Mental Training for Sports: Change Your Brain
Your brain grows and changes with mental workouts, just like your body adapts to strength and conditioning. Few athletes train their brains, because there's not always clear guidelines about how to do it and it's difficult to find proof of the results. The goal of this post is to provide you with how-to's, show you the results others got, and give you an exercise to try on your own. We know that daily brain training with mindfulness meditation creates changes in the way you respond when you're experiencing difficult emotions (Germer, Siegel, & Fulton, 2016).
Mindfulness meditation practitioners get more choice, so to speak. For most of us, how we act or what we say feels automatic and 'right off the cuff.' There's no time to filter and control what's done in response to what we experience.
"People who train mindfulness have the ability to catch themselves before words or actions 'just happen'"
Your brain takes in and prepares a response to words or sights within 180-200 milliseconds. To plan and begin a response, it's 230 to 400 milliseconds depending on what you're doing and how distracted you are. People who train mindfulness have the ability to catch themselves before words or actions 'just happen' (Germer, Siegel, & Fulton, 2016). The power you get through meditation is an awareness of the intention to act, before that action happens; this awareness allows you to change course. For example:
Think of a time you were upset, but caught yourself before saying something you'd regret and changed course.
This is a time you exercised skill at catching your brain in the process of planning and executing a response, then took executive control and chose to do something that served you better. You noticed an off the cuff reaction, using the skills described above, which becomes easier through mindfulness training.
What does this mean for your game? You take more control over what you do in response to your head space. Plus, you get to 'edit' natural reactions so they're in line with your goals or match what the game calls for at the moment (e.g. draw a penalty instead of cause one, playing the rush instead of head hunting). Mindfulness skill might mean fewer penalty minutes, less conversation you regret, and better relationships with your teammates and coaches.
"you get to 'edit' natural reactions so they're in line with your goals"
How to Do It
Once per day, find a quiet space and dedicate 5 minutes to upping your mental game. Many athletes will take some time before bed or before practice to get mental exercise. There's a mindfulness drill I wrote for the online mental skills training program, Win Your Warm Up, you can use for free. It's linked here.
If you want to begin one-on-one mental game work, you're always welcome to reach out to me (814-207-4284, firstname.lastname@example.org). You're also invited to get more information and tips in the blog.
Germer, C., Siegel, R. D., & Fulton, P. R. (Eds.). (2016). Mindfulness in psychotherapy (2nd edition). Guilford Press.