Remember when you saw Kawhi Leonard draining that last-second three pointer? Or Tom Brady driving down the field with less than two minutes to go? Or more recently, Rafael Nadal's epic match versus Daniil Medvedev in the season-ending 2019 ATP Finals. He was down 1-5 in the third set, only to pull out the match 6-7, 6-3, 7-6 in what might be the greatest comeback of 2019.
I don’t think anyone would disagree that in all these instances, the mental edge is huge. In fact, I'd say that the mental game is what separates the good athletes from the great ones. Novak Djokovic might agree, he is widely quoted as saying, “Tennis is a mental game. Everyone is fit, everyone can hit great forehands and backhands.”
So what is it that many of these elite athletes are doing to help them compete at a higher level and manage adversity under pressure? One big part of an athlete's preparation is something you may not hear much about in the sport's world: Meditation.
Do you know that many great athletes meditate? In fact, Djokovic has long spoken about his practice and, just recently, US Open winner Bianca Andreescu spoke about how she visualizes ahead of big matches. Others include Michael Jordan, LeBron James, and Steph Curry in basketball; Tiger Woods, Rory McIlroy and Jason Day in golf; Tom Brady and the 2014 Super Bowl champion Seattle Seahawks in football; Carli Lloyd in soccer; Misty May-Treanor and Kerri Walsh Jennings in volleyball; Derek Jeter, Barry Zito and Marcus Stroman in baseball. The list goes on.
Think about it. How much time and effort do you spend working on the technical aspects of tennis, hitting ball after ball? Then in fitness, trying to get stronger, and improving endurance? And then drills, strategy and pattern play?
Now, how much time do you spend on the mental side? If you're honest with yourself, the answer is probably not very much. Athletes often disproportionately favor “everything else” to the point the mental side is almost non-existent. Yet we all know how important the mental emotional game is. In a 2008 post match press conference, Federer said, “Previously, I always thought it was just tactical and technique, but every match has become almost mental and physical—I try to push myself to move well. I try to push myself not to get upset and stay positive, and that’s what my biggest improvement is over all these years. Under pressure, I can see things clear.”
What if you could practice mindfulness, and it could help you the same way it helps Novak Djokovic, Bianca Andreescu, Kobe Bryant or the Seattle Seahawks? Could it be helpful?
Now, you may be wondering … what is mindfulness meditation? Where does it come from? And what’s in it for you? In this article, we will explore these questions. Then in future “Mastering the Mind: Mindfulness at 125 MPH” articles, I will discuss how can you practice mindfulness and integrate it into your mental training in an intentional and meaningful way.
Mindfulness meditation has been around for 2,500 years. Like a great athlete, the practice has withstood the test of time. Its roots extend back to the early teachings of the Buddha and Eastern wisdom. It’s important to note, mindfulness meditation is not a religion. Rather, mindfulness is about being present, it is a practice that helps you heighten awareness, acceptance and concentration among many other things.
A quick Google search defines “Mindfulness” as, “The quality or state of being conscious or aware of something.” During my mindfulness meditation teacher training, our teacher David Nichtern defined mindfulness as: “Learning to bring our attention to the present moment and simply seeing what arises (thoughts, emotions, feelings) without judgment.”
Imagine how freeing it would be to allow thoughts to come and go, and be able to refocus on your game, your strategy and what you can control during competition. It would be, literally, a game-changer, and oftentimes, the difference between a big win or loss.
The opposite of mindfulness is mindlessness! Mindlessness refers to not paying attention to what’s going on around you, or how your thoughts and emotions are impacting your behavior. In competition, it’s safe to say we have all experienced this to one degree or another. Perhaps you have had this recurring thought, "Oh my god, I’m nervous about playing him/her! Everyone thinks I should win.” Unfortunately, a thought like that can send an athlete spiraling down the proverbial rabbit hole where you obsess about losing. Worse yet, you lose your focus on what you need to do to play your game.
Mindfulness is a tool which will help you refocus, re-center and build resilience. In the next article, we will delve deeper into the benefits of mindfulness, and specifically, how to practice. For now, to get a brief sense of what it’s like to meditate, find a comfortable and quiet place, sit straight up with your eyes softly gazing down. Bring your attention to your breath, breathing in and out, settling into its rhythm. As your mind wanders, gently bring it back to your breath. Just these few moments may help you get ready. I’m just saying, if it’s good enough for Kobe, Curry, Novak, Jeter, Brady, Andreescu and other top athletes, it might be worthwhile for you.
Rob Polishook, MA, CPC is the founder of Inside the Zone Sports Performance Group. As a mental training coach, he works with athletes helping them to unleash their mental edge through mindfulness, somatic psychology and mental training skills. Rob is author of 2 best selling books: Tennis Inside the Zone and Baseball Inside the Zone: Mental Training Workouts for Champions. He can be reached by phone at (973) 723-0314, by e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org, by visiting insidethezone.com, or following on Instagram @insidethezone.