Athletic activities are a wonderful way for kids to have fun, get in shape, and connect with friends. Sport performance is not only physical in nature, but it has been suggested that performance is also a highly mental process. Many coaches and parents spend a great deal of time and attention on the physical aspects of sports and on skill training. Little, if any time or energy is placed on the mental aspect of athletic performance.
Recently, psychologists have been studying the effects of practicing mindfulness and its impact on performance in sports. Although the research on mindfulness and athletic performance is still in its infancy, the potential effectiveness of mindfulness practices such as meditation may be of help in areas related to athletic performance.
Mindfulness has been defined as focusing one’s attention on the present moment. Mindfulness teaches us to focus on our thoughts, feelings, and bodily sensations without judging them. It seems the discussion of mindfulness is everywhere these days. You see it on TV and in print articles. Mindfulness is even taught in schools. How can mindfulness practices help young athletes on the field? The following suggestions have been made by experts in the field of mindfulness for athletes, coaches, parents, and the athletic community as a whole.
Meditation, a mindfulness practice, has been shown to increase focus within the brain. Our mind is always busy thinking and can wander off, which can make focusing difficult to achieve. Mindfulness creates new neural connections in the brain, or rewires the brain. This neural rewiring helps with increasing focus. It has been suggested to achieve greater focus, we should take a meaningful pause, which is usually focusing on the breath. This intentional pause allows us to focus our attention in a purposeful way. When we become distracted by thoughts or other sensations, by taking the pause and refocusing on the breath, we are training the brain to focus better.
Sports require paying attention and focusing on the task at hand, from hitting a ball, to kicking a ball into a goal, to jumping hurdles. When kids play sports, there can be many distractions. Internally, kids may struggle with feelings of stress and anxiety. Externally, kids may have to contend with a screaming crowd, a coach who is yelling directions, or even a distracting teammate or opponent. When kids lack focus, it is difficult for them to make good decisions in the moment and they may be prone to making mistakes and incurring injuries.
Stress and Anxiety
When kids play sports, they may experience feelings of stress and performance anxiety. Getting up to bat during a baseball game can be quite daunting. All eyes are on you. Your team is counting on you. Fear can lead to errors in sports. Some degree of stress, fear, and anxiety should be expected and can even be helpful in sports by increasing concentration, strength, and alertness. However, too much of these feelings can impede performance and drive, which can lead to burnout. Dr. Kristen Race, author and expert on brain-based mindfulness solutions, indicates that mindfulness assists in training the prefrontal cortex, which is the part of the brain that creates a calm and alert state of mind. Moreover, a study conducted at the University of California, Davis found mindful meditation led to lowering cortisol levels. Cortisol is often referred to as the “stress hormone.”
Mindfulness can help kids notice what they are thinking and feeling in the present moment. Taking a mindful pause creates space between an event (striking out) and a response (crying, throwing the bat). This space created by mindfulness allows kids to stop, think, see things clearer, and make better choices. It allows kids to become aware of what is going on inside of them. Mindfulness has been shown to be effective in reducing impulsiveness and increasing tolerance of common stressors. Studies have examined the use of mindfulness-based programs in decreasing thought triggers associated with aggression. Losing a game, striking out, missing a basket, or disagreeing with a referee can engender feelings of anger, frustration, and sadness. Some kids will experience these feelings in an intense manner, which can lead to acting in a verbally or physically aggressive way. These acting out behaviors can lead to both physical and emotional injuries.
Kids require a lot of rest and sleep to grow. Getting adequate sleep is especially important if a child is engaged in a rigorous physical activity. Getting ample amounts of sleep assists with physical and emotional well-being. Losing a good night’s sleep may greatly hinder athletic performance. Meditation can contribute to calming the mind and body which aids in falling and staying asleep; this concept is further explored in Breathe by Inês Castel-Branco.
Preventing Injuries and Staying Safe.
When kids play sports, there is always the possibility of getting hurt and experiencing pain. Sports can be taxing on the body. When kids are mindful of their environments and what is going on around them, they are less likely to get injured by another player, a piece of equipment, or objects on the field or court. Mindfulness can also teach kids to be aware of their bodily sensations, such as heat, pain, thirst, and fatigue. When they become attentive to what is happening to them in the present moment, they can engage in self-care or ask for help before they feel overheated, faint, or dehydrated.
Exercises in mindfulness appear to be a great addition to athletic training for kids. The many benefits of mindfulness appear to fit nicely with athletic training, like a hand into a baseball glove. It is important to note that if one wants to integrate mindfulness into training or into their daily life, it must be cultivated and practiced every day. Mindfulness is not something you just apply when you are stressed or feeling anxious. It is a practice that should become part of one’s day, every day, on and off the field. Coaches and parents can help kids with mindfulness practices by modeling them. Mindfulness can be a real team effort!
Related Books from Magination Press
Mind Over Basketball: Coach Yourself to Handle Stress
Tuck is stressed out and having a hard time feeling confident and dealing with his upsets. Then Walton shows up and coaches Tuck on how to manage his anxiety and self-doubt. Soon Tuck is feeling in control of his life and focusing his energy on what he loves most… basketball! Using a positive, interactive, Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction approach, this book combines a high-interest chapter book and informative coaching guides with skills-training exercises.
Take the Time: Mindfulness for Kids
With gentle rhythms and soothing imagery, Take the Time guides kids toward self-awareness and mindfulness. And when any old day feels topsy-turvy, mindfulness tools may help your child calm down and feel better.
A World of Pausabilities: An Exercise in Mindfulness
Sometimes we just need to pause — to stop, breathe, and take a moment for ourselves. To be mindful. Told in rhyming verse and beautifully illustrated, A World of Pausabilities is an inviting introduction to mindfulness. Readers will learn how to apply mindfulness to simple, everyday moments, and how days are filled with endless possibilities to take a pause. Includes a Note to Parents and Caregivers that further discusses mindfulness and ways to introduce pauses into your child’s life.