Mindfulness in sports

Mindfulness is an ancient spiritual practice rooted in northern India, and was initially expounded by the Buddha, about 2600 years ago. Mindfulness occupies a significant place and is a core-teaching in the Dhamma, and is documented in the Buddhist scriptures. A few decades ago neuroscientists & Psychologists in the Western world identified significant changes that occurred in the brain during mindfulness and thereafter introduced the practice to health, education, governance and various sectors. Today mindfulness is gaining popularity globally in an exponential manner.  

Mindfulness for Sports Personnel

• Mindfulness training & its relevance for sports personnel, athletes and coaches is a topic that needs to be explored and elaborated. 

• Mindfulness means to ‘train the wandering mind to repeatedly return to the present moment, without judgement and with choiceless-awareness’.

• The mind by nature wanders and is discursive. A repeated effort is needed to keep bringing it back to the present moment. Repetitively bringing the mind to the present moment trains the mind, and thus a wandering mind can be trained to keep returning to the centre. Such a mind ‘learns’ not to linger in the past, and not to fantasize or imagine fears of the future, and instead will learn to rest in the present, with a sense of calmness. Eventually the practitioner learns to ‘master the mind’ and will be able to command the mind at will, whenever it wanders.

The major benefits of mindfulness : 

1. Neuroplasticity, neurogenesis: Modern neuroscientific research has shown that brain cells and neurones structurally change, grow, regenerate and develop, when mindfulness is regularly practised. This is contrary to past beliefs that nerve/brain cells could not grow and regenerate. The ability of the mind to become sharp, alert and active with regular mindfulness is a direct consequence of neuroplasticity and neurogenesis. 

2. Sense of well-being : Well-being includes having a stress-free mind which is balanced and responsive but not overly reactive, (i.e a mind  free of knee-jerk type reactions). EEG, fMRI scans have shown that the pre-frontal cortex, R/Insula, Caudate nucleus and the Amygdala – are brain areas that are directly impacted by mindfulness meditation. Such multiple impact facilitates improved focus, better awareness and attention. Effective stress-management, emotional resilience, empathy, kindness, compassion and altruism are proven outcomes. These are neuro-biological changes occurring in a mindfulness practitioner and have been proven through neuroscientific research.

3. Epigenetic changes is a more recent discovery and refers to sub-cellular or molecular level changes occurring across all cell types. Epigenetic changes consequent to mindfulness includes changes in gene expression, with slowing cellular degeneration in chronic disorders and also facilitating healing and faster recovery. Gene regulation may result in certain unhealthy genes getting suppressed whilst positive genes get enhanced. For example in a person with a gene inherited for schizophrenia, mindfulness practice may ‘silence the gene’. The tiny structures attached to the chromosome pairs, (i.e.Telomeres), have a role to play in certain types of chronic disease. Telomeres, which usually lose viability and become unhealthy with age and disease, start regenerating with mindfulness, thus slowing the rate of diseases like chronic arthritis, diabetes, cardiovascular disease, muscle degeneration, etc etc. Telomere regeneration also slows the death of cells in healthy bodies, consequent to mindfulness.

How will mindfulness be beneficial for sports personnel :

• Ability to perform better with high levels of focus and attention

• High-performance sports personnel in particular, deal with multiple challenges, on and off the field. Clarity in decision-making and emotional resilience are important for a competitor and these  beneficial outcome of mindfulness, are due to changes that occur in the pre-fontal cortex, amygdala and hypothalamus of the brain. 

• Better stress-management during preparations for major contests

• Management of mental well-being, whilst not compromising on competitiveness is beneficial in sports. Competitiveness and ambition are important, but could be preserved without harming peers or creating unhealthy relationships. 

• Peer relationships and relationships with coaches/sports educators will improve, with more empathy, altruism and warm-heartedness. 

• Values, morality and ethical considerations will become significant  due to improved awareness of the mind. Possible transgressions violating ethical principles could be prevented in a mindfulness practitioner. 

• With regular mindfulness integrated into a sports-person’s daily routine, previously daunting tasks would become simple, and major challenges would seem manageable, whilst harmonious relationships between contestants would replace a bitter, acrimonious competitive atmosphere.  

Reference material – ‘Altered Traits’ or ‘The Science of Mindfulness’ (Richard Davidson & Daniel Goleman), Jon Kabaat Zinn’s articles on ‘Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction’ ‘Immunity & Mindfulness’, 

At a recent webinar organised by Gold Watch Sports, the relevance of Mindfulness in sports was discussed. the Panelists and participants were from several countries. The video shows how mindfulness was introduced to the group by venerable Chandaratana (Deputy Abbot, Nissaranavanaya Monastery) and him leading a guided mindfulness meditation session