This is an excerpt from Achieving Excellence by Colleen Hacker & Mallory E. Mann.
Mindfulness-Based Approach to Mental Skills Training
Most of the cognitive strategies offered in this text follow the cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) approach to mental skills training. CBT strategies, often considered as the most common and traditional mental skills training, appeal to elite athletes and corporate executives because these people are high achievers and accustomed to being in control of their competitive lives. They also want to control their thoughts and behaviors in achievement domains whether in elite sport performance or in life. For example, CBT skills such as thought stoppage, which was introduced in the previous chapter, require performers to alter or enhance their thoughts to improve their performance, and goal setting or action planning teaches performers to identify preferred outcomes and regulate their behaviors in ways that move them closer to achieving their goals. To do so, people must first judge their thoughts, feelings, or behaviors as either undesirable and unproductive or as desirable and helpful, then either edit, alter, stop, or enhance them. Athletes, businesspeople, surgeons, lawyers, and educators, among other performers then become intentional, aware, and active agents of change. Through CBT techniques, performers develop awareness of and an ability to control their thoughts, feelings, and behaviors.
Mindfulness represents a very different orientation or approach to peak performance, whereby performers learn to stay connected to the present moment. Standout college basketball player Aaron Gordon noted, “Peak performance lives in the present moment and presence can be trained.” His quote gets at the core of mindfulness in sport. Athletes become aware of their thoughts and feelings without having to do anything or change anything. They simply notice and allow the thought to exist and stay focused on the now. Rather than judging or evaluating thoughts for accuracy and usefulness, the tenets of mindfulness—which stem from acceptance and commitment therapy (Zettle and Hayes 1986)—suggest that thoughts and feelings are neither helpful nor unhelpful (McCracken and Vowles 2014) and are in fact neutral.
The goal of cognitive strategies associated with acceptance and commitment therapy is to produce a psychologically flexible person who can stay in the present moment with an open, nonjudgmental stance as they experience a range of thoughts and feelings. Professional basketball player Andre Iguodala acknowledged, “The struggle for me is thinking too much . . . my mind tends to wander a lot. [Mindfulness] has given me the confidence to know it’s okay to wander” (Thrive Global 2016). Rather than fighting or trying to limit his wandering mind, taking a mindful approach helped Iguodala continue to play and perform without forcing or controlling his thoughts. Look through the scenarios in the sidebar on pages 50-51 to better understand the difference between a mindful approach to applied sport psychology and traditional mental skills training.
Both approaches are useful for anyone who wants to enhance their performance and increase life satisfaction. Traditional psychological skills training works for many performers, but in some instances, trying to eliminate or replace a thought can create even more emphasis on that thought or feeling and further disrupt performance (Gardner and Moore 2004). Consider a time when you were getting ready to perform and a memory of a previous poor performance creeped in. The more you tried to prevent or stop a thought or feeling from occurring, the more you might have experienced that exact thought. Wegner and Erber (1992) refer to this common experience as ironic processing (i.e., in trying to avoid or control unwanted cognitions, you might be more likely to bring them about). In these moments, developing mindfulness would present an alternative approach whereby the performer would simply accept the thought rather than try to control it or judge it and might, therefore, be able to perform better.
It is necessary to understand two concepts when learning about mindfulness: cognitive defusion and nonjudgmental awareness. What does nonjudgment mean? It means that, regardless of what the reality of the situation is, the performer evaluates it as neither positive, great, or desirable nor do they view it as negative, bad, or undesirable. That place between positive and negative, that neutral zone, is nonjudgment. The performer is aware of what the thought is or what is happening in the situation, but they are not judging it. Like a car that is turned on and not yet advancing forward or moving in reverse, it is in neutral. Nonjudgmental awareness means the performer does not have to label every thought or attach an emotion to it. There is no hierarchy of good or bad thoughts. It is simply noticing and accepting what is. That does not mean that the performer has given up or given in. Rather, they can stay focused in the now, regardless of the circumstance.
Cognitive defusion occurs when you can separate yourself from your thoughts. You are more than your thoughts. Thoughts occur and they change in relation to your circumstances, but you do not have to give your physiology over to them. Not only are you nonjudgmentally aware of the present moment and your thoughts, but you are also able to recognize that the thought is not you. The present moment is about what you are thinking now, what you are focused on now, and what you are doing now. Of course, if you commit an error, you will have thoughts and feelings about that moment. But giving thoughts more power or more of your energy, physiology, or judgmental language does not bring you closer to connecting with this moment, which is the only place action can occur. Instead, you must begin to ask “What is required of me now?” If a rugby player misses a tackle, they might think “Ugh, I should have gotten there sooner, sprinted to catch up.” The requirement, what is needed, is to keep playing and to catch up with the opponent. A mindful athlete will become aware of their thought and return to the present moment as soon as possible.
