Mindfulness to Enhance Athletic Performance: Theoretical
Considerations and Possible Impact Mechanisms
Daniel Birrer &Philipp Röthlin &Gareth Morgan
#Springer Science+Business Media, LLC 2012
Abstract Top athletes face various challenges in their ca-
reer on and off the sports field. Sport psychologists teach
techniques to help athletes to cope with these challenges.
Over the last 30 years, the techniques used stem mainly
from psychological skills training (PST), which is influ-
enced mainly from cognitive-behavioral theories. Recently,
interest in mindfulness-based interventions has increased in
sport psychology. This article identifies the limits of PST
and presents theoretical considerations how mindfulness-
based interventions can amend PST. Further, it addresses
in what form and by what mechanisms athletes could ben-
efit. In reviewing current mindfulness literature, we con-
clude that it is important to distinguish between
mindfulness practice and dispositional mindfulness. Mind-
fulness practice means the methods through which mindful-
ness is fostered, whereas dispositional mindfulness
describes the tendency to be mindful in everyday life. In
our conceptualization, we differ between three interwoven
facets of mindfulness practice (intention, attention, and atti-
tude), which are associated with six components of disposi-
tional mindfulness. We consider that athletes with a higher
degree in mindfulness practice and dispositional mindful-
ness will enhance the level of several required psychological
skills through various impact mechanisms. Based on theo-
retical considerations, we suggest bare attention, experien-
tial acceptance, values clarifications, self-regulation/
negative emotion regulation, clarity about one’s internal life,
exposure, flexibility, non-attachment, and rumination as
possible impact mechanisms. A greater knowledge of the
conceptualization of mindfulness and its impact on psycho-
logical skills could develop and improve the effectiveness of
mindfulness based interventions in sports.
Keywords Mindfulness .Sport .Performance
enhancement .Psychological skills training
Roger Federer, one of the most successful tennis players
ever, lost the 2011 US Open Semi-Final in five sets, 6–7, 4–
6, 6–3, 6–2, 7–5. When the score was 5–3, 40–15 in the last
set, he gave away two match points on his serve. After the
match, he described this situation in the following way: “At
first I thought, okay, now I have done it. Before the match
ball, I was very nervous because of joy that everything went
so well. Fifteen minutes later, you leave the court and did
not win the match. To lose in such a way is very disappoint-
ing because I had the feeling that he [Novak Djokovic] was
already beaten in the head and no longer believed in his
victory.”This example shows that even at the highest per-
formance level in sports, dysfunctional thinking, which can
become ruminative, can occur. Although dysfunctional
thinking does not reach a clinical level and might not be
problematic in another context, in the unforgiving environ-
ment of elite sports, dysfunctional thinking can be perfor-
By teaching psychological strategies, sport psychologists try
to assist athletes in coping with this and other challenges. The
use of psychological strategies enhance athletes’chances of
performing at their highest level under very demanding, stress-
ful, and sometimes even hostile conditions. In this context,
mindfulness-based interventions have drawn attention from a
handful of sport psychologists. Kabat-Zinn and colleagues
D. Birrer (*):P. Röthlin :G. Morgan
Elite Sport Department, Federal Institute of Sports,
2532 Magglingen, Switzerland
were perhaps the first to report the application of this approach
in sport (Kabat-Zinn et al. 1985). He provided training in
mindfulness meditation to rowers. This article outlines theoret-
ical considerations for how mindfulness-based interventions
can fruitfully amend psychological skills training (PST) in
Psychology of High Performance—Nonpathologic
Inhibitors and Facilitating Processes
Mindfulness is increasingly being used in clinical psychol-
ogy, and the salutary effects have been impressively docu-
mented under a range of conditions (Hofmann et al. 2010;
Chiesa and Serretti 2010). The scientific evidence of the
efficacy of mindfulness-based interventions is so broad that
it has been proposed as a common factor across several
schools of psychotherapy (Martin 1997). However, athletes
are commonly psychologically and physiologically healthy;
thus, the possible benefits of mindfulness-based interven-
tions need justification. Therefore, as the first step in dem-
onstrating the efficacy of mindfulness-based interventions
for athletes, understanding the psychology of high perfor-
mance is important.
High performance can be undermined by non-pathologic
psychological inhibitors, yet be promoted by an optimal
psycho-physiological state. Among others, performance
inhibitors include unrealistic expectations because of a per-
fectionistic personality (Hill et al. 2011) or an injury (Gardner
and Moore 2007), competition anxiety (Hardy et al. 1996),
anger and other negative emotions (Hanin 2000), fear of
failure (Elbe et al. 2003), perceived pressure (Beilock and
Gray 2007), and avoidance behavior (Jordet and Hartman
2008). These inhibitors predominately influence performance
in competition. However, other factors can influence perfor-
mance negatively. These include personal factors as an avoid-
ance coping style (Hanson et al. 1992) or internal failure
attribution (Biddle et al. 2001) as well as environmental
factors such as overtraining (Meeusen et al. 2006; Jones and
Tenenbaum 2009), interpersonal problems, or life-balance
difficulties (Hardy et al. 1996). In contrast, Hardy and
colleagues (1996) proposed an excellent performance is
facilitated by a psycho-physiological state characterized
by automatic goal-focused processes. During perfor-
mance, athletes ideally adapt the relevant aspects of
their behavior automatically to the specific situational
demands (Gardner and Moore 2007). This process is
called discrepancy adjustment and is comparable to air-
plane autopilot (Wells 2000). This mostly automatic
process (Carver and Scheier 1988; Sbrocco and Barlow
1996), consisting of self-monitoring, self-evaluating, and
adjusting behavior, is essential for regulating behavior
effectively (Gardner and Moore 2007). However, be-
cause sports are multifaceted, there is a huge difference
in the physical and psychological demands of different
sports. Therefore, identifying the specific demands of
each sport is essential in deciding which processes or
psychological skills facilitate performance-relevant auto-
matic goal-focused processes.
