We all know that Michael Jordan became a basketball legend as a result of his inimitable work ethic and fierce competitiveness. However, what truly separated MJ from his peers was his unique approach to the mental side of the game.
Words like “focus” and “concentration” often arise when discussing the mental qualities an athlete needs to master in order to perform well within their sport.
Mindfulness training is a practice that aims to increase an athlete’s present-moment awareness. The key premise is that an athlete can control their ability to focus and refocus at any given moment, amongst any circumstances or distractions, and despite any thoughts or feelings. (McCanny, 2015) This training requires athletes to acknowledge only what is presently happening, eliminating any thoughts of the past and future. They respond to every event or emotion as it comes, simply allowing it to pass across their awareness like cars passing by on a highway.
These thoughts and occurrences are not to be interpreted as “good” or “bad.” Instead, everything is neutrally accepted for what it is. This approach allows athletes to recognize their environment and either adjust or let it pass.
For example, a basketball player may realize that (s)he is feeling nervous before taking a free throw during a key moment in the game. Instead of causing the anxiety to increase by allowing the mind to drift and create more destructive thoughts (a possible miss, past misses, fans screaming), (s)he can simply accept the feeling, recognize that it is temporary, and quickly redirect his/her awareness to executing the shot.
Mindfulness is often applied in conjunction with meditation in order to prepare for more effective use during competition. Mindfulness meditation involves two major parts: breathing awareness and body scanning.
Breathing awareness involves closing your eyes and taking deep breaths while concentrating exclusively on each inhalation and exhalation. It is important to take long, full breaths and exhale all the way through. This process slows the nervous system and thus, relaxes the body. While breathing, it is important to actively apply the concept of “re-centering” when necessary. Re-centering is the act of bringing one’s attention back to their breaths when their mind wanders. This skill is particularly transferrable to competition when it comes to maintaining focus throughout adversity or distractions.
Next, during the body scan, switch your attention from your breathing to your body’s sensations. This portion of the process is used to concentrate specifically on the sensations within each body part one by one, starting from the toes and ending at the head. The goal is to completely relax and release any tension from every part of the body. When the full scan is complete, slowly bring yourself back to awareness and prepare for action. The ultimate goal with this type of meditation is to bring the mind and body together as one, and as a result, create a level of awareness that allows the athlete to be “physically focused.” (McCanny, 2015)
Just like any physical skill, mindfulness requires practice in order to be conducted effectively. Many psychologists suggest that individuals begin by applying these techniques at bedtime, then during basic activities of daily living, then before/during actual athletic practices and competitions. By gradually building upon the level of difficulty and intensity, athletes give themselves a chance to perfect their skills before applying them under full pressure.
The Three A’s
The “three A’s,” acceptance, awareness, and action, serve as a general outline to applying mindfulness during activity. If using the free throw example, acceptance would require the athlete to non-judgmentally acknowledge his/her nervousness. Awareness requires the athlete to take a deep breath, switch from negative to neutral, and refocus their attention to the upcoming free throw. Action requires the player to then confidently take the shot while trusting their ability and training.
One of the benefits of mindfulness training, according to psychologists, Dr. Mike Gross and Dr. Michael Brumage, is that it allows athletes to respond rather than react. “Responding requires awareness and discernment, while reactions are reflexive and can be counterproductive.”(Brumage & Gross, 2015) By responding instead of reacting, athletes can increase their chances of performing well by taking control over their mental state instead of allowing it to control them.
Another benefit of mindfulness training is that it can help generate “flow.” Flow describes a state of complete focus in a given task and is also often referred to as being “in the zone.” Although it’s impossible to achieve ultimate levels of flow during every competition, it is a state of performance that every athlete consistently strives to reach, as it creates a feeling of “competitive invincibility.”
Mindfulness in Action
Michael Jordan and the legendary Chicago Bulls teams of the 90’s used mindfulness principles during their multiple NBA championship seasons. Phil Jackson, the Bulls’ head coach from 1989-1998, approached a former NBA prospect named George Mumford, who studied and taught mindfulness to inmates. Jackson convinced Mumford to help him bring the team together through mindfulness meditation by introducing the mantra of “one breath and one mind.” Jordan, who is often regarded as the best basketball player ever, worked particularly closely with Mumford and was once quoted as saying, “the Zen Buddhist stuff really works!” (Sandler & Lee, 2010)
Mumford taught Jordan that instead of trying to push distractions away, he should embrace them by allowing himself to become fully aware of them and then letting them go. The Bulls won back-to-back NBA championships after adopting these principles, and Jordan is still considered one of the most laser-focused and confident competitors to have ever played any sport. Mumford’s teachings continued to help several other players coached by Jackson, including Kobe Bryant.
Collegiate teams and athletes are also beginning to utilize this type of mental training. An article published in Training & Conditioning magazine discusses the use of mindfulness training amongst West Virginia University’s football team during the 2014 season. The team worked with mental coaches during their pre-season workouts and also before games once the season started. Overall, implementation of the program was well accepted and received positive feedback, especially from those who were most open-minded to trying it. The team’s coaches plan to continue implementing the training during upcoming seasons.
Try it out!
Distractions, mistakes, and unforeseen circumstances are all inevitable parts of both sports and life. However, individuals who train themselves to stay present and deal directly with the current task have a much higher chance of succeeding despite the challenges. Perhaps every athlete can’t be “like Mike,” but they can definitely start taking steps to be the best version of themselves.
- BelievePerform. (n.d.). Retrieved from http://believeperform.com/performance/the-application-of-mindfulness-practice-to-sport/
- Lee, M. S. (n.d.). Michael Jordan’s Mindfulness Meditation Coach: The Secret Weapon of Phil Jackson, Kobe Bryant and You. Retrieved from http://www.huffingtonpost.com/michael-sandler-and-jessica-lee/michael-jordans-mindfulne_b_7523748.html
- Brumage, D., & Gross, D. (2015, December). In The Moment. Training & Conditioning.