In a nonsport example, imagine that you are a trial lawyer and have just completed your entire case—all of the witnesses have testified, and all of the evidence has been presented. Then comes the moment when it is your job to stand up and make the closing arguments. You are tasked with highlighting the strengths of the evidence and weaving the facts together into a story that compels the jury to reach the desired verdict. As you stand up from your chair, your mind races with thoughts like “Did I put in all the evidence I needed? Did I establish everything I needed to establish? Did the jury understand the evidence? Can I tie this together?”
In the internal chaos of that moment, the value of mindfulness is that it can give you confidence in your ability to be in the now even when your mind is filled with self-doubt, and you are feeling worried or apprehensive. As the litigator, in this case, you can become nonjudgmentally aware of your thoughts and engage in cognitive defusion so you stay in the present moment in order to deliver your remarks. Here, that might mean that, as the lawyer, you become aware of your thoughts and you take a deep breath, you feel the edges of your pen and hear the sound it makes when you set it on your yellow legal pad. Then, you look up to meet the gaze of the jury. You are aware of where you are standing, how your suit feels. You notice the care and concern in the jury’s eyes as you take one more deep breath and then exhale fully and slowly. You are in the present moment and aware of each word of your closing statement. Mindfulness provides a great check system so that you know whether you were truly focused in the moment. The value of mindfulness is that, as you leave the court room, you can be aware of the sights, sounds, and feelings of that moment.
Becoming mindful is developing a skill that permeates your life. The truth is that people spend very little of their waking hours in the present tense and the present moment. Mindfulness is the answer to that reality. Other mental skills in this text are taught to be implemented at a certain moment or time in your life, whereas mindfulness helps you become more aware of each waking moment. At its best, mindfulness is practiced throughout the day and not simply implemented in performance or high-stress situations. Because people are so infrequently in the present, mindfulness helps you accomplish what Dr. Hacker encourages clients to do: “Be where your feet are.” Be here. Be present. Be in the now. The goal to live a more mindful life allows you to truly be with your kids when you are picking them up from school, be with your pets when you are walking them around the neighborhood, and be in your car when you are changing lanes on the interstate. Be where your feet are.
Mindful athletes have demonstrated increased awareness, improved focus, enhanced coping skills, reduced negative perfectionism, reduced anger and hostility, and decreased stress, among other benefits (Gross et al. 2018; Kaiseler et al. 2017). And many elite sport performers, such as tennis legend Billie Jean King, have recognized the need for a mindful approach to their game. King has said, “Each point I play is in the now. The last point means nothing, the next point means nothing.” And 11-time NBA championship coach Phil Jackson implemented “One breath, One mind, One team,” to teach mindfulness to both the Chicago Bulls and Los Angeles Lakers. A shortened version of this same mantra is “One breath, One mind.” People have been engaged in mindfulness practice across performance domains and in both professional and personal settings.
Even if you prefer traditional mental skills training strategies (e.g., imagery, self-talk), mindfulness can and should be added to your repertoire because mindfulness highlights the heart of effective mental skills training: self-awareness. To be a mindful performer, you must develop awareness of the present moment, your thoughts, your feelings, and your behaviors. As we outlined in the preface and first chapter of this book, to become more aware of yourself—your thoughts, feelings, and behaviors—is the first step in implementing any of the cognitive strategies in this book. Think of it like this: If you want to engage in imagery of a previous best performance so that you can try to replicate that experience, then you must first become aware of that exact moment (i.e., what it looked like, sounded like, smelled like, tasted like, and felt like). Mindfulness training can support these traditional cognitive strategy approaches to performance. Look at table 4.1 for a short summary of differences among these two approaches to peak performance.
As mentioned at the start of this chapter, mindfulness-based approaches differ from traditional sport psychology perspectives that stem from CBT. Be clear about the approach you are taking to performance: Recognize it and own it. A mindful orientation to peak performance can serve as your go-to strategy if it matches your way of being in the world, or it can help you develop the necessary self-awareness before implementation of other mental skills such as goal setting. The ways in which you benefit from mindfulness training are, in part, yours to determine, but it should be part of your overall suite of mental skills and strategies.