The Dose22:22How can mindfulness help athletes?

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Any athlete knows that being in top form is as much a mental as a physical game. 

The Edmonton Oilers — approaching Game 4 of the Stanley Cup finals Saturday — are relying on George Mumford to help them stay in good shape mentally. 

The sports psychology consultant — who has helped such stars as NBA giants Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant — is behind the bench this season, working with the team on their mental performance, including mindfulness. 

“I help people be in a moment more effectively and efficiently,” said Mumford. “Just be here now.” 

George Mumford has been the Edmonton Oilers’ sports psychology consultant this season and is now helping guide the team through the Stanley Cup finals. (Nathan Denette/The Canadian Press)

Mindfulness is the practice of being present and observing what’s happening — both within yourself and in your environment — with curiosity and without judgment. 

Mumford and other experts in the field say that mindfulness techniques can help both pro athletes and the rest of us work with self-doubt, negative thoughts and fear to perform their best. 

Whether you’re facing office politics or an opposing NHL team, mindfulness can help us be self-aware, said Mumford, because it “creates space between stimulus and response.”

Instead of reacting automatically to things, mindfulness allows us to step back and assess what’s really going on, he told Dr. Brian Goldman, host of CBC’s The Dose

Research shows that athletes who practice mindfulness can stay more focused during stressful moments of competition. 

For example, said Mumford, it helps the Oilers focus on winning one game at a time — instead of thinking negatively about what happened in past games. 

“The only thing that matters is this moment, what’s in front of you now,” he said. 

“You got to play the next game. That’s it. And you got to win the next game, regardless of what the score is.” 

Mindfulness in daily life

Anyone can use mindfulness techniques to stay calm, whether you’re playing in front of thousands of fans or not. 

Being aware of your breath is a great first step, said registered psychologist Whitney Sedgwick, who has been working with athletes for decades. 

“If we’re worried for an exam or a big work presentation — or even just to go to practice if you’re an athlete — what we need to do is calm down the amygdala, which is the fight, flight or freeze part of the brain,” said Sedgwick, the mental performance lead for athletics at UBC.

Sedgwick recommends breathing in while counting to four, holding the breath for a count of six, and breathing out for a count of eight. 

The four As 

Mumford uses a tool he calls the four As: awareness, acceptance, compassionate action and assessment. 

He said the four As can be helpful for anyone facing a challenging situation.

Take the Oilers: to win, they need to get the puck closer to the net — and they can expect to take a few hits to get there. 

The first A is awareness. 

“When I go in there, I got to expect to get hit and be ready for it, but be able to embrace it and do something with it,” said Mumford. 

A hockey player shoots as an opposing player slides in an attempt to block.
By using mindfulness, athletes can continue to mentally reset moment by moment during competition, says psychologist Whitney Sedgwick. (Michael Laughlin/The Associated Press)

Next is acceptance. When you try to avoid or deny an uncomfortable experience — whether it be a cross-check or a cranky toddler — you can’t execute, he said. 

“The acceptance is really challenging … because it’s unpleasant. It hurts. But it’s only by saying yes to it, embracing it, that you can get to the third A.”

Action. In the Oilers’ case, this hopefully means trying to score. 

Assessment, the final step, means looking at what you did and how it worked — and what you could change next time, said Mumford. 

He said he’s used the four As to stay sober for the last 40 years. 

“I have to be able to tolerate the discomfort of changing a behaviour or habit,” Mumford said. 

“When you do that, you actually get desensitized to the anxiety and the fear.”

Playing in the moment

When athletes practice mindfulness in their daily lives, said Sedgwick, they can avoid getting caught up in every thought they have during competition. 

They can instead do very quick, sometimes subconscious assessments of how they feel, including sensations of pain or discomfort — but then continue to stay in the game, she said. 

“It’s this dance between an inner check-in and an outer environmental cue to perform on demand and play in the moment.”

Athletes often struggle with self-judgment during a game, Sedgwick added. 

“The clock is stopped and the athlete might start self-flagellating, right? ‘I should have done X, I could have done Y.'”

Taking a long breath in and out will help bring them back to the moment, she said.

From head to toe

Another tool is a mental body scan, said Shaunna Taylor, a performance counsellor who works with athletes and is an adjunct professor at UBC. 

That means mentally scanning each part of your body and observing how it feels, taking note of sensations without judging them. 

Taylor gets both kids and adults to think of themselves as race cars, and a body scan is like checking under the hood. 

“Paying attention to, ‘What’s tight, does something need to feel looser?'” said Taylor. 

“It really enhances their connection with their body.”

Make anything mindful

Observing your external environment is another way to be mindful, said Sedgwick.  

“You could name five things you see in your environment right now that are blue,” she said. 

That takes only a few seconds, but it’s engaging the prefrontal cortex of your brain, which enables you to think more clearly. 

“It’s enough to override, temporarily, that fight, flight or freeze that is going to disrupt performance,” said Sedgwick.  

Even the most routine tasks can become a practice in mindfulness, said Taylor — such as washing the dishes. 

“You’re just feeling the water on your hands, the warmth of it, you’re smelling the soap,” she said. 

“It’s a great way to just set your brain, give your nervous system a break.”

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