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A MINDFUL LIFT-BENEFITS OF MINDFUL MEDITATION IN STRENGTH AND CONDITIONING-PART 1

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56 NSCA COACH 7.3 | NSCA.COM
ELIZABETH HOPE, MA, USAW-2, MEAGAN WILSON, AND BRIAN GEARITY, PHD, CSCS, FNSCA
A MINDFUL LIFT—BENEFITS OF MINDFUL MEDITATION IN STRENGTH AND CONDITIONING—PART 1
INTRODUCTION
Over the past several decades, mindful meditation (MM)
has been considered a useful mode for optimizing sport
performance by strengthening one’s focus, attentional
control, and body awareness (3,4,5,10,11). As a form of present-
moment awareness, MM stems from concepts grounded in
Eastern religion and philosophy and has been defined as paying
attention in a particular way, on purpose, in the present moment,
and without judgment (13). During a successful mindfulness
meditation, athletes experience current feelings, thoughts, and
bodily sensations with all senses very clearly and plainly, as
something that passes by, without judging, evaluating, or having
to act on these sensations (4,5,11,13). In a typical mindfulness
exercise, meditators aim to focus their attention on a particular
experience and become fully aware of this experience, such as
one’s breath and the sensations it evokes in various parts of
the body. Practiced regularly over a more extended period of
months and even years, this state of mindfulness is considered
to convert into a stable, dispositional tendency to be mindful
(1,3,4,11,13,15,16,19).
Although many coaches, trainers, and athletes recognize and
appreciate the need for this type of mental training, it is not often
given the time or practice warranted (4,13,21,22), leaving untapped
potential for athletes and coaches alike. In this article, the first of
a two-part series, we will discuss how applying MM in conjunction
with strength training can enhance one’s attentional control,
which then results in a more successful strength and conditioning
training session (4,10,11,15,16,25). In part two of this series, we will
explore the possible benefits for strength and conditioning coach
development and discuss how MM can improve reflective practice
and the coach-athlete relationship.
BENEFITS OF MINDFUL MEDITATION
Influenced by Mindfulness-based Stress Reduction (13,14), MM
often consists of three primary meditation practices (13,14). These
include 1) mindful breathing, in which participants focus their
attention on their breathing, body sensations, and their stream
of thoughts and emotion; 2) body scan, in which participants
sequentially and non-judgmentally focus their attention on parts
of the body; and 3) mindful movement, in which participants
cultivate mindful awareness of the body while it is moving (6).
Athletes that practice MM become more aware, intentional, and
purposeful in every movement (3,4,9,10,11).
Research shows that the mechanism of action in mindfulness is
improved mental efficiency through the development of greater
awareness and acceptance of internal experiences, thus freeing
the athlete to focus more attentional resources on his or her
performance (1,3,4,11). MM practice builds the athlete’s ability
to automatically notice and direct their attention to what is
absolutely essential, without needing to consciously reduce or
control reactions to other potentially distracting experiences
to do so (1,4,8,11,21,23). The core belief of a mindful approach is
that a person performs best when staying with a nonjudgmental,
moment-to-moment awareness and acceptance of one’s internal
state, with his or her attention focused on what is essential for
performance and a consistent, intentional behavioral effort of
actions that support what he or she values most (4,11,13,14,21,23).
By practicing MM, athletes focus on internal and external
information, connecting their minds and bodies more directly
to the present moment, which in turn enhances one’s athletic
performance (4,11,13,14).
ATTENTIONAL FOCUS
Through weightlifting, a key component of strength training for
other sports, as well as a competitive sport in its own right, an
athlete develops muscle strength, muscle mass, and joint strength
(17,18). There are a multitude of lifts an athlete can execute to
achieve desired results, depending on the muscles and equipment
used during the exercise, as well as the speed, duration, and
complexity of the movements (17,18). An athlete’s attentional
focus has found to play a large part in the level of results as well
(15,16,19). Researchers have found that attentional focus can
improve the action and the outcome of one’s lift (15,16,19,26).
Attentional focus, a well-recognized aspect of motor learning (26),
has been studied to discover how internal or external attention
affects athletes (15,16,19,26). For example, Wulf and Lewthwaite
found that the increased muscular accuracy of force production
created by increased attention control allows an athlete to lift
the same weight with less muscular effort (26). Whether an
athlete is internally focused on squeezing their glutes as they
ascend or externally focused on driving the floor away from their
body (20), it seems clear that reliable attentional control and
awareness are valuable skills when lifting weights during strength
training (19,26).
IMPROVED LIFT EXECUTION
Once an athlete has learned to focus their attention through MM
practice, the athlete might find that lifting weights and meditation
have a way of supporting each other. During a training session, if
one is firmly aware, in the present moment, and “in” their body,
then they find themselves less distracted, less preoccupied with
excessive self-analysis, and entirely centered and focused on the
task at hand, which results in an enhanced lift (7). In practicing
meditation, the athlete catches their mind wandering; just as in
resistance training, the physical feedback and sense of disharmony
are immediate and palpable if one is not fully mindful. Humphrey
described this acute sensory awareness of the intricate workings
and sensations of the body, as the ability to be wholly connected
in mind and body (12).
PRACTICAL APPLICATION
This acute sensory awareness and increased attentional control
have been experienced by athletes who regularly practice MM,
such as breathing meditation, body scans, and mindful movement
(4,6,11). There are many audio versions of each of these MM
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practices that can be found online; however, a written version
of each is provided below adapted from Baltzell and Summers’
2017 book that lays out their program, the Mindfulness Meditation
Training in Sport (MMTS) (4).
