A Still Quiet Place for Athletes by Amy Saltzman, MD

Book Reviews, June 03, 2020

Mindfulness skills for achieving peak performance & finding flow in sports and life.


Amy Saltzman defines Mindfulness as paying attention here and now, with kindness and curiosity, so that we can choose our behaviour.  To live our best lives we need to be here in this moment. So we have to work on not getting distracted by dwelling on the past, or worry/fantasise about the future. We need to focus attention to the moment through a lens of kindness and curiosity rather than judgement and critique. When we go through this process we then can be proactive with our behavioural choose rather than reactive.  There are numerous studies showing that mindfulness reduces stress, anxiety, salivary cortisol, negative thoughts, rumination (obsessive thinking), fatigue, pain, injury, pessimism. 

The Golden State Warriors (NBA 2015,17 champs) core values are joy, mindfulness, compassion, and competition. 

Finding Flow 

That feeling when time disappears and you are absorbed by the task at hand. As an athlete there is just movement, rhythm, energy, and joy.  In the book Flow: The psychology of optimal experience (2009) by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi there is an excellent list of the nine qualities of flow. I’ll list them below with my personal swimming experience 

1)Skill- Challenge balance - a situation in which you feel challenged and have the skills to cope (anxiety is when you feel you do not have the skills to cope - this can be considered the opposite of flow). When I first learnt to swim I had no skill and no idea about flow. I struggled to breathe to one side and felt heavy and awkward in the water. 

2)Merging of action and awareness- A feeling of being at one with the activity, a sense of peace or harmony while performing an activity. After a few weeks of swimming lessons I was ordering the swim instructions in my head and attempting to get my body to glide along. This wasn’t translated to the pool

3)Clarity of purpose - A sense of feeling connected to the activity and of being able to respond skilfully to the moment. A still couldn’t take a breath without losing my rhythm and trying to tumble turn completely freaked me out. 

4)Clear feedback- the ability to effortlessly receive and process and then respond to relevant information. As a started to gain more confidence I was able to breathe to one side during freestyle and keep gliding forward. 

5)Concentration- being completely focused on the activity in the present moment. I started to understand even as a young 6 year old I would swim better when I wasn’t thinking about other stuff. 

6)Sense of control and confidence. An absence of fear. I was fearful of failure as I was constantly comparing my progress with others in the class and not concentrating on my own game. 

7)Loss of self consciousness- not worrying about I or what others may think. As a kid I was overly concerned about pleasing the instructor. 

8)Time Transformation - when time slows, stops, or speeds up due to being fully engaged. As a young kid swimming I would wish the session to end - now as an adult I cherish the time and are more absorbed in the moment. 

9)Autotelic experience- the experience is rewarding in and of itself. It’s loving the movement or task in the moment without the need for reward. 

Bowing in & out 

Our family started Okinawan Karate last year and we had to get used to bowing as we entered and exited the hall. This is an extremely simple yet effective habit. It symbolises leaving everything outside the hall and we were fully committed to being fully present and engaged. When leaving the bow represented putting a full stop to the session and absorbing what was practiced.  Look at coming up with your own symbol to represent the bow. It could be as simple as touching the door frame as you enter your place of work. When you combine a physical action with psychological intent it solidifies attitude.  In “The inner game of tennis” the author Tim Gallwey talks about using this focussed attention as being as  valuable as  mastering a particular skill. “If while learning tennis you begin to learn how to focus your attention and how to trust yourself you have learned something far more valuable than how to hit a forceful backhand”. The bowing in and out book-ended the session as cultivating excellence. 

Mindfulness helps bringing Awareness to the Body

“The more awareness one can bring to bear on any action the more feedback one gets from experience and the more naturally one learns” Tim Gallwey

Self Care

“To know what your body wants ... to understand what it needs and what it doesn’t, you need to be part engineer, part mathematician, part artist, part mystic” Gil Reyes (Andre Agassi’s trainer) I have written extensively on self care habits. These include sleep, plantbased whole food nutrition, hydration, full body conditioning with yoga and strength work. Check out my past articles for more in depth information about these subjects. 

