There is a wave rising and about to crest. This wave is mindfulness – a simple, but by no means easy, practice of mind. Mindfulness is about noticing where your attention is currently focussed (be it the past, present or future) and intentionally bringing it to the present moment, with an attitude of gentle curiosity and acceptance. The practice of mindfulness is not new; in fact it has been around for centuries and is most commonly associated with Buddhism. What is new is the attention it is garnering from science, business, education and sport. These days it is also being explored and taught in secular form, accessible to all.
Meditation is as important as lifting weights and being out here on the field for practice.
Sound familiar? Even if you have not seen the plethora of media on the topic, you are probably familiar with the experience of mindfulness – those moments of being truly present, in the moment, and without judgement. Maybe it comes to you in moments of stillness, or when you are in nature, cooking in the kitchen, or playing with your kids or pets. Sydney’s Ted Richards talks about using the ocean pool at Bronte Beach, Sydney, as an escape from the stresses of the game. He goes a number of times each week, and always leaves feeling re-energised, referring to this routine as “…my form of meditation.”
Sadly for many of us the experience of mindfulness is becoming less and less common. In our switched on, wired up, 24/7 culture we spend more time on autopilot, reacting to the array of internal and external stimuli – judging, problem solving, analysing, comparing and fixing. It has been suggested that this is one of the reasons we see more stress and mental illness in modern life – too much time spent disconnected from the present moment and judging ourselves and others.
So why the interest in mindfulness? It seems the ability to tune-in to the present is accompanied by a range of health, wellbeing and performance benefits. It is being incorporated into treatments for stress, depression, anxiety and pain management. It has also been successfully applied to build resilience, wellbeing and performance. It is being used in education to enhance attention, learning and memory. Mindfulness is a psychological skill that can be learnt and becomes stronger with practice. While more is generally better, as little as ten minutes a day of regular mindfulness practice has been found to lead to noticeable benefits. Meditation is the most common form of teaching mindfulness, however other non-meditative strategies can be used.
Getting Mindful with LA Lakers, Seattle Seahawks & AC Milan
Not surprisingly, some of the best professional athletes and sporting teams in the world are turning to mindfulness and meditation to help reduce stress, improve focus and enhance performance. Pete Carroll, coach of the Seattle Seahawks (NFL) – a team who set several season records, such as being undefeated at home – attributes mindful meditation as a major factor in their 2013 Super Bowl championship win. Team member Russell Okung believes “Meditation is as important as lifting weights and being out here on the field for practice.”
When the pressure is turned on, if you are to fulfil your potential then you must focus on the present
One of the greatest NBA coaches, Phil Jackson, also know as ‘Mr Zen’ has incorporated mindfulness strategies – from meditation to yoga, to playing basketball in the dark – throughout his coaching career with LA Lakers and Chicago Bulls. This influence has rubbed off on players such as Kobe Bryant and Michael Jordan. Jordan’s sport psychologist, George Mumford, has also been vocal about teaching mindfulness “When we are in the moment and absorbed with the activity, we play our best. That happens once in a while, but it happens more often if we learn how to be more mindful.”
It’s not just the Americans who have been applying mindfulness in sport. AC Milan, one of the world’s most famous soccer clubs, has gone so far as to develop their own ‘Mind Room’. They consider this glassed-in facility their team’s secret weapon, helping players to relax, reduce stress and rejuvenate. The club believe the Mind Room helps to enhance performance and reduce the risk of injuries.
Back home in Australia, our national cricket team last year developed its own player mindfulness program in conjunction with not-for-profit mindfulness campaigners Smiling Mind. Former Australian cricketer and current West Australian coach Justin Langer has been an advocate of mindfulness for years, “Without mindfulness success just isn’t possible. Whether you are playing cricket as opening batsman at Test level, or running a business, or working in a service industry, the greatest challenge is to understand that, when the game of life is in full swing, you must live for the moment, to concentrate on that ball. When the pressure is turned on, if you are to fulfil your potential then you must focus on the present.”
Mindfulness in the AFL
Notable AFL players and coaches to embrace mindfulness and meditation as part of their wellbeing and performance strategy include Collingwood player Heritier Lumumba and former Sydney player/coach and current Melbourne coach Paul Roos. After a series of suspensions looked ready to derail Richmond player Dan Jackson’s career, he turned to mindfulness to help mange his emotions and reduce aggression. The suspensions ended and he played every game in that 2013 season.
I worried a lot about my footy and what everyone thought… now I try to live more day-by-day and be in the present moment.
Another AFL player who practiced mindfulness to help him manage the stresses of the game is former Sydney Swans captain Brett Kirk: “I was someone who worried a lot about my footy and what everyone thought. I would go home and lie awake at night and having meetings in my head, so now I try to live more day-by-day and be in the present moment.”
Just ‘because others are doing it’ is not of itself a good reason to jump on the mindfulness bandwagon. However, when you consider the growing body of research and applied evidence supporting it, it would seem foolish not to take a good hard look. Of particular relevance to AFL player health and wellbeing are the findings that being more mindful can decrease stress, anxiety and burnout. As well as increasing overall wellbeing, mindfulness can enhance productivity (e.g. more flow experiences), promote better brain functioning (e.g. focus, problem solving and decision making) and greater ability to manage emotions, to self-regulate and break harmful habits. Being more mindful is associated with greater immunity and better recovery from illness and injury. Lastly, the potential to decrease parasympathetic nervous system (PNS) arousal, increase the relaxation response and to improve sleep quality is of great relevance to all of us, not just the players and athletes among us.
The AFL Players’ Association has been on the mindfulness wave since 2011 with the development of a Practical Mindfulness program for players. This program is a first step in introducing players to simple mindfulness skills they can integrate into daily life and prepare them for the demands of AFL and life more broadly. Players from six AFL clubs have participated in the Practical Mindfulness program to date. We also encourage players to tap into the AFL Players’ National Psychology Network for individual coaching on mindfulness skills. The hope is to see AFL players, coaches and clubs embracing the science and practice of mindfulness as a way of building resilience, wellbeing and performance on and off the football field.
Learning to quiet and unhook from the unhelpful chatter of our minds simply means more time to focus on what matters most. Someone who knows this only too well is Brownlow Medalist and Australian of The Year, Adam Goodes, who said of mindful meditation, “It is important, I value it, and it has really helped me.”
This article was originally published November 2014 on AFL Players.