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The Mindful Athlete

What happens to athletes when they go into ‘the zone’? A questioned many athletes ask but few can answer. This blog is about the mindful Athlete and how mindfulness helps to come into the zone (flow). According to author Craig Lambert various things characterize being in the zone:

  • They were fully and completely focused on the present moment.
  • Time slowed down.
  • They could keenly intuit how the next play would unfold without thinking about it.
  • Winning was not on the mind; the focus was on the journey not the destination.
  • Everyone and everything seemed connected in some energetic, unified way: opposing players, referees, boat, oars, water.
  • The experience transcended the physical and mental; consciousness expanded and a sense of a separate self went away.
  • Performance levels Rose


The mindful Athlete

This is inspiring to read. How consciousness, spirituality and mindfulness have a direct link with being in the zone and create the ultimate sports performance. Later we will see how practicing will help to bring you into ‘flow readiness’, these being my favorite two words in this respect. One of the most famous sports coaches of all time, Phil Jackson, wrote a very inspiring book about it. He is the one introducing mindfulness meditation to the Chicago Bulls (i.e. Micheal Jordan) and LA lakers (i.e. Kobe Bryant) and won 11 championship titles. He is the one who hired the mindfulness and sports expert George Mumford to help him in this.


George Mumford

To quote George Mumford, “Life is all about the stimulus that we experience in the world and the way we Interpret that in our minds. Instead of reacting automatically, we can choose the oppositie by getting still, paying attention to whatever is going on and letting be there without judgement and act from a space of calmness. This will lead us to transformation, freedom and flow. “This calm center space is what anchors the mindful athlete in the present moment and facilitates high performance and flow.



Or another inspiring person, Joseph Campell writes in his book The power of Myth: “The athlete who is in championship form has a quiet place in himself. But unless this center has been found, you’re torn apart. Tension comes.”.

“Follow your bliss and the universe will open doors where there were only walls.”

Joseph Campbell

My own experience

I do recognize this in my own experience although I am just playing tennis on a normal level. But whatever level you do sports, you might recognize that feeling when flow takes over. First of all it is important that you are challenging yourself in your sport practice. Don’t over do it, it needs to be somehow within reach. More important is letting go of thinking (mind). Those moments when you are not thinking about the way you hit the ball or move towards it. It just happens.


Stay with whatever is there

You (I certainly am) might also be familiar with the opposite. I can be stuck in thinking about how to serve, move or respond to a change of play of the opponent. You can’t easily stop with this thinking. As often it leads to fighting (resist) your own thinking. It is a state of mind, as written above, that will allow flow and thus play at your best. For me it is crucial that I allow whatever is there. If I am frustrated, I am frustrated, if I am enjoying I am enjoying. Often we want to manipulate those state of minds but in reality we can’t. The more we stir in the glass of muddy water (the mud being our thoughts and emotions) the messier it becomes. You leave them all be and you stay in the present moment. For me those moments are very much comparable with being in love with your partner or a closed love one. It just goes without effort and you follow that.


The present moment, all there is

Actually you don’t stay in the present moment, it is more like returning home. In absolute terms you can’t even leave the present moment. The past and future are only mental constructs. So in sports you set up camp and start living in the present moment. Ofcourse the normal practicing of skills, movements, physical training, technics and tactics are important but the importance of creating the state of mind of ‘flow readiness’ is often overlooked. People like Mumford, Joseph Campbell and Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi &  Susan A. Jackson are bringing this more into the world. The last two wrote a beautiful book on this topic. Below a famous TED-talk about flow.



So what can we do to come closer to this state of flow and become a mindful athlete? 

  1. Steadiness of mind. Allowing things as they are. Nowhere. Do not interpret too quickly. Creating space between direct experience and interpretation.
  2. Mindfulness cultivates trust and is built on wisdom. Too much self-confidence is blind faith. If you become too wise, then you become cynical. You need to cultivate both. Doing too much doesn’t work, nor doing too little. Just like playing a guitar, not too tights but also not loose. You need to balance. Trust means trusting that what needs to happen will happen, especially after you have done everything you can.
  3. Letting go of control and the illusion of multi-tasking. Let things be as they are. Dare to make mistakes, we don’t know if that’s bad. Perhaps it had to turn out that way and might even learn something important. Learn to trust that life will bring you what you need.
  4. There is only this moment. Stay there!
  5. Differentiate between interpretation and direct experience. See the difference between noise and sound. Noise is where there is interpretation and sound is just a sensory experience. Let everything happen. Thoughts, sounds etc. We don’t have to do anything with it. Then flow has a much bigger change of getting a hold on you.
  6. Accept that everything changes – always. “No man ever steps in the same river twice, for it’s not the same river and he’s not the same man” Heraclitus
  7. Bringing mindfulness into your daily life. As it is not a trick or a method but a way of life. So if you don’t apply and practice it in your day to day life, it will not have the potential effect. You want to slowly make it an internalized state of mind.
  8. Be comfortable with being uncomfortable. See and accept that fear / anxiety can play be part of a challenging (sport) performance. Especially if you want to go somewhere where you have never been. Take one step ahead every day, with Slowmotion you get there faster.
  9. Very important also to check your intention. It is really something you want to do from your heart or more out of lack or fear that people don’t recognize you. Often we start with the fear part, showing the world that we matter but start to check within yourself this other part, follow that drive, passion and love. Also try to discover your core values and let those inspire your intentions.
  10. Make conscious choices and check where you can make the greatest impact: Acceptant that you are not so good at some things. Decide where you want to put your energy. Choose where you make the greatest impact and focus on that instead of improving all fields. You often cannot make everything optimally. Also accept that you cannot succeed every time (even if you are Roger Federer!).

So let’s end with the beautiful video from the famous Chinese teacher Lao Tzu on flow. Hope this blog on the mindful athlete inspires you with your own (sports) performances!