10 Lessons in Mindfulness

You can overcome the landscape of distractions and get more from each moment of your training.

There’s an old adage that says “wherever you go, there you are.” The literal truth of the statement is obvious, but the importance is in the deeper meaning behind the words. The word that captures the essence of being where you are is mindfulness. The ability to find mindfulness has been linked to everything from stress reduction, to improved memory, to enhanced cognitive ability. In short, being mindful can improve your performance and enrich your quality of life.

One of the challenges and ironies in sports and fitness is that the desire to arrive at a future destination and goal requires the ability to fully access the present moment. But when it comes to defining success, many fall into the trap of living for the future. They tell themselves “I’ll be happy when…” Conversely, some avoid the present by living in fear and anxiety rooted in past trauma.

Beyond our own thoughts, the reality of modern life also adds complexity and challenges to staying present: the increasing speed and pace of life, the impact of technology, and the constant competition for our eyeballs, attention, and thoughts. In sport and fitness, you’re hard-pressed to see a facility without bells and whistles, screens, and distractions everywhere. Ultimately, the reality is that exorcising past demons and arriving at your future goals has everything to do with finding the present. While navigating through the hectic landscape of distractions and finding a state of mindfulness is challenging, it’s also doable. Here’s how.

1. Get There Early

One of my high school teachers used to say “better never than late,” every time someone would saunter in tardy to class. He was being cheeky, but when it comes to training, he was right. Nothing throws off your sports and fitness performance like rushing into it. Everyone can agree that a proper warm up is essential to prevent injury and achieve optimal results, but the mind needs a proper warm up, too. Warming up your mind means mentally preparing by finding your own mantra for the day, setting expectations, and establishing your plan of action. Taking even just a few moments to ponder what you want to accomplish that day can help immensely.

Find stillness in your mind. Visualize your whole routine (start, middle, and end), not just the finish line.

2. How You Breathe Matters

I’ll never forget my first class in martial arts. Not because of the colorful kicks or powerful punches I learned, but because of something my sifu said. We were watching two classmates spar and he turned to me and said, “I can tell how well someone fights by one simple thing: how well they breathe.” Though breathing is the most natural and vital thing all human beings do, breathing well is not as easy as it sounds. Add in vigorous exercise, or the adrenaline and fear of an activity like fighting, and breathing effectively or efficiently can be a downright formidable task

be present with your breath before you train. Inhale for a five count and exhale for a five count, for 5 breaths.

Begin your practice with intentional breathing, and you will find it easier to do during the movements. [Photo credit: J Perez Imagery]

3. Let Your Body Be Your Teacher

An indispensible step in your mindful preparation for movement is to take an inventory of your body. Combined with your breathing practice, scanning your body with each inhale and exhale is a good habit prior to training. Think of the body as a metaphor to help bring you into a mindful state. If your shoulder is sore, ask where you’re shouldering a load. If your hamstring hurts, ask yourself where you are hamstrung in life. Think of the analogy of car and driver—your body is the car, and your mind is the driver. Doing that once-over before starting the engine and racing off can make a huge difference.

Your body is constantly talking. Ask it what you need to know before training.

4. Put the Phone Down

Years before smart phones existed, I trained with a weekly powerlifting group. As a sports junky, I used to frequently head over to the TV between sets to check on the scores of the latest game. One day, the coach of our group asked me to stop, suggesting the sports scores can wait, but if I wanted to pull a PR off the ground for a deadlift, it needed my full attention, before, during and after the lift. He was right. Look, I get it. Smartphones are here to stay, and have become ingrained into every facet of our lives in less than 10 years. We all use them all the time. But heavy smart phone use is also linked to both depression and anxiety, not to mention negative traits like narcissism. Increasingly finding places to unplug is an imperative mindfulness practice. The gym is one such place.

Take a break from media for the one hour you train. Give your training the full attention it deserves.