Promoting High Performance—Requirements, Skills,
Recently, Birrer and Morgan (2010) introduced a model for
deducing the specific psychological demands of a specific
Objective Requirements for World Class Performance
of the Action
Duration of the Impact
Intensity of the Impact
Continuity of the Impact
Setting Self TalkImagery
Training Demands Training and Competition Demands Competition Demands
Fig. 1 Potential psychological
skills to cope with the
psychological requirements for
sport (Fig. 1). They provided reasoning for high performance
requiring not only specific skills for elite competitive perfor-
mance but also specific skills for the often strenuous and long-
term training process. The proposed model consists of three
conceptual layers: requirements, skills, and techniques.
The first layer describes the possible categories of objective
(psychological) requirements an athlete has to meet in differ-
ent sports. Demands from competition itself incorporate the
duration,intensity,and continuity of the impact,thecomplex-
ity and variability of the action, and the movement pattern and
movement complexity. Demands stemming from the lengthy
training process and lifestyle to reach an elite performance
level incorporate training scope,training intensity,andyears
of training to become an expert in the corresponding disci-
pline and the psychosocial development that each sporting and
non-sporting individual needs to fulfill. Finally, demands
stemming from both competition and training processes are
incorporated in injury and death risk in the relevant sport and
the cooperation between the athlete and all members of the
party needed to fulfill the task. The requirements dictate the
psychological skills crucial for successfully coping with the
specific demands of the relevant sport.
Consequently, the second layer provides psychological
skills, which are hypothesized as helping to regulate an
athlete's behavior to meet the requirements of a specific
sport. In this context, a skill is the learned capacity or ability
to carry out a specific task. These skills are attention,moti-
vation,volition,arousal regulation,perceptual cognitive
functions,motor control, and the various “self”constructs
(e.g., self-awareness, self-efficacy, self-worth, self-
confidence) known as self skills, as well as personal devel-
opment and life skills,coping skills, communication and
leadership skills, and finally recovery skills. Birrer and
Morgan (2010) followed the differentiation, suggested by
Vealey (2007) and Seiler and Stock (1994), between psy-
chological skills as desired outcome (e.g., increased self-
confidence and enhanced attentional focus) and psycholog-
ical techniques (e.g., imagery and self-talk) as the means to
promote the desired outcomes through the systematic appli-
cation of these techniques. In this context, a technique is the
procedure used to enhance a skill needed to manage the
The third layer of the model comprises the techniques suit-
able for fostering the required psychological skills. Vealey
(2007) named imagery,goal-setting,self-talk, and physical
relaxation techniques as the four basic mental techniques
predominantly used in sports psychology interventions, sup-
plemented with multimodal psychological skills training,
which incorporates a combination of these basic techniques.
However, numerous additional techniques are used to en-
hance an athlete’s psychological skills, e.g., cognitive
restructuring. Birrer and Morgan (2010) adopted these basic
techniques in their model and added mindfulness-based
interventions as a further important technique promoting
psychological skills so that athletes can meet the require-
ments for a successful career. Mindfulness is a multifaceted
concept. Therefore, it is expected that mindfulness-based
interventions will influence the psychological functioning
of elite athletes via numerous impact mechanisms. More
comprehensive than Birrer and Morgan (2010), we believe
these interventions have to be seen more as a meta-
technique than a “simple”psychological technique.
Traditional Psychological Skills Training in Sports
and Possible Limitations
During the last 30 years, the psychological techniques pre-
dominately used to enhance athletic performance have
stemmed mainly from psychological skills training (PST),
which is influenced mostly by cognitive-behavioral theories
(Meichenbaum 1977). This approach involves developing
self-control of internal states such as thoughts, emotions,
and physical experience to enhance performance. Scientific
evidence has shown the efficacy of PST. Many studies
demonstrate that PST decreases negative internal states,
such as performance anxiety, and increases positive internal
states (such as self-confidence, e.g., Daw and Burton 1994).
However, only a few studies have revealed a clear
performance-relevant impact of these internal state changes
(see Gardner and Moore 2006; Moore 2009, for a review).
