Athletes turn to mindfulness

Athletics embrace mindfulness and nutrition as a supplement to long hours in the gym


Credit: Benjy Renton

According to Director of Community Wellbeing Charles Colten, an athlete can use these seven principles and rank how well he or she promotes them, with one on the outside of the circle and 10 in the center. By connecting the dots, he or she can figure out where energy is needed to be a well-rounded athlete.

By Bailey Griffen, Sports Editor

Many people expect athletes to hit the gym to build strength and enhance their athletic performance, and run drills specific to their sport. Recently, however, a number of professional athletes have started to move towards alternative training methods, those not historically perceived as vital to one’s results on the field, in the pool, or on the court. This new focus relies heavily on adapting a more nutritious diet, increasing one’s mindfulness with such exercises as yoga and meditation, and developing strength and stretching routines.

These trends have been most recently spotlighted following Tom Brady’s fourth Super Bowl win, despite the fact that he is almost 40, the age that many professional football players retire. He attributes his impressive feats into his late thirties to the strict routines he has adopted which emphasizes nutrition. His diet includes 80% vegetables, whole grains, and avoids dairy and foods that increase inflammation such as tomatoes, peppers, mushrooms and eggplants, according to Forbes.

Additionally, in the football industry, mindfulness has been employed by teams like the Seattle Seahawks, who according to The Boston Globe have “moved to the forefront…in terms of embracing mental conditioning as a means of allowing their players to thrive [by] celebrating the uniqueness of their individual players, finding ways to tap into the strengths of each players and create roles, gameplans, and more broadly an environment to permit them to do just that.” Backed by results from professional sports teams and scientific findings, nutrition, strengthening, and mindfulness are clearly key to building a well-rounded athlete.

According to Director of Community Wellbeing Charles Colten, “The athletic program at Hackley has begun to embrace this trend, though it has been slower to take root in the athletic programs than in the academic setting. Every great athlete, artist and scientist knows what it feels like to be in ‘the zone’ or what researchers call being in a ‘flow state.’” This zone is defined as a state in which a person is fully engaged and absorbed in the activity they are performing. According to the Journal of Sport and Exercise Psychology, this state of awareness is more easily achieved through a positive mental attitude.

Mr. Colten suggests regular meditation as a key to developing a better sense of awareness: “The cool thing is that we can strengthen our ability to attain this [flow] state through exercise and everyone can improve through practice. It’s important to mention again that mindfulness is simply showing up and paying attention. It does not have to look like the stereotypic image of someone meditating. There are an infinite number of ways to show up completely.” While physical activity is key to attaining the flow state, practicing meditation may help athletes to become more aware, something which in turn pays off. As the South African Journal of Science reports, higher self-awareness correlates to higher mental-toughness, important for focusing during high-pressure or intense situations such as a big championship game or meet, or what compels an endurance athlete to push through pain and finish their lap in a pool or on a cross country course.

Eleventh grade dean and field hockey and lacrosse coach Jenny Leffler knows the importance of how embracing a mindful attitude pays off on the playing field. “I think we have started thinking about mindfulness in athletics – and perhaps that has even been going on for longer, as we often stop and reflect on what has happened on the field and have spent time setting goals that are not necessarily driven by result but by what is achieved along the way,”  she said.

She believes this awareness is integral to establishing a positive team dynamic. “I…spend a lot of time thinking about team building both in really obvious and explicit ways, but I feel like my job as a coach is not only to think about the strategy and skills of the game, but to foster trust and support and a real love of each other as well as of the sport in order to be successful. We have several things that we do to foster this, from pre-game rituals to challenges presented on the field to reflection and “shout outs” after a game.” She sees the benefits that can come when people become aware of their actions and how they influence those around them, from “picturing yourself doing something on the field, encouraging athletes and teams to think about the qualities that they possess and how those qualities might play out on a team,” Ms. Leffler said.

While mindfulness seems to be more ingrained in an academic setting, mindfulness is something that professional athletes attribute to their successes. “The classroom can be so much more individual, but a team cannot be individuals and be successful. It is really important to stop and reflect, both when things are going as you hope and when they are not…So a lot of the stopping and reflecting that we are starting to do in the classroom is an integral part of athletics and being successful on the field,” Ms. Leffler said on the importance of awareness and reflection on the playing field.

Luckily, this awareness and sense of team dynamic can be fortified through challenging strength routines and core workouts, another pillar of reaching peak athletic performance, that bring the team together. The field hockey and lacrosse teams typically do strength exercises 2-3 times a week and “doing any sort of challenging fitness, for example, builds team unity as the players are struggling together to do something hard. It fosters support and helps to build trust and also the mentality that together you can do anything,” Ms. Leffler commented.

As the Health and Wellness program at Hackley continues to grow, it will be interesting to see how mindfullness is adopted, and how it pays off in the athletic realm.