In a previous blog entry we talked about the way that mindfulness could be the tool that people are missing when they want to maintain their physical activity routines. But how about competitive sports and performance? Is mindfulness useful to enhance the athletic performance at a competitive level? The answer according to recent publications might be pointing to a promising “yes”.
When talking about performance enhancement in sports one of the most common terms used by sports psychologists is Flow. This term refers to a highly coveted yet elusive state of mind that is characterized by a complete absorption with the task at hand, often resulting in enhanced skilled performance. This optimal mental state underlies the athletes’ feelings and thoughts when they recall the best performances of their careers.
The focus of the research in flow has tried to identify the psychological factors that enhance, inhibit or disrupt flow. By doing this, coaches and sport psychologists are trying to help their athletes to achieve these optimal experiences more frequently, which in return will lead to enhanced performance. Among these factors that have been identified through interviews with elite athletes, not surprisingly, a pivotal factor that influences flow experiences is the awareness of the present moment and a non self-conscious concentration on the particular task.
There is an obvious similarity of concepts in between flow experiences and mindfulness, since both of them emphasize the importance of focusing on the present moment and being completely aware of body sensations, thoughts and elements in the environment. However despite the similarities, little research has been conducted to study the relationship between the athletes’ nonjudgmental awareness of the actual present (here and now) and the possible flow experiences they might have. Kee and Wang (2008) carried out one of the most important study in this field, where they employed an exploratory cluster analysis to examine the relationship between mental skills adoption, mindfulness and flow in college athletes. The results of this research showed that those athletes who had more propensities to being mindful reported higher scores in tests that assessed flow experiences.
The same results were found in a recent study done by Irish and Australian researchers and published in The Sport Psychologist (2011). They highlighted that mindfulness training may be beneficial to a broad range of athletes, and not just for those who reported having problems with the mental aspects of their athletic performance. According to this study, the introduction of mindfulness training appears to be an appropriate method to help athletes to achieve flow states, leading to an effective strategy for performance enhancement.
Achieving peak performance and especially being able to develop flow experiences in athletes is the holy grail of sport psychology. A vast line of research has been developed trying to understand and enhance this psychological skill, which promotes optimal athletic performance. Up to date, athletes, coaches and psychologists have struggled to understand and manipulate this highly valued state of mind in the interests of peak sport performance. However, researches are getting one step closer to unveiling the psychological factors that influence flow experiences, and mindfulness could be an essential part of the puzzle.
So, the next time you are participating in your favorite sport and looking for a great performance, try to focus on the present (here and now) of your experience. Try to be open and aware using all of your sensations, feelings and thoughts without being judgmental. By achieving this mindful state of mind, the complete absorption in the task at hand that leads to a peak performance might be easier to achieve.