Those who excel in athletics typically spend a lot of their time training physically. Whether it’s weight training, cardio, or yoga, the typical athlete works hard to improve their physical performance.
But athletic improvement isn’t just limited to physical activities. Mental training is just as important — if not more. Studies show that mindfulness, meditation, and a focus on mental wellness can improve performance.
It’s easy to see the benefits of physical training, but how does mental wellness impact sports performance?
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What Is Mental Wellness?
The Global Wellness Institute (GWI) defines mental wellness as an internal resource that helps us think, feel, connect, and function. It is an active process that helps us build resilience, grow, and flourish.
GWI says mental wellness encompasses mental, emotional, and social dimensions:
- Mental: How we process, understand, and use information.
- Emotional: How we manage and express our emotions.
- Social: How we form relationships with others.
Mental wellness is an active process that includes self-acceptance, growth, purpose, autonomy, and positive relationship-building.
How Does Mental Wellness Impact Performance?
Training your body with physical exercises results in superior physical performance. Likewise, training your mind to cope with adversity and remain actively focused and high functioning in stressful situations can help you work toward mental wellness.
From an athletic perspective, mental wellness and mindfulness can come into play for sports performance.
According to the National Library of Medicine, mindfulness-based training is linked to increased executive function, which, in turn, is linked to increased athletic success.
During a study by the National Institutes of Health, a group that had experienced mindfulness training exhibited longer exhaustion times and better fine motor skills than a control group with no mindfulness training.
Another study published in the Journal of Cognitive Enhancement looked at Division I football players. One group received four weeks of mindfulness training while another received a four weeks of relaxation training.
The relaxation group listened to calming music and learned to relax their muscles, while the mindfulness group practiced mindful meditation, which taught them to pay attention to breathing and be present in the moment. All sessions lasted 12 minutes.
At the end of the study, those in the mindfulness group who practiced often (some practice took place unsupervised) showed considerably higher scores in mental resilience compared to those in the relaxation group based on a post-test evaluation of attention and mood.
The Best Exercises for Mental Wellness and Mindfulness
Meditation practice is a great way to work toward mental wellness.
Sport Psychology Today identifies three key areas where athletes can benefit from meditation:
Stress Reduction – Athletes experience a great deal of stress, whether it is pre-competition anxiety or during the competition. Meditation can help with pre-competition anxiety by grounding you in the moment rather than predicting future events.
Improved Concentration – According to Columbia School of Professional Studies, you can improve your concentration for meditation by fixating on a particular point, such as a mantra, your breath, or an object. The goal of practicing concentration during meditation is to stop your thoughts from wandering and refocus your attention on a specific area.
Better Self-Awareness – Meditation can help you simply look inward, acknowledging your tendencies or emotions. For athletes, self-awareness is key to identifying bad habits and improving on them, as well as recognizing good habits and capitalizing on them.
Other helpful mental wellness exercises include:
Physical Activity — Ironically, one of the most highly recommended exercises for mental wellness is physical activity. Exercise reduces stress, depression, and anxiety, and it is a great treatment for other mental health conditions.
Grounding Techniques — Grounding yourself in the moment is a practice that can help combat negative thoughts or emotions. Grounding techniques include:
- Deep breathing.
- Savoring foods, drinks, or scents.
- Listening intently to your surroundings.
- Feeling your body (such as the weight of the shirt on your shoulders, the hair on your ears or forehead, etc.)
- Repeating anchoring phrases.
- Making yourself laugh.
Active Meditation. Meditation doesn’t always mean sitting still in a single spot. Active meditation can be done by observing your feelings while performing an activity, such as cooking, walking, or cleaning.
UPMC Mindfulness Offerings
UPMC experts have the training to assess all aspects of an athlete’s health. UPMC Sports Medicine, in partnership with UPMC Western Behavioral Health, offers mental health and wellness education and services for athletes to help them perform their very best in sports, school, work, and life.
We have sports psychologists who specialize in improving the mental well-being and performance of athletes and active people of all ages. A sports psychologist can help athletes with motivation, loss of focus, communication with teammates, and a number of other mental health conditions.
A common struggle with athletes is feeling like sports are their whole identity. They sometimes need a reminder that they were whole before their sport and will be whole after. Sports psychologists also can help athletes who don’t necessarily have an existing problem but want to learn other ways to improve their performance.
UPMC also offers a Mindfulness-Based Anxiety Reduction group and a Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction group. For more information, visit the Center for Integrative Medicine website.
About Sports Medicine
An athletic lifestyle carries the potential for injury. Whether you’re an elite athlete or a weekend warrior, UPMC Sports Medicine can help. If you are looking to prevent, treat, or rehabilitate a sports injury, our multidisciplinary team of experts can help you get back into the game. If you are seeking to improve your athletic performance, we can work with you to meet your goals. We serve athletes and active people of all ages and experience levels. Our goal is to help you keep doing what you love. Visit our website to find a specialist near you.