Evaluating the efficacy of an intervention with a target
group of elite athletes is difficult. Samples of elite athletes
are small, and it is very difficult and ethically questionable
to persuade athletes and their coaches to be part of a control
group. Nevertheless, many athletes seem to experience dif-
ficulty in controlling their cognitive processes by employing
traditional PST methods. The usefulness of these methods
Two theories may explain why athletes cannot success-
fully control their cognitive processes despite investing in
the mental effort: the theory of ironic mental processes of
mental control (Wegner 1994; Janelle 1999) and the theory
of reinvestment (Masters 1992).
The theory of ironic mental processes explains the “ten-
dency to feel, act, and think in ways that are opposite to the
intended direction of emotion, behavior, and cognition”
(Janelle 1999, p. 202). Two processes are important in the
attempt to control one’s own mental processes (Wegner
1994): (a) an intentional operating process, which facilitates
the desired outcome by the conscious and effortful search
for mental content, which is consistent with the desired
outcome, and (b) a monitoring process that checks if the
operating process is still needed by automatically and un-
consciously searching for signs of failures to produce the
desired outcome. It is hypothesized that the operating pro-
cess needs more cognitive capacity and has more influence
than the monitoring process. Additionally, the monitoring
process usually functions to activate the operating process.
In circumstances of reduced cognitive capacity, such as
stress, time urgency, mental overload, or distraction, the
monitoring process may supersede the operating process
because it is easier to access. Therefore, the sensitivity to
signs of mental states that are least desired or the opposite of
the desired outcome is enhanced. Ironically, these individual
attempts to gain mental control may cause the undesired
outcome the athlete was trying to avoid. Golfers often
experience this phenomenon when trying to avoid driving
the ball into a water hazard. Because the golfer tries so hard
to avoid the hazard, the ball often splashes into the water.
Ironic mental processes are predominately associated with
the deliberate self-control of psychological states or processes
(thoughts, emotions, bodily sensations, and behaviors), most-
ly to attain personal goals. The performance-decreasing effect
of this phenomenon is hypothesized as caused by the focus on
non-task-relevant cues (thoughts and feelings; external targets
to be avoided). Athletes who experience task irrelevant feel-
ings or thoughts might try to deliberately invest mental effort
in focusing on task-relevant information or the processes most
relevant for executing the task. Psychologists usually refer to
these attempts as concentration. Sport psychologists try to
enhance athletes’concentration by teaching them psycholog-
ical techniques such as specifying action goals, pre-
performance routines, self-talk (trigger words), and imagery
(Moran 2010). Consciously putting more effort in task execu-
tion might be performance relevant. However, scientific evi-
dence supports the performance-decreasing effects of such
attempts (e.g., Masters and Maxwell 2008). Further, some
findings suggest that ironic mental processes are associated
with performance-decreasing attention processes, more pre-
cisely athletes’gaze behavior (Binsch et al. 2009,2010).
Ironic mental processes can be regarded as detrimental self-
regulatory behaviors associated with conscious control of
thoughts, emotions, or bodily sensations. Self-regulatory det-
rimental behaviors associated with conscious control of move-
ment have been united under the umbrella term reinvestment
(Masters 1992). Reinvestment processes are activated when-
ever an athlete’s self-evaluated performance does not match
his or her expected performance. This discrepancy can be in
either an unexpected poor performance or an unexpected good
performance. In this case, self-regulation is enhanced and
tends to initiate discrepancy reduction efforts (Carver and
Scheier 1988; Sbrocco and Barlow 1996). Reinvestment the-
ory states that automatic movement will be disrupted if the
athlete tries to control it consciously with declarative
knowledge (Masters and Maxwell 2008). Masters and
Maxwell (2008) specified numerous contingencies that
can result in reinvestment, for example, psychological
pressure, adaptation of process goals, or availability of
In summary, many contingencies can trigger the reinvest-
ment of task-relevant declarative knowledge. This has a
negative impact on performance. It is suggested that rein-
vestment is prevented through emotion control training
(Abrams 2010), an external focus of attention (Wulf et al.
2007), or the use of implicit motor learning (Masters 1992).
However, reinvestment would not appear if athletes were
not involved in self-evaluation processes because they are
attempting to attain personal goals. Mindfulness-based
interventions could help prevent the detrimental effects of
ironic mental processes or reinvestment. However, these
reflections imply a possible paradox of mindfulness-based
interventions in top sports, namely, the disaccord (or incon-
sistence) of the no goal and acceptance attitude of mindful-
ness and the extreme win and goal orientation of high
performance sport. We will address this paradox later, after
briefly clarifying our understanding of mindfulness.