5. Take a Practice Shot

Perhaps the most mindful practice athletes do with regularity is the practice shot. The world of sports is full of such movements: the basketball player at the free throw line, the fighter shadow boxing, or the golfer taking her practice swing. But such movements are more than just physical: they are mindful moments as well. We’ve all heard the aphorism that practice makes perfect, but practice is also as critical in slowing down your mind. There is a reason that every spiritual faith on the planet uses ritual of some sort. A ritual is both ceremony and a way of observance. Said another way, a practice shot, or ritual, is the practice of dedicating your entire focus to performing with purpose, intention, and mindfulness.

Attach a mental picture or word to your movement, WHETHER IT’S CALM, FOCUS, OR BREATHE. Use it before you shoot that ball or throw that punch.

6. Be Your Own Hero

Joseph Campbell famously stated, “You are the hero of your own story.” I recently stayed with my best friend for a week and played basketball with his kids every day. The big brother emulated the mannerisms his hero, Steph Curry. The younger siblings emulated their hero, their big brother. In sport and fitness, we follow the examples of our heroes, trainers, and coaches. But mindfulness occurs when we follow our own example. It’s easier said than done. Life’s escapisms like reality TV, spectator sports, and pop culture all encourage us to live vicariously through our heroes. But being mindful means becoming your own beloved, admired, and illustrious self.

When you practice and perform, see yourself as the hero—good enough, worthy enough, and loved enough to stand tall.

7. Don’t Take Anything Personally

If you’re fortunate enough to come across a great coach in sport and fitness, you’ll learn that great coaches do one thing really well: They tell you what you need to hear, not necessarily what you want to hear. This runs counter to a world where we choose the friends we have, filter the type of news we read, and customize the media we consume. Human nature is to surround ourselves with like-minded people who make us feel good, instead of those who tell us our shortcomings. While the ego doesn’t like to feel less than worthy, the mindful individual seeks feedback. Mindful people use feedback as data, motivation, and useful information in perfecting their craft.

Seek opportunities for feedback. Listen and learn.

8. Offer Humility in All Surroundings

I recently started a new job where I felt like the dumbest guy in the room on my first day of work. After telling this to a close confidant, she offered, “Courage is walking into a room full of intimidating people with humility, ready to contribute with what you have to offer.” Our defense mechanism in a new environment is to put on masks. We either puff out our chest or shrivel down, feeling less than worthy. Neither scenario serves us. Rather, we must all realize that everyone is worthy and has something of value to offer.

Watch for false pride. Instead offer humility, be willing to learn, and display your unique talents.

9. Face Your Setbacks

Ryan Holiday’s recent book, The Obstacle Is the Way, has been embraced by several great coaches including Joe Maddon, Pete Carroll, and Bill Belichick. Those great coaches understand that being mindful means that when you face an obstacle, you face it head on. Holiday’s book is based on the philosophy of Marcus Aurelius, who said, “The impediment to action advances action. What stands in the way becomes the way.” Turning a trial into triumph has everything to do with being mindful and accepting the present moment.

When you get to that fork in the road, take it.

10. Express Gratitude

Studies show that those who express gratitude feel better and are more optimistic than those who dwell on the negative. Furthermore, those who regularly give thanks exercise more and have fewer visits to the doctor. One of the biggest tools in finding gratitude is the power of perspective. Ego says someone always has it better than you. Perspective tells quite the opposite story. Perspective is the realization that while your set back is real, it could be much worse. Perspective is the realization that while your goal is important, it’s not nearly as important as giving back, making a difference, or expressing purpose in life. While your desire to compete, lose weight, and rehab your injury is noble, your insistence on perfection and negative comparisons to others is simply ego. Gratitude is the great equalizer in the equation.

Close your practice with a ritual of gratitude for the opportunity to demonstrate your physicality and express your unique gifts.

Mindfulness Is for Every Athlete

As any martial artist knows, the external is most effective with connecting to the internal. It’s baked into the system. In yoga, a mindful practice is has everything to do with the successful expression of physicality. But mindfulness isn’t just for yogis and kung fu fighters. Mindfulness is a way to train whether you crush weights, run distance, or play sports. In the end, being mindful is not only a way to better training, it’s your path to a better life.

You don’t have to hold still to meditate:

The Art of Mindful Movement