Have you ever wondered how some players perform calmly and collected under pressure, while others noticeably crumble when the stakes are high? There is a different approach “clutch” players take vs those that succumb to the pressure of the moment. But what exactly is the separating factor between these players?
Is it a difference in talent? Not necessarily. All athletes playing in the top leagues have an exceptional level of talent.
Is it a difference in stamina? Again, probably not. Athletes must be in great shape and rigorously conditioned to perform at the highest level.
So, what is the distinction between good and great players in sports? While they are all talented and conditioned, not all athletes have the same caliber of mental performance.
Mental performance is a crucial ingredient in performing at the highest level. But often this side of performance is ignored or disregarded because it is, well, a mental process that can’t visually be seen or measured. As a result, many players often undermine its importance and think that “I just have to be mentally tougher” without realizing what that actually means. A lot of variables go into being “mentally tough”, including characteristics that on the surface may appear to be the opposite of traditional considerations of toughness. This one variable, in particular, is starting to become a buzzword not only in sports but the world at large: Mindfulness. If you know anything about the practice of mindfulness and its application in sport, you know that it can cultivate a type of resilience and confidence most athletes can only dream of. But before we discuss examples of athletes who practice mindfulness, we must first provide some background on what mindfulness is and the benefits of the practice.
Mindfulness can take on several meanings, but the gold standard definition comes from Jon Kabat-Zinn, a professor of medicine and the pioneer behind bringing the ancient practice of meditation and mindfulness into the awareness of the Western world. He says “Mindfulness means paying attention in a particular way, on purpose, in the present moment, nonjudgmentally, as if your life depended on it.” Paying attention to the “present moment” can consist of the external environment one is in, but also noticing the internal thoughts, feelings, and bodily sensations one is experiencing. Since Kabat-Zinn has popularized mindfulness, scientific studies have attributed an abundance of physical and mental benefits to the practice, including (but definitely not limited to), enhancing focus, reducing negative emotions and stress, enhancing relationships, and more. At this point, you may be thinking: “Wow, this sounds great and all, but what does this have to do with sport and performance?”
When it comes to sports, if you have ever seen or heard about a player who is “in the zone”, they are in a mindful state. They are focused solely on the present moment, their senses are heightened, and their mind and body are in perfect sync. They are playing free of intrusive thoughts, with the utmost confidence, and can do incredible feats such as...say....shoot a free throw with their eyes closed.
Speaking of the GOAT (sorry LeBron fans), Michael Jordan was a strong advocate for the practice of mindfulness. He worked with a man named George Mumford, a mindfulness practitioner who was recruited by Phil Jackson to teach the Chicago Bulls mindfulness after their first three-peat (1991-1993). In Mumford’s book The Mindful Athlete, Jordan recalls his experience of being in “the Zone” during the last few minutes of the 1998 NBA Finals. Specifically, he describes how the practice of mindfulness (or that Zen Buddhism stuff, as he calls it) helped him stay focused and composed as he went on to capture his sixth NBA title:
“The crowd gets quiet, and the moment starts to become the moment for me. That’s what we’ve been trying to do…that’s part of that Zen Buddhism stuff. Once you get into the moment, you know when you are there. Things start to move slowly, you start to see the court very well. You start reading what the defense is trying to do. I saw that moment. When I saw that moment and the opportunity to take advantage of it..I never doubted myself. I never doubted the whole game. We were hanging too close”
(The Mindful Athlete - pg. 28-29).
Each time MJ stepped out on the court, he believed that he was the best player. He had superior confidence in his game and was a ferocious competitor. But still, as I said earlier, many talented players do not have the superior mental ability: to be fully present and not doubt their abilities when the stakes are the highest. Referring to the 98’ NBA Finals, Jordan could’ve easily let the pressure of the moment get to him and start filling his head with negative self-talk: “I don’t know if I can make this shot” “Man, I’m so tired” “What if we don’t win this time, is my legacy tarnished?” Not to mention, there was a lot at stake for Jordan and that 98’ team: Only a few NBA teams in history have ever won three championships in a row, but no team has ever three-peated two separate times. Also, there were burning questions about the impending offseason and Jordan’s future in the NBA: was it really “The Last Dance”?
With the pressure of the moment on the court, mixed with all the commotion off the court, Jordan being able to perform the way he did in Game 6 of that finals was nothing short of phenomenal; a testament to both his physical and mental excellence. He was able to shut out the noise from both the media and the opposing crowd and focus solely on his mission to bring the Bulls and the city of Chicago another championship. The practice of mindfulness was in full effect here.
Sticking to the theme of basketball, some of the leagues best have followed in Jordan’s footsteps and incorporated the principles of mindfulness into their games. Kobe Bryant, who also worked with Mumford when he was a part of the Lakers coaching staff, and LeBron James, now an ambassador for the Calm App, have both reaped the benefits of being mindful athletes. As word catches on about the effectiveness of this practice, more players and teams across the league will begin practicing mindfulness on and off the court, if they haven’t already.
Footage from Game 1 of 2010 NBA finals. Kobe and the Lakers would go on to beat the Boston Celtics in 7 games. Some would argue that Kobe’s focus was even more intense than MJ’s. They call it “Mamba Mentality” for a reason…
From Game 7 of the 2012 Conference Finals against the Boston Celtics. LeBron and the Heat would go on to win the game and eventually win the NBA Finals, taking down Kevin Durant and the Thunder in 5 games.
“Mindfulness is a quality that every human being already possesses, it’s not something you have to conjure up, you just have to learn how to access it.” (Mindful.org).
All of that being said, not everyone who plays sports has access to a mindfulness expert or mental performance coach through their organization like George Mumford with the NBA teams he consulted for. However, the great thing about a mindfulness practice is that it can be practiced autonomously, anywhere, anytime. Practice is much more effective when guided by a coach or mentor (see our coaching page for more information) but it can also be practiced individually, on your own time.
It can be difficult when attempting to become aware of everything that is occurring in and outside of your body at the moment. As a result, a common anchor used to focus one’s attention is the awareness of breath. Specifically, paying attention to the sensations of inhalation and exhalation of each breath. As you’re reading this, try to focus on one cycle (one inhalation and exhalation) of breath. Take a moment to center your attention on the feeling of your lungs expanding with the in-breath and releasing on the out-breath. Some people find it helpful to visualize blue air coming into the body and green air exiting during the exhalation. Even a few minutes of this type of practice can have an incredible impact on performance and overall well-being.
Did you notice random thoughts coming up as you were shifting your attention to your breathing? Not to worry! This is part of the practice. Awareness is the first step in developing a mindfulness practice, so you’re on the right track. The key is being able to recognize the thoughts that are popping up. Then, from a non-judgmental perspective, realize that thoughts are just that, thoughts, nothing more or less, allow the thoughts to pass like a cloud in the sky, and then gently return your focus to your anchor in the present moment.
Overall, mindfulness is a simple yet effective practice that has elevated the performances of many, including: Michael Jordan, Kobe Bryant, LeBron James, and other high level athletes across a variety of sports. To whoever is reading this now, athlete or not, Mindfulness is a tool that transforms your performance to levels you may not have ever thought were possible.
Link to Book: George Mumford - The Mindful Athlete