Unkind mind 

Sometimes our internal dialogue is unkind and not helpful. Grace Lichtenstein talks about our negative chatter as our real barrier and opponent “your opponent in the end is never the player on the other side of the net or the swimmer in the next lane... your opponent is yourself, your negative internal voices”. The antidote - non judgemental awareness with kindness and curiosity.  Most anxiety is due to worrying about the future and most depression is related to the negative experience from past events. When you are overwhelmed by feelings - breathe, get back to the present and just be - don’t try and change them, fix them, or get rid of them. 

 

“The central question to a warriors training is not how we avoid uncertainty and fear but how we relate to discomfort. How do we practice with difficulty with our emotions, with the unpredictability encounters of our day.” Pema Chodron (mindfulness teacher)

Your body is a beautiful instrument 

How often do you need to tune a violin before it stays tuned? A top violinist tunes up before every rehearsal and performance. For athletes we have to check in with mind, body, and spirit and feel for the overall tone so we can tune ourselves. 

Respond rather than react 

“Life is 10% what happens to me and 90% how I react (or respond) to it.” Charles R. Swindoll (pastor, author, and educator) 

Poem by Portia Nelson

Chapter One
I walk down the sidewalk. There is a deep hole in the sidewalk. I fall in. I am lost.....I am helpless. It isn’t my fault...It takes forever to find a way out.
Chapter Two
I walk down the same sidewalk . There is a deep hole in the sidewalk. I pretend I don’t see it. I fall in again. I can’t believe I am in the same place. But it isn’t my fault. It still takes a long time to get out.
Chapter Three
I walk down the same street. There is a deep hole in the sidewalk. I see it is there. I still fall in.....its a habit....but, my eyes are open. I know where I am. It is my fault. I get out immediately.
Chapter Four
I walk down the same street. There is a deep hole in the sidewalk. I walk around it.
Chapter Five
I walk down another street.

 

Respond or choose another street. Responding means pausing, focusing on your breath and choosing your behaviour. Reacting is acting automatically out an in grained habit - then falling in a hole. As the poem above shows the first step is being aware of the habits that bring you down. 

Suffering = pain x resistance (Shinzen Young 2011) 

Much of the suffering related to the painful event is due to our thoughts and feelings  about the event. Usually these thoughts are about the future. Resistance is how much you want things to be different. A more acceptance (acceptance doesn’t mean giving up and not doing anything to change the situation) type of thinking gives you a way to move forward - a wise next step, a specific action to take. Wanting things to be different Isn’t bad/wrong it’s very natural. 

Self Compassion

This is based on the knowledge that all human beings have difficulty and all
Human beings deserve kindness. Dr. Kristin Neff (2011) who is a researcher in self
compassion describes 3 parts to self compassion - 1)mindful awareness 2)self kindness 3)Understanding of our common humanity. According to Dr. Neff self compassion increased wellbeing, resilience (ability to recover from adversity) and motivation to improve our performance post difficult events. 

 

Stretching towards sympathetic joy

The Buddhist practice of sympathetic joy is a beautiful counterbalance to the western culture of consumerism and self centredness. We need to take joy from others joy and celebrate others success. This is an expanding practice that allows us to transcend our small ego based self and work on expanding our world view. Joy is a powerful source of flow and is one of the 4 habits of excellence - 1)Joy 2)Acceptance(that is, lack of resistance) 3)Willingness to acknowledge, learn from, and let go of mistakes, 4)Self forgiveness. 

 

THINK before textIng,posting, or speaking 

T - is it True, H - is it Helpful, I - is it Inspiring, N - is it Necessary, K - is it Kind 

Practice makes...........we have all heard the cliche, but in reality skills always require practice, and the more we do the more competent, confident, and fluid we become. There is always a next level, a refinement, a deeper experience of flow. It helps to be intentional on the skills that you want to enhance and map out a plan so you don't try to improve everything at once. 

"I don't think parents can "make" professional athletes, but they can certainly can destroy them by taking away a kids joy." Matt Birk (Pro American football athlete) 

I enjoyed this book. Please consider starting your mindfulness training today if you haven't started. I use HEADSPACE for meditation which is a great way to formalise your mindfulness training in a 10min slot in the day. the benefits will then radiate into other aspects of your day.