Facets and Components of Mindfulness Practice
and Dispositional Mindfulness
Despitewidespread interest across different areas of psy-
chology in the application and effects of mindfulness, there
is no common understanding of the psychological construct
of mindfulness, or what facets and components the construct
involves (Coffey et al. 2010). Further, what impact mecha-
nisms are associated with it, and how these mechanisms
relate to different facets and components of mindfulness
and formal or informal mindfulness training, is not clear
(Dorjee 2010). However, for elite athletes to benefit from
using mindfulness, careful investigation of the facets and
components of mindfulness and their possible mechanisms
of effect is important. Therefore, a working model incorpo-
rating the basic facets and components of mindfulness will
be discussed, and possible mechanisms of effect of mind-
fulness in the attempt to enhance athletic performance will
“Clinically oriented conceptualizations of mindfulness
can confound the description of the phenomenon with the
methods (practice) through which it is fostered”(Brown et
al. 2007, p. 215). The commonly used definition of mind-
fulness as intentional, non-judgmental awareness (Kabat-Zinn
1990) was introduced to describe mindfulness practice.Re-
search has shown that mindfulness practice is associated with
greater dispositional mindfulness (a temporary more-or-less
stable state or trait, the tendency to act mindful in everyday
life; Brown and Ryan 2003;Baeretal.2008). Consciously
carrying over mindfulness principles or elements into every-
day life can be seen as informal mindfulness practice. In this
context, we believe, similar to other researchers (e.g., Bishop
et al. 2004; Brown and Ryan 2003), that mindfulness may be
cultivated through everyday experience or processes other
than formal meditation.
To better understand the processes and principles that
underlie mindfulness, several researchers have sought to
clarify the concept by clearly establishing its facets. Bishop
et al. (2004) pointed to two dimensions of mindfulness: self-
regulation of attention and the attitude of openness to expe-
rience. Bohus and Huppertz (2006) differentiated “What”
and “How”modalities. Their conceptualization comprised
observing,describing, and acting (“what modality”)ina
non-judgmental,concentrated, and effective way (“how mo-
dality”). Shapiro and colleagues (2006) tried to break mind-
fulness down into a simple, comprehensible construct. This
construct reflected the core components of formal mindful-
ness practice: intention,attention,andattitude. These com-
ponents “are not understood as separate processes or stages
—they are interwoven aspects of a single cyclic process and
occur simultaneously. Mindfulness (practice) is this
moment-to-moment process”(Shapiro et al. 2006, p. 375).
Based on the description of mindfulness in Mindfulness-
Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) and in a Buddhist context,
Dorjee (2010) provided a working model with five mind-
fulness facets relevant to psychological and neuroscientific
research: (1) intention and context of mindfulness practice,
(2) bare attention, (3) attentional control, (4) wholesome
emotions,and (5) ethical discernment.
Baer and colleagues (2006,2008) investigated the factor
structure of mindfulness by combining all items from five
recently developed mindfulness questionnaires into a single
questionnaire. Since most mindfulness measures quantify
dispositional mindfulness, we believe that Baer and col-
leagues (2006,2008) conceptualized dispositional mindful-
ness. Exploratory factor analysis led them to five factors for
mindfulness with the following components: (1) observe—
observing, noticing, and attending to thoughts, feelings,
perceptions, and sensations; (2) describe—describing or
labeling with words; (3) act aware—acting with awareness;
(4) nonreact—not reacting to inner experience; and (5) non-
judge—not judging experience.
By exploring which of Baer and colleagues’(2006,2008)
mindfulness components predict psychological well-being,
symptoms of anxiety, depression, and stress, Cash and
Whittingham (2010) showed that the mindfulness compo-
nents nonjudge and act aware were significant predictors of
depression. Additionally, nonjudge was a significant predic-
tor of anxiety and stress. Thus, different components of
dispositional mindfulness make different contributions to
psychological functioning. Coffey and colleagues (2010)
complained about the lack of a clear mindfulness definition,
especially about the lack of clear boundaries between dif-
ferent mindfulness conceptualizations and emotion regula-
tion, in mechanisms of impact by which mindfulness
components might influence mental benefits. To differenti-
ate between mindfulness components and emotion regula-
tion, Coffey et al. ran different exploratory, confirmatory
factor analysis and structural equation models to better
understand the factor structure of mindfulness and emotion
regulation measures and possible impact mechanisms on
psychological functioning. The researchers concluded mind-
fulness consists of two facets: (1) present-centered attention
and (2) acceptance of experience. They suggested that other
components captured in current trait measures of mindful-
ness are the consequence of mindfulness rather than com-
ponents. A reason for this might be that the boundaries
between mindfulness practice and dispositional mindfulness
are not very clear. Formal mindfulness practice with bare
attention, the intention to self-regulate, and a nonjudgmental
and accepting attitude will enhance the disposition to act
with more attention and a nonjudgmental attitude in every-
day life, which, we argue, is nothing more than the trait
components of dispositional mindfulness. Finally, recently
Bergomi and colleagues (in press) developed a new instru-
ment, the Comprehensive Inventory of Mindfulness Expe-
riences (CHIME). It consists of six components: (1) non-
reactivity/decentering, (2) observe/perceive, (3) relativiza-
tion, (4) openness/non-avoidance, (5) act aware,and (6)
These differing conceptualizations of mindfulness high-
light the problematic confusion of mindfulness practice (as a
method to become mindful) and dispositional or trait mind-
fulness (the phenomenon, Brown et al. 2007). For our own
mindfulness interventions and in contrast to other conceptu-
alizations, we differentiate mindfulness practice from dispo-
sitional mindfulness. For the concept of mindfulness
practice, we mostly follow the proposal by Shapiro and
colleagues (2006) because it seems to be a parsimonious
model. Almost all of the other models’facets can be inte-
grated into Shapiro and colleagues’conceptualization. Fur-
ther, bare attention and nonjudgmental attitude have shown
a reasonable impact on psychological functioning in empir-
ical studies (Coffey et al. 2010; Carmody et al. 2009). Thus,
our mindfulness practice concept consists of the following
interwoven facets: (1) an intention to practice, which could
include self-regulation, self-exploration, self-liberation, in-
sight, and wisdom (see also Dorjee 2010), (2) bare attention
to internal or external stimuli with the possibility of sus-
tained attention, shift, and inhibition, and (3) an attitude of
nonjudgmental, acceptance, openness, self-respect, and non-
reactivity. Although there are signs that intention to practice
is not a relevant impact factor (Coffey et al. 2010; Carmody
et al. 2009), we decided to keep it in our conceptualization
because intention to practice can constitute an important
motivational variable in the context of elite sports. Regard-
ing dispositional mindfulness, we suggest using Bergomi
and colleagues’(in press) concept because it is based on
eight validated mindfulness questionnaires and shows good
reliability and validity. Further, the authors emphasized
while constructing the instrument that the measure is equally
applicable to experienced meditation practitioners and med-
itation novices. Therefore, it should be applicable to ath-
letes. To differentiate between mindfulness practice and
dispositional mindfulness, we refer to facets of mindfulness
when we talk about mindfulness practice and to components
of mindfulness when we talk about trait mindfulness.