MINDFUL BREATHING
RECOMMENDED BEFORE OR AFTER TRAINING
The athlete first finds a quiet place to sit comfortably or lie down,
ensuring the position is sustainable for the whole exercise. Sitting
upright or lying down with arms and legs comfortably at the side
is recommended. If, at any point, the athlete feels uncomfortable
and has the urge to move, they should first become fully aware
of the feeling before making a mindful adjustment. Based on
what is most comfortable, the athlete chooses to close their eyes
or soften their gaze. As the MM begins, the athlete turns their
total attention to their breath. If during the practice, the athlete’s
focus migrates to other thoughts or feelings, the athlete fully and
non-judgmentally accepts that all minds wander and redirects
their attention back to their breath. One’s breath is kept at a
comfortable pace and depth, inhaling to the count of four and
exhaling to the count of two. The athlete will notice the physical
sensation associated with breathing and allow their awareness
to rest there. As thoughts, feelings, physical sensations arise, the
athlete notices the shift and gently brings their attention back to
breathing again (4,6). After three to five minutes, the athlete then
slowly opens their eyes and carefully resumes their routine.
BODY SCAN
RECOMMENDED BEFORE TRAINING OR BEFORE EACH LIFT
DURING REST PERIODS
Body scan MM practice helps athletes become more attuned to
the sensations in their bodies while also strengthening attentional
flexibility, as they sequentially shift their attentional focus to
various regions of the body (4,6). One such way to use this type of
MM practice is as the athlete stands quietly before the upcoming
lift, they can quickly complete a body scan, shifting attentional
focus from one major muscle to the other. In doing so, the athlete
starts from the head and moves gradually down to the toes,
focusing attention on the feeling and sensations of each of the
major muscles along the way. For example, is the muscle tense,
rested, or on fire? The athlete repeats the process throughout
the body and all the major muscles (4,6,24). At the very end
of the body scan, the athlete then takes three deep breaths as
they transfer their focus to the task at hand. By performing a
body scan during rest periods of a workout, one can assist the
parasympathetic response while building mindful awareness
simultaneously (17,18).
MINDFUL MOVEMENT
RECOMMENDED DURING THE ACTUAL LIFT
The practice of MM is a helpful, practical way for an athlete to
bring themselves into a fully present state of awareness. Bringing
awareness to physical sensations of the muscles that are being
worked allows the mind and body to work together to obtain
efficient and effective results. One example of how to practice
MM during strength training is by having the athlete focus on
their feet as they stand before the weights. As the athlete steps
up to the equipment, their focus is on how their feet feel against
the floor, how the arches of their feet feel versus the balls of their
feet, and where they have distributed their weight. As the athlete
starts the lift, their attention moves to the muscles as they are
engaged. Throughout the lift, there are multiple muscles, feelings,
and thoughts the athlete may choose for focused attention, but it
is that focus that will lead to heightened attentional control and,
thus, enhanced performance (4,6).
CONCLUSION
To be clear, mindful strength training is not about being quiet
or peaceful, but about being deliberate with and aware of every
action and thought regarding the task an athlete’s body is about
to perform, whether it is a plank, plyometric jump, or a deadlift. By
ritually practicing mindfulness, an athlete can set the stage with
enhanced awareness and attentional focus that can increase the
efficiency and effectiveness of training, and ultimately enhance
one’s execution of a more powerful and mindful lift (4,8,11,23). In
the next article of this two-part series, we will explore the possible
benefits of MM training for coaches. We will explain how the
benefits mentioned throughout both articles provide performance
enhancement for athletes and coaches, as well as the positive
impact that MM can have on the coach-athlete relationship.
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A MINDFUL LIFT—BENEFITS OF MINDFUL MEDITATION IN
STRENGTH AND CONDITIONING—PART 1
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ABOUT THE AUTHORS
Elizabeth Hope graduated from the University of Denver’s Masters
of Arts in Sport Coaching Program. She is currently the strength
and conditioning coach for a high school boys basketball team in
Maryland and a part-time fitness coach. Along with coaching, Hope
is attending school part-time and working at a physical therapy aid
to pursue her Doctor of Physical Therapy (DPT) degree.
Meagan Wilson is currently a Masters of Sport Coaching student
in the Graduate School of Professional Psychology at University
of Denver. She received her Bachelor of Arts degree from Boston
College and enjoyed a successful career in sponsorship and brand
marketing. Now focusing her talents toward benefiting high school
student-athletes, Wilson is currently a mental skills coach at several
high schools in the San Francisco Bay area.
Brian Gearity is Director and Professor of the Master of Arts in
Sport Coaching Program and the Graduate Certificate in Strength
and Conditioning and Fitness Coaching at the University of Denver.
Gearity has been a strength and conditioning coach for youth, high
school, collegiate, and professional athletes. He is Editor-in-Chief
for NSCA Coach and Associate-Editor-in-Chief for the Strength
and Conditioning Journal. Published by Routledge in 2020, he
co-edited the book, “Coach Education and Development in Sport:
Instructional Strategies” and co-authored, “Understanding Strength
and Conditioning as Sport Coaching: Bridging the Biophysical,
Pedagogical and Sociocultural Foundations of Practice.”
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