Interview: How Mindfulness Helps Athletic Performance
…movement is good for the body, and stillness is good for the mind. To lead a balanced life, we need to engage and be active, and to deepen and rest.
-Sakyong Mipham Rimpoche, in Running With the Mind of Meditation
I took a Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) class at the IMA last summer for the typical reasons: to become less stressed and more relaxed, less scattered and more focused. Improving my running was the last thing on my mind. Fast forward several months and I’ve begun my new year’s resolution of training for my first triathlon. At my first practice, I looked forward to the swimming and cycling, but dreaded the running. Having been hyper-competitive in my youth, running had long conjured up feelings of both physical and emotional pain. This time something changed, though. Rather than falling into my old ruminations, I asked myself the question I often ask myself since taking the MBSR class: “What is happening NOW?” As it turns out, NOW is a very good place to be. Letting go of negative associations from my past and taking a beginner’s mind toward the present, running at a steady pace feels warm, energizing, good even. For some, this is an everyday given, but for me, a breakthrough.
Inspired by my experience to learn more about the impact of mindfulness on athletic performance, I spoke with three local experts and fascinating people: Dr. Ron Chamberlain, Sports Psychologist at Husky Athletics, Greg Wolk, alum of the UW School of Law and a Mindful Running coach, and our own Sherry Williams, a retired attorney, yoga instructor, and the current teacher of the Mindfulness Based Stress Reducation (MBSR) instructor at the IMA.
Dr. Chamberlain, as a sports psychologist for Husky Athletics, how can mindfulness be used for the benefit of athletes?
In a performance, there are some things you have no control over. You have to accept what happened, refocus, and stay focused when those types of situations occur. That’s key to athletic performance. For example, take the World Cup. When a mistake is made in a game at high levels and the other team scores a goal, what do they do? Accept and refocus. If that mistake lingers at all, in a high level performance, you will pay a price. Being in the present is a major principle of mindfulness, and that’s what good athletes do; they are able to stay in the moment.
At first, mindfulness can be counterintuitive with athletes, who are so goal driven. I can see them thinking, ‘You’re telling me to be non-judging? Non-striving?’ It kind of flies in the face of where athletes have been their whole lives. There are times to strive and goals we set can motivate us. But when it’s actually time to perform, those are the times that you allow yourself to experience it, to trust your training, and allowing the performance to happen. This also works for the general population too, when it comes time to run that first 5K, that first half marathon, whatever area of performance it is.
Greg, you took a sabbatical from your legal career to run with renowned figure Sakyong Mipham Rimpoche, founder of Shambhala International and author of Running with the Mind of Meditation. How did this come to be?
I was practicing law as a nonprofit whistleblower in Seattle and did a Google search for meditation places. The closest place was the Shambhala Center…it was very, very helpful. Meditation is not as easy as it sounds, so having a group of people in the room, I couldn’t just get up and walk away. I ended up seeing benefits despite difficulty and within a year I was practicing very regularly and went off and did a program at the Shambhala Land Center where I met (Sakyong Mipham) Rimpoche, and over two years I went to more programs, and he heard more about me and asked if I would be his travelling attendant. Part of being his attendant was to care not only for his schedule but also his health, so I needed to be able to run with him. A small run was six miles, an average run was 12-15 miles.
You now coach others on mindful running. What advice would you give to someone who is interested in gaining greater fitness or athleticism from mindfulness practices?
The first thing is not to be intimidated by the term mindfulness. It’s really very fundamental to just being an everyday regular person. Frankly, I just contrast it with someone who is really unable to maintain attention. It’s also similar to training the body; it’s just training the mind to be able to focus and be present with what’s going on. Secondly, I think the other thing to be aware of is that it will allow you to be better with whatever physical exercise you’re doing; if you’re really able to be present when lifting weights, running, doing soccer, whatever it is. In fact, I heard recently that the Seahawks encourage their players to meditate. The third thing is that it’s probably good to connect with somebody who has experience applying mindfulness to physical exercise. You can get books and articles but it’s not the same as someone who has experience with it. Most yoga instructors have some background in that, and of course people are welcome to contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Sherry, you teach Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction for University of Washington faculty, staff, and students. What is your motivation for teaching the class?
Mindfulness has many benefits. I am most interested in mindfulness practices, when combined with compassion practices, as skills training in how to live a wise and compassionate life. With greater awareness, we can learn not to believe everything we think, and we practice yoga and meditation so that we can live with as much presence as possible; with wisdom and compassion, contributing what is ours to contribute in this very brief experience of being human.
The more we can be attuned to and aware of sensations in the body, thoughts and emotions, the more we might make better choices when we ingest and how we treat ourselves, physically, emotionally, and socially. And certainly, learning to be more present and less distracted can help athletic performance…just ask the Seahawks!
Join Sherry Williams for Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) class at the IMA this summer on Tuesday nights from 6:00-8:30 p.m. at the IMA building, running from July 8-August 26 with a retreat on Saturday, August 16. Learn more about Sherry and MBSR here.
Related: Why Try Mindfulness Training?
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Anne Garrett is a Fitness Coordinator at the Intramural Activities Building, where she has been both a student and coordinator of MBSR classes.