Mechanisms of Mindfulness
Mindfulness is often described as a key aspect of the so-
called third wave of behavior therapy (Hayes 2004). These
interventions emphasize changing the function, not the form
of behavior, emotion, cognition, bodily sensations, and ex-
ternal stimuli. They aim to change the relationship to
thoughts and emotions, not the content of thoughts and
emotions. This differentiation is important to bear in mind
because it has an essential influence on possible impact
mechanisms. Additionally, for examining the effectiveness
of mindfulness-based interventions as well as their impact
mechanism, considering the techniques used to foster dis-
positional mindfulness is important. MBSR (Kabat-Zinn
1982) and Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT;
Segal et al. 2002), for example, emphasize regular mindful-
ness meditation practice whereas acceptance and commit-
ment therapy (ACT; Hayes et al. 1999) and dialectical
behavior therapy (DBT; Linehan 1993) do not.
There is evidence that formal mindfulness practice leads
to more dispositional mindfulness (Carmody et al. 2009).
The degree of dispositional mindfulness is also influenced
by informal practice (doing routine activities mindfully,
Kabat-Zinn 1990) and psychotherapy (Martin 1997) as well
as individual genetic (Way et al. 2006) and developmental
(Greenough and Black 1992) differences. In addition,
knowledge about mindfulness (through education in psy-
chology) could influence the degree of dispositional mind-
fulness. However, which of these factors and which
combination of these factors contribute to what extent to
changes in psychological functioning and with athletes to
changes in performance is unclear.
There is evidence that increased dispositional mindful-
ness mediates improvement in psychological functioning
(see Baer 2009 for a review) and that different facets of
dispositional mindfulness make different contributions to
psychological functioning (Cash and Whittingham 2010;
Baer et al. 2008; Baer et al. 2006). It is hypothesized that
improved attention facilitates the recognition of internal
associative processes (Carmody 2009). This recognition
leads to the development of reperceiving (Shapiro et al.
2006). Reperceiving is closely related to the concepts of
decentering (Safran and Segal 1990), deautomatization
(Deikman 1982), detachment (Bohart 1983), and metacog-
nitive awareness (Teasdale et al. 2002).
These terms describe a change in perception. It is no
longer the content (of, e.g., a thought) that is perceived,
but the content (of this thought) as an event in/of the mind
(Shapiro et al. 2006). This perception is accompanied by the
insight that experience consists of components of thoughts,
emotions, and bodily sensations associated with each other.
This change in perception and the resulting insight lead in
turn to various psychological outcomes. According to Sha-
piro and colleagues (2006), reperceiving is a meta-
mechanism for the mechanisms of action flexibility, values
clarification, self-regulation, and exposure. Carmody et al.
(2009) showed that change in flexibility and change in
values were significant predictors (mediators) of changes
in perceived stress and psychological symptoms. However,
the significant influence of reperceiving as a meta-
mechanism has been only partially confirmed.
Coffey et al. (2010) tested the mediating roles of clarity
about one’s internal life, the ability to manage negative
emotions, non-attachment, and rumination in the relation-
ship between mindfulness and psychological distress and
flourishing mental health. Ruminating is a form of self-
focus in which thoughts cycle around a common topic.
Results confirmed the importance of these mediators in the
relationship between the mindfulness facets of present-
centered attention and the acceptance of experience and
mental health. Interestingly, the attitudinal, acceptance-
based facet of mindfulness (practice) mattered more for the
measured psychological functioning than the attention facet.
Acceptance is another considered mechanism of action for
mindfulness (Hayes et al. 1999). Acceptance stands in con-
trast to avoidance and control and can lead to a calmness
independent of external circumstances.
