You train your body. Fitter, faster, stronger. You train your skill execution. Just 10 more efforts after training to get it perfect. You run that extra distance, you do the extra core work. You watch video clips of the opposition and analyse set plays. You talk about tactics - about what type of press or outlet your team will do to beat the opposition.
Then you go into a crunch competition or game. A tournament where it's time to step up, to perform under pressure. All of a sudden, your mind starts to play tricks on you. "You're going to muck this up...you better not throw that pass..remember last time you tried to do that and the opposition scored?"
No amount of fitness, strength or skill in that moment will make you perform well. Unless you learn to master your mind, your performances will be inconsistent. You'll perform well for one game, and then crash the next - unsure what exactly the difference was.
So why is it that you might not be training your mind and only training your body? Some food for thought.
As an athlete, one of the most important things that you can train is your brain. Often, at that top-level, what sets one team or one individual apart from the rest is being able to perform under pressure, and it's not just the fitness, it's not just the skill.
One way that you can train your brain is through mindfulness or meditation. I actually just like to call it mental fitness, because, for me, I can really relate to the fact that when you go to the gym and you lift weight, if you do that over time, then you'll get stronger and stronger. But to start with, you're not going to be able to lift very heavy weights.
It's the same with your mind. Understand that every time you sit down to do a mindfulness or a mind training session, you're going to get stronger and you're going to get better. But to start with, your brain is just going to be a constant stream of thought and you’ll get pissed off because you can’t sit still. You’ll be itchy, you’ll be hungry, your back will be aching, and you might leave the session thinking, "stuff this, mind training, it's just not for me. I’m an active person and I would rather move than sit still."
Let me tell you, the more that you do it, and the more that you commit to doing the practice on a daily basis, the stronger that your brain is going to get, and that means that when you go onto the field and into your competition, you'll be able to catch your mind more often when you start to have those thoughts about the past or the future, mistakes that you've made and how tired you are, and bring your attention back to what it is that you're doing.
It was such a game changer for me that really improved my performance. I had a friend call me recently who was told she should start meditating, and to look on google or youtube to start. She said to me, “it is just so overwhelming I don’t even know where to begin. There are all of these different types, what does that all even mean?” I sat her down and explained a few things.
The key steps to practicing mindfulness is you decide on the following:
- Choose a quiet space to do it
- Choose a time of day (morning is great to set yourself up for a win)
- Choose how long you want to do it for (5-10 minutes is good to start with)
- Choose if you want to do it guided or unguided. Guided means that you use an app (Headspace, 10% Happier or Calm are all good ones) and an instructor tells you what to do. That way, you’re not left on your own to start with.
- Commit to practising for at least 30 days to form a habit. You won’t necessarily see results straight away, which is why a lot of people give up. Find an accountability buddy to practise with and remind each other.
Your job is to catch your thoughts as gently as possible and keep bringing your attention back to an anchor, or point of focus. My favourite anchor is my breath because I always have it with me. Every time you catch your mind and bring your focus back, imagine it’s like doing a bicep curl for your brain.
At first, it will be hard. Your neural pathways in your brain are conditioned to wander, and those pathways are like driving on a big 5 lane motorway. At first, because this skill is new, the neural pathway for bringing your focus back to your breath will be like a dirt road, or even a goat track! But over time, the pathway will get more and more used and it will become easier.
People tell me all of the time that they tried mindfulness, but they were put off because they had too many thoughts, and couldn’t get rid of them all. They thought they were doing it wrong. Hear me out - your goal is not to get rid of your thoughts. That’s impossible! Your goal is to gently guide your focus back to your breath whenever you manage to catch your mind wandering. In your first session, you might only catch yourself once. The second time, maybe 3 times. Before you know it, you’ll be able to catch your mind many times in one session. But the goal is never to try and stop your thoughts.
Think about it this way: Your thoughts are like cars on the road. Instead of trying to run out into traffic and try to direct them, your job is to simply sit on the side of the road and watch the cars come and go without getting attached to them.
Have a go, what have you got to lose? Send me a message and let me know the impact it’s having on you and your performance.
Here’s a link to learn more about the basics of meditation - https://www.headspace.com/meditation/how-to-meditate