If you want to excel at anything, you have to learn how to manage your thoughts and feelings, both the good and the bad. Excellence is not normal or natural, and cultivating excellence in anything requires hard work and sacrifice. Physical talent is not irrelevant, but it is less important than self-discipline and mental strength. This is to say, that if you want to excel in riding, natural talent will certainly help you out, but it won’t get you all the way there. To really succeed you are going to need to get into the right headspace and have the right attitude towards training and competition.
In this series, we look at the neuroscience and psychology underlying high performance and discuss ways in which you can use your knowledge of these elements to your advantage. In this article, we examine the role that mindfulness can play in performing at your best.
It will come as no surprise to most of us, that science has shown that when we’re under pressure we don’t tend to make the best decisions. In high pressure situations, emotions tend of overwhelm our capacity for rationality, and we act impulsively. Unfortunately, competing in any sport creates pressure, so to perform at a high level in any sport, we need to be able to make optimal decisions regardless of our stress levels. On top of this, we need to make these optimal decisions in an almost automatic fashion, as split second choices make all the difference in high level equestrian sport.
This means that as performers we need to be mindful. Mindfulness is required for us to be present, pay attention and focus in all that we do. Only when our mind is in this calm and focused state, can we perform at our best. Mindfulness is one of the key performance enhancing strategies, and not nearly enough of us are employing it in our ridden work.
What is mindfulness?
Mindfulness requires paying attention in a particular way. It requires that you are in the present moment with purpose, and that you remain entirely non-judgemental at all times. Mindfulness is thus an acceptance-based mechanism of performance enhancement. In essence, we look to utilise mindfulness to change our relationships with the internal experience of our external experience, rather than to change the external experience itself. The core concept of mindfulness is that a person performs best when they stay in non-judgmental, moment-to-moment state of present awareness and accept one’s internal state. This allows them to focus their attention on what is essential for performance, and to perform consistent, intentional actions that support what they value most.
To truly understand and benefit from mindfulness you must practice it yourself and understand it directly. It isn’t something you can intellectualise and simply ‘do’ one day before going into the arena. Mindfulness meditation actually changes brain structures and functions over time, so requires consistent practice and effort.
Data suggests that the results of mindfulness are due to improved mental efficiency through the development of greater awareness and acceptance of internal experiences. This frees the mind to focus more intentional resources on the performance and therefore to get better results.
Mindfulness vs traditional psychology
The traditional approach of psychology has been to try and reduce negative experiences first, and then intentionally shift to more positive thoughts and feelings to improve performance. Mindfulness and acceptance-based approaches, however, emphasise the lack of intentional effort required for positive outcomes. Through daily mindfulness practice, improved attention becomes automatic requiring fewer cognitive resources to achieve the desired focus state. The practice trains the brain to operate in this way, without needing to consciously or deliberately ‘turn it on’ when needed.
Conscious thinking as taught by traditional psychological models, and the desire to consciously control inner emotions and thoughts, is often unhelpful in the moment. Mindfulness on the other hand is pervasive and influences all states, whether in heightened anxiety or not. In the moment when a decision needs to be made, for example, when tracking round a course, the speed of action required often means that there isn’t time to think in words let alone to reason in words as well. Mindfulness on the other hand allows action without conscious thought and reasoning, and thus operates at a sport appropriate speed. Mindfulness creates an automatic and efficient brain that can retain focus on the task, regardless of what the athlete feels.
But I can control my thoughts…
It can be tempting to think you will just ‘control’ your thoughts in the arena, but in reality this is not possible. It’s the age old paradox – ‘don’t think about a pink elephant’ and what are thinking about? Precisely. Mindfulness removes the need for this thought suppression and control, and makes this process automatic.
Note: What is the difference between meditation and mindfulness?
The terms mindfulness and meditation are often used interchangeably, but in reality the two are separate entities. Whilst mindfulness is simply an awareness of the present moment, and can be practiced anywhere at any time, meditation is the formal practice of this technique. However, meditation and mindfulness are ultimately mutually reinforcing practises. Practising meditation can strengthen your mindfulness practice, and being more mindful in your day to day life, can improve your ability to meditate. In reality, most of us will struggle to be mindful most of the time without a prompt and a concentrated time each day where we sit down and focus on our breath is perhaps easier to achieve, and more akin to formal meditation. Thus using a meditation practice, to improve your mindfulness is a great way to start to introduce mindfulness into your daily life. However, you can also create common prompts like using time doing the washing up, or making tea, as a break to focus on the breath.