These findings suggest that mechanisms by which mind-
fulness might beneficially impact psychological adjustment
are (1) bare attention, (2) experiential acceptance, (3) val-
ues clarification, (4) self-regulation/negative emotion regu-
lation, (5) clarity about one’s internal life, (6) exposure, (7)
flexibility, (8) non-attachment, and (9) less rumination. Con-
sidering these possible mechanisms of action for mindful-
ness practice and taking into account Birrer and Morgan’s
(2010) model, we assumed the following mechanisms of
action of mindfulness practice for athletes (Fig. 2):
–Bare attention facet of mindfulness practice: Mindful-
ness practice (the bare attention facet) improves attention-
al and perceptual-cognitive skills directly (Chambers et
al. 2008; Chiesa et al. 2011;Ortneretal.2007). There-
fore, athletes are possibly less distracted, better able to
control their attention and place it on goal-relevant
aspects, and improve their action orientation. When at-
tention is no longer employed with irrelevant content, it is
free for other aspects of the situation, which might lead to
a solution of a problem and a better outcome (Carmody
–Attitude facet of mindfulness practice (acceptance, non-
judgmental, openness, self-respect, and non-reactivity):
Mindfulness practice increases experiential acceptance
(Hayes et al. 1999). As a result, athletes accept a per-
formance discrepancy (unexpected poor performance
and unexpected good performance), and reinvestment
processes are not be triggered. The tendency to control
automatized movements with declarative knowledge is
reduced, and athletes could therefore enhance their per-
formance of well-learned motor skills because automat-
ic processes are not interrupted. Additionally, the
occurrence of ironic mental processes would decrease,
which again should favor athletic performance.
–Values clarification: Mindfulness practice leads to a
clarification of values (Shapiro et al. 2006). Athletes
could identify conflicts between their personal values
and goals and thus increase their self-concordance
(Koestner et al. 2002)andthedegreeoftheirself-
determined behavior, which would have a positive ef-
fect on their need-satisfaction (Deci and Ryan 1985).
Consequently, motivational skills,personal, and devel-
opmental as well as self skills would profit from a
clarification of values.
–Self-regulation/negative emotion regulation: Disposi-
tional mindfulness as a result of formal and informal
mindfulness practice enhances self-regulation (Carmody
et al. 2009; Coffey et al. 2010; Shapiro et al. 2006).
Therefore, athletes would be better able to deal with
anger, fear, and other negative emotions. Arousal regula-
self skills, should profit from an enhanced self-regulation.
–Clarity about one’s internal life: Mindfulness leads to
better clarity about one’s internal feelings and one’s
ability to control behavior in the presence of negative
affect (Coffey et al. 2010). Better clarity would have a
positive effect on personal development and life,self,
recovery,andcoping as well as communication and
leadership skills. Thus, there would be fewer over-
trained athletes and drop-outs.
–Exposure: Mindfulness practice leads to more exposure
(Shapiro et al. 2006), in particular the willingness to
remain in contact with an unpleasant experience. There-
fore, athletes could be more willing to endure negative
3. Values clarification
9. Less rumination
Fig. 2 Potential impact mechanisms of mindfulness facets and components on psychological skills. Arrows imply the influence of mechanisms on
skills. Only one possible relationship between a mechanism and a skill is shown because of clarity reasons
emotions and aversive states instead of avoiding them.
Thus, the athletes could confront more difficult situa-
tions in competition, tend to extend their threshold of
pain, and be willing to face aversive training situations.
Enhanced volitional,pain management,andcoping
skills are the likely consequence.
–Cognitive, emotional, and behavioral flexibility: Adap-
tation and flexibility in responding to the environment
as a result of dispositional mindfulness (Carmody et al.
2009) promote the consolidation of personal develop-
ment and self as well as communication and leadership
–Non-attachment: The belief that one’s own happiness is
independent of obtaining positive outcomes (non-at-
tachment) is a consequence of mindfulness (practice)
(Coffey et al. 2010). Presumably, non-attachment
reduces ironic mental processes and reinvestment. Thus,
non-attachment has a positive effect on personal devel-
opment,self,recovery,coping,andmotor control as
well as communication and leadership skills.
–Less rumination: Mindfulness reduces rumination
(Coffey et al. 2010) or at least the uncontrollability of
rumination (Raes and Williams 2010). Less ruminating
thinking influences several psychological skills, most
likely personal development and life,self,recovery,
coping,arousal regulation,attentional, and motor con-
The Goal Paradox: Can Mindfulness Be Applied
in an Elite Sports Environment?
At this point, it seems appropriate to address the issue of the
apparent inconsistency of the fundamental no goal and
acceptance attitude of traditional mindfulness practice and
the radical goal orientation of elite sports. This issue stems
from the difficulty of Western society adopting a concept
developed over centuries within an Eastern cultural back-
ground. Elite sports signify the pinnacle of meritocracy of
modern Western society. In an environment where coming
fourth is often regarded as a failure, athletes are extremely
outcome oriented. This radical goal orientation stands in
contrast to the acceptance and no goal attitude of mindful-
ness. Stemming from Buddhist tradition, the practice of
mindfulness is based on an Eastern philosophical belief that
the source of suffering is an uncontrolled mind guided by
anger, attachment, and ignorance (Dorjee 2010). The goal of
mindfulness meditation is therefore often the liberation of
one’sdesire and will. This (ostensibly) contradicts an ath-
lete’sgoal to win a competition. Obviously, there is a
paradox we cannot easily solve. Otherwise, inherent aspects
of sports are consistent with mindfulness (philosophy).
