Why Sports Aren’t a Replacement for Mindfulness Practice

The weekend warriors and polar swimmers among us may know how to access flow, but it's not translating to other areas of their lives.

anyaberkut/Adobe Stuck

Jackson Hole is full of athletes—from weekend warriors to professionals and the extreme. It’s the kind of place where your second-grade teacher is an ultra-marathon runner and your doctor is currently training to ascend Everest.

As a Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction teacher, I walk around this relatively small town and run into people who know what I do for a living. Often the first thing I hear is, “Oh but, I don’t need training in mindfulness. Running/skiing/climbing/biking is my moving meditation.”

For the most part, I believe that answer.

The self-awareness and mental precision I learned from my years as a competitive skier and mountain biker were my doorway into contemplative practice. I can consistently count on finding flow and feeling at ease within myself when I take part in those sports.

I once spent all my weekends out in the mountains, completely ignoring the fact that my career was depleting me and the stress of it was negatively impacting my relationships and family life.

Rather than being a substitute for mindfulness practice, I look at sports as one medium for integrating mindfulness and encountering “the full catastrophe of life,” as Jon Kabat-Zinn, the pioneer of MBSR, so aptly describes it: joy, elation, fear, peace, illness, injury, and loss.

But, sports can also be a great avoidance strategy.

I once spent all my weekends in full flow, out in the mountains, filing my bucket, and completely ignoring the fact that my career was depleting me and the stress of it was negatively impacting my relationships and family life.

And more than one athlete has ended up in MBSR following an injury, unable to function fully in daily life without their regular source of feel-good endorphins.

For many athletes, the experience of positive emotion, focused mind, and relaxation found through sport does not translate into other activities of life. You would think body awareness would be the natural gateway to self-awareness, since both are seated in the brain region the insular cortex, yet that does not seem to consistently be the case.

For many, the experience of positive emotion, focused mind, and relaxation found through sport does not translate into other activities of life.

Sports themselves are not inherently mindful—but they can be an excellent way to explore and even enhance mindfulness. Neuroscientist Richard Davidson suggests that the increased neuroplasticity during aerobic activity could make “contemplative aerobics” a key time to practice mindfulness.

So what makes an activity a mindfulness practice? And how can we use mindfulness to develop a deeper relationship to ourselves in sports and otherwise?

How Sports Can Inform Your Mindfulness Practice

Any activity is a mindfulness practice if it incorporates paying attention to the present moment—but being present alone isn’t enough. You need to be present and compassionate: paying attention to what’s going on in your body and mind without harsh judgment. We give ourselves permission to be with things as they are, even if they’re not ideal.

Here’s how your love of sports can help you become mindful every day.

  1. Mindfulness is all about practice. You have to practice being present and compassionate. When you anchor your attention on the sensation of the breath or somewhere in the body, your mind is going to wander. Remember, there’s no way to “shut off” your thoughts, (and thoughts can be useful information about your current experience), but you can practice bringing your mind back to the breath. Practice with non-judgment, non-striving. This is how we foster an attitude that cultivates compassion, or as we say in MBSR, “taking care of ourselves.”
  2. Mindfulness works best with a training schedule. Train your mind like you would your body. Just as with sports, you need practice to develop your skills. To develop mindfulness, you need something that is familiar to athletes: a training schedule. Pick a regular time during the day to practice honing your attention with compassion.
  3. When you train you can target the areas you need most. Just like training for sports, you can choose particular mindfulness practices to develop specific areas. Body scans and breathing meditations may decrease rumination. Loving-kindness meditations may help you connect more strongly with others. Observing your thoughts while meditating may increase your ability to gain perspective.  
  4. Mindfulness helps you drop into flow. Mindfulness lays the foundation for flow experiences. As my colleague Pete Kirchmer, Director of mPEAK at UCSD, describes, flow can’t be forced into being, “Flow is an accident. Mindfulness helps you to be more accident prone.” By practicing mindfulness regularly we may prime for flow.
  5. Mindfulness is about the journey and who you meet along the way. Mindfulness provides a path to happiness that’s enduring. It’s not about winning or losing, it’s not about things succeeding or failing. It’s about showing up no matter how things are going—noticing what’s happening in the moment and choosing to meet it. We immerse ourselves in joyful and pleasant moments when they happen, while also accepting when things get hard.

Author and Jan Hoath, along with Connie Kemmerer, Susan Bauer-Wu and Mark Bertolini are running a Mindful Ski Camp in Jackson, WY from January 31st to February 3rd.

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