Benefits of mindfulness
The individual components of mindfulness may benefit each athlete differently. However, some selection of the below benefits can be reasonably anticipated through regular practice:
- Firstly, mindfulness can allow a control of attentional focus. Sometimes in the arena you will need an open accepting awareness, and other times you will need a very focussed narrow one. Mindfulness allows you to achieve both. It develops your ability to know which focus you need automatically and to focus in that way as and when needed.
- Next, mindfulness can enable you to immerse yourself in what you are doing, and shut out distractions and emotions. This immersion means that you are not on your horse thinking or feeling a certain way or worrying about issues outside of the arena. Instead you have a deeper experience and understanding of the present moment, and the decisions you need to make to perform optimally. Being entirely present really is the key to successful performance.
- Mindfulness can also allow people to be more adaptable when things go wrong. It allows them to operate within a broader framework and to be more flexible, rather than succumbing to panic. This is essential in the competition setting.
- Mindfulness is associated with higher levels of positive emotions and lower levels of negative emotions. Positive emotions are associated with increased enjoyment and performance in sport. Negative emotions can decrease performance and contribute to over-training and burn-out. This reduction of negative emotions and increase in positive emotions is a nice side-effect of mindfulness practice.
- Mindfulness can also help with pain tolerance by decreasing pain sensitivity. Decreased pain sensitivity can allow more of the athlete’s physical and emotional resources to be dedicated to outperforming their competition, rather than managing their discomfort.
- Finally, and perhaps most importantly, mindfulness seeks to improve ‘flow’. ‘Flow’ is a mental state associated with optimal performance. ‘Flow’ involves intense and focussed concentration on the present moment. Anything that can help an athlete to achieve flow is a VERY good thing.
How to do it
Mindfulness can be practised anywhere, anytime. You don’t need candles and whale song, although if they will help you, there’s nothing to say you can’t use them either! In the simplest terms, in mindfulness practice your breath is the anchor to the present moment, and thus provides the main focus of the practice. In focussing on the breath, you remain in the present moment. To practice, you simply become ‘present’ and try to focus just on the breath. This is much harder than it sounds, and thoughts will come along and distract you. Whenever you realise you have been distracted you just need to return your focus to the breath. Just like with lifting weights, you must acknowledge the need to do ‘reps’ of mindfulness. When you lose focus (lower the weight) you just need to refocus (raise the weight). Your strength in mindfulness is built by repetition of the process, just like the case with the weights.
Losing focus is part of the process, not a sign of an ‘inability’ to practice mindfulness. It is vital to avoid judgement of yourself and your results with this practice. If you find yourself starting to become judgemental, frustrated or distracted, bring your attention back to the breath, and accept your distraction or thinking with kindness. Accept your current skill level, and know that mindfulness takes practice.
Note: There are some excellent apps that can help you to practice mindfulness, by talking you through the process. We can recommend Calm and Headspace as two great apps to get you started! Otherwise, there are plenty of meditation teachers out there, who will help you with your mindfulness practice.
Excellence isn’t built without practice, and the same is true with mindfulness. If you want to reap the full rewards you need to practice it, often, and strive for improvement over time. The more practice you do the better – you can’t overdose on mindfulness. However, the maximum generally recommended is an hour in the morning and an hour at night every single day, although as little as five minutes six days a week has been shown to have a documented impact.
You should expect for it to take at least 8 to 12 weeks to get noticeable and tangible effects, although you should feel gradual improvements in the way that you think and the way that you feel during that time. Research participants in one study in fact demonstrated improvements in memory and executive function after just four days of practice. With as little as three months of training, practitioners showed a significant improvement in more quickly and easily switching their attentional focus. Both expert and novice meditators showed similar activation in the brain during mindfulness training. However, experts can sustain their attention longer and more efficiently, than a novice.
If you aren’t happy with the results of your practice, increase the amount you are doing each day, and you will soon see an improvement.
Mindfulness fundamentally builds a mental strength and changes the way the brain operates to optimise performance in the moment. We can’t recommend this practice highly enough – start today!