For instance, successful athletes have realized that the temp-
tation of focusing on winning can inhibit their current per-
formance. Four-time Olympic, six-time World, and 21-time
European Champion Alexander Popow (freestyle swim-
ming) is a very good example of keeping one’s attention
on the moment at hand. Before winning his sixth World title
in 2003, he stated seemingly succinct: “Who thinks of
winning loses.”He realized that thoughts on winning would
distract him from the task at hand and inhibit the delivery of
automated processes. Hence, successful athletes already
seem to use attitudes conjoint with mindfulness philosophy,
namely, focusing on the present moment, accepting an un-
pleasant experience such as physical pain, and practicing
consistently. However, integrating mindfulness-based inter-
ventions in an elite sports setting remains challenging.
To tackle the general problem of integrating mindfulness
in therapeutic concepts of Western society, Berking and
Znoj (2006) suggested distinguishing different facets of
mindfulness and training them separately. We addressed this
aspect earlier by making a thorough distinction between the
facets of mindfulness practice and the components of dis-
positional mindfulness and their possible impact mecha-
nisms on the specific demands of psychological
functioning of elite athletes. Regarding the intention to train
facet of mindfulness, most athletes certainly aim to enhance
their self-regulation. The key challenge is to unite the
attitude facet with the attitudes shaped by Western
sociocultural-related forces and the forces stemming from
every different sports culture (for example, the sports culture
of professional soccer differs in many aspects from the
culture of rhythmic gymnastics). With this in mind, mind-
fulness is far from being seen as a psychological skill or a
quick fix. On the contrary, the training and practice aspect
inherent in mindfulness meditation is very similar to the
understanding of training in sports. Performance is mostly
seen as an outcome of a years-long training process. Simi-
larly, enhancing self-regulation can be easily seen as the
cause of a process demanding hundreds of hours of contin-
ual practice with the right attitude (non-judgmental, accep-
tance, openness, self-respect, and non-reactivity). These
similarities can be used in applying mindfulness-based inter-
ventions to a sports setting.
This leads to another point Berking and Znoj (2006)
suggested: how to beneficially integrate mindfulness in the
Western context. The introduction together with the reason-
ing for mindfulness interventions must be separated from
the traditional Buddhist culture and adapted to the predom-
inant values and belief system of Western culture, and even
more specifically to the different sports cultures. The accep-
tance attitude of mindfulness practice, for example, might be
easily misinterpreted in a sports setting and can lead to
unintended outcomes. For instance, a player might be temp-
ted to accept the result at the half-time of a game as an
unmistakable fact and therefore accept the thought that his
or her opponent is stronger than his or her own team, and
thus give up before the end of the game. Hence, an intro-
duction to the mindfulness attitude might require a thorough
understanding of mindfulness aspects as well as the sports
culture. The athlete has to understand that acceptance does
not mean the approval of the present moment condition but
the non-judging awareness of the present circumstances or
the reaction to it in the form of thoughts and emotions.
Consistent with the third wave of behavior therapy (Hayes
2004), thoughts are seen as what they are, namely, thoughts
and not facts. Similarly, emotions are emotions and nothing
else. Modification of dysfunctional thoughts is not targeted,
but the insight that thoughts are just processes of our brain
and the refocus on other psychological functions, for in-
stance, the perception of task relevant aspects are normal.
Similarly, emotions, bodily sensations, and external stimuli
are not the aim of change, but the relationship to them.
Therefore, using mindfulness techniques will help athletes
regain a state of mind where goal-oriented behavior and
automatic goal-focused processes are facilitated.
Thus, the sole use of either mindfulness training or psy-
chological skills training will likely be ineffective in tack-
ling athletes’issues as long as the training is not integrated
into one compatible concept. Therefore, we agree with
Berking and Znoj (2006) that mindfulness-based techniques
might have to be taught with other techniques, which ena-
bles a person to proactively solve a problem.
Current State of Knowledge about the Effectiveness
of Mindfulness-Based Interventions in Sports
Kabat-Zinn et al. (1985) provided training in mindfulness
meditation to collegiate and Olympic rowers with specific
applications of mindfulness to rowing. The researchers
reported that collegiate rowers exceeded the coach’s expect-
ations based on the athletes’level of experience and phys-
ical abilities. Furthermore, several rowers who medaled at
the Olympics reported that mindfulness training helped
them perform at their full potential. After this promising
start, mindfulness-based interventions in sports more or less
disappeared from the sport psychology landscape for almost
two decades. Recently, two sport-specific mindfulness-
based intervention programs have been developed: Mind-
fulness–Acceptance–Commitment Approach (MAC; Gardner
and Moore 2007) and Mindful Sports Performance Enhance-
ment (MSPE; Kaufman et al. 2009). To our knowledge, eight
empirical studies have been conducted in English that inves-
tigate mindfulness in sports or mindfulness-based interven-
tions with athletes. There are two correlational studies
(Gooding and Gardner 2009; Kee and Wang 2008)anda
single case study (Schwanhausser 2009). The remaining five
are intervention studies. Three examine the MSPE program
(De Petrillo et al. 2009; Kaufman et al. 2009; Thompson et al.
