hold myself accountable to it, I've also introduced it to my athletes at York - we call it "Mid-Week Mindfulness" (shout-out to my girl Demi doing it with her athletes at Austin Peay).

For me, mindfulness encompasses a couple things - controlled breathing, visualization and awareness. All of these things combine actually play a huge role in how our bodies recover. In order for our bodies to begin the recovery process we need to shift gears from our sympathetic/ "fight-or-flight" nervous system to our parasympathetic/ "rest-and-digest" nervous system. Essentially when we train, play or are exposed to some sort of stress, we go into fight-or-flight mode (like if a bear was about to run you down); our heart rates increase, we get super wired and our bodies start to work in overdrive. When we are calm and do not feel endangered by a bear (or a workout), we shift to that rest-and-digest state where our bodies start to chill out and relax. Our breath is one of the most powerful tools to control this shift. I recently read a part of the book The Happiness Track where Emma Seppala discusses the effects of stress on our bodies and how simply our breath plays such a huge role in changing the response to it. It's definitely made me more conscious of my breathing and introduced me to new breathing techniques I now use after my workouts.

As I mentioned above, I've introduced these mindfulness concepts to my athletes at York. We generally take 5-10 minutes at the end of a workout to lay down, close our eyes, breathe and chill out. Sometimes we just focus on our breathes and other times we visualize game-like situations and play them out perfectly. Meditation doesn't have to be complicated or intimidating - truthfully, I really have no idea what to actually do during a meditation but from what I've learned, there really is no right or wrong way! I've realized that it is hard for me to sit still if I don't have something to focus on, even simply just counting my breathes (inhale is 1, exhale is 2) helps keep me focused and brings a whole different focus and awareness to my body.

Here's a typical 5-10 minute session I would go through myself or with my athletes ...

  • Laying with my back on the ground, I squeeze my knees to my chest and tense every muscle in my body for a count of 5-seconds, I then release completely relaxing my body on the floor with my eyes closed
  • I bring my right hand to my belly and left hand to my heart and begin to feel my breath as my chest rises and falls
  • I count to 10 three times by counting my breathes ... inhale is 1, exhale is 2
  • I then take a moment to imagine myself going through a series of events perfectly (when I played basketball, I would run through specific situations I would go through in games, now I focus on more everyday situations in my job or life). I pay attention to how I feel and to my surroundings and I would always focus on breathing through the entire situation
  • I then shift my focus back to my breathing and count to 10 another three to five times before slowing opening my eyes and coming to a seated position

This is just an example of something I do, a hybrid of a couple different techniques/ styles I've used before, but just like anything - you need to find what works best for you.

I think being mindful is a skill just like shooting a ball and meditation is the drill to work on that skill. It doesn't happen overnight and just like learning any skill, it takes patience and a heck of a lot of practice. Finding 5-10 minutes in your day to practice will create the habit to take time to slow down and help shift your body to a state of relaxation and recovery - a great habit for all athletes - athletes in sport and athletes in life.