2011). The other two explore other mindfulness-based
interventions (Aherne et al. 2011; Bernier et al. 2009).
The number of subjects in the intervention studies is at
most 32. If there is a control group, it is a passive waiting list
control group. In sum, there is empirical evidence that dispo-
sitional mindfulness is a performance-relevant trait in sports
and that mindfulness-based interventions may be helpful for
athletes. The results so far suggest that dispositional
mindfulness is related to more flow, less fear, and fewer
task-irrelevant thoughts. Mindfulness-based interventions
seem to increase dispositional mindfulness. For a thor-
ough assessment, however, more high-quality studies are
needed. They should use randomized control group designs
with active control groups or multiple baseline designs and
measure performance as the dependent variable. A systematic
study of the mechanisms of action of mindfulness-based inter-
ventions in sports has yet to be conducted. The effects found
so far are relatively small and/or not significant. In competi-
tive sports, however, even small effects can be important.
Detecting small effects takes a lot of statistical power and
therefore a large number of subjects. This is likely to prove
to be difficult in the context of competitive sports. Ways to
deal with this problem are meta-analyses or correlational
studies with large numbers of subjects.
The aim of the present paper was to present theoretical con-
siderations on how mindfulness-based interventions can be
used to help elite athletes successfully meet the demands of
their sport. The focus was on the distinction between mind-
fulness practice and dispositional mindfulness as well as pos-
sible mechanisms of impact. Overall, the use of mindfulness-
based interventions in sports seems to be a promising ap-
proach. By explaining what and how performance-related
skills can be improved with mindfulness practice, the theoret-
ical considerations show that it makes sense to scientifically
study this approach let alone its value as a practical interven-
tion concept. Mindfulness seems to be a holistic intervention
fostering the development of several personal, sport, and
performance-relevant psychological skills.
However, to effectively apply mindfulness-based inter-
ventions in sports, we suggest thoroughly differentiating the
mindfulness practice facets from the mindfulness compo-
nents of dispositional mindfulness and training and measur-
ing them separately (although we see them as more or less
interwoven but distinguishable constructs). As a first step,
examining the relationship of dispositional mindfulness and
performance-relevant variables and preliminarily studying
the hypothesized impact mechanism in cross-sectional studies
with many elite athletes seems worthwhile. As a second step,
the influence of mindfulness practice on dispositional mind-
fulness and performance-relevant variables might be investi-
gated in intervention studies.
Because of the limited empirical data and despite the
statistical challenges, many questions need to be addressed
in both steps: (1) Do mindfulness-based interventions have a
performance-relevant effect on athletes? This question
should be investigated with randomized control group stud-
ies, active control groups, or multiple baseline designs and
standardized intervention manuals. The intervention is ef-
fective if mindfulness practice is associated with an im-
provement in performance-related skills and a reduction of
inhibitors of high performance or at its best improving
performance. These relationships should be mediated by
changes in dispositional mindfulness. In additional steps,
the following questions should be examined: (2) Can the
postulated mechanisms of action of mindfulness-based
interventions for athletes be confirmed? (3) How much
(dose) and what kind of mindfulness practice (formal, infor-
mal, psycho-education) is necessary to achieve the expected
changes in performance-related skills (response)? (4) Do
different components of dispositional mindfulness have
different influences on performance-related skills? (5) What
kind of mindfulness practice influences which components
of dispositional mindfulness? (6) What facets of mindful-
ness practice have what influence on performance-related
skills and dispositional mindfulness? (7) How can
mindfulness-based interventions and traditional PST be
combined? Further, whether mindfulness-based interven-
tions in some cases could result in performance decline,
because athletes might remain self-focused too long, is
Finally, a briefly outline of how mindfulness techniques
might be translated into the sports setting seems appropriate.
Mindfulness practice can be taught in many ways. Formal
mindfulness breathing exercises might be introduced in a
non-sports setting. To explain the mindfulness philosophy,
using the athlete’s own examples and demonstrating a non-
judging and accepting attitude in his or her specific situa-
tions is important. Additionally, mindfulness exercises can
be easily transferred into a training program or training
session as Kabat-Zinn and colleagues (1985) demonstrated
when they delivered sport-specific mindfulness techniques
to rowers. Rowers can train mindfulness exercises directly
in their boat when they focus on the breath or letting go of
thoughts of pain and discomfort. As another example, a
body scan exercise can easily be administered during the
cool-down phase at the end of a training session. At first
glance, mindfulness seems incompatible with an elite sports
setting. However, with the appropriate openness as well as
sport-specific expertise, mindfulness techniques can be in-
tegrated in a sports setting in many ways.
Acknowledgment We would like to thank Peter Haberl for the
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