ko te manaaki i ngā kaihākinakina | caring for New Zealand's sports community
Photo of athlete in starting blocks for Mindfulness for sportspeople

Mindfulness: a simple practice pros use to lift their game

This series is based on The Mental Health Foundation’s Five Ways to Wellbeing. Now in Part 3 we explore Take notice, me aro tonu, looking at mindfulness for sportspeople. 

See Part 1: Why sportspeople need to connect meaningfully with others, why it’s hard, and what you can do about itand also Part 2: ‘Greedy, selfish and self-centred’ sportspeople; and how not to be one.


How our thoughts can kill our performance

My eldest son played inter-club tennis for a year when he was young. He was a good player for his age, but when he made a mistake things could pretty quickly unravel. It was hard to watch, as he spiralled downwards. One bad shot, and he’d become upset and angry with himself. His body tensed and he’d play another bad shot, which made him more upset, bringing about another mistake, which this time might bring tears or slamming his racquet on the court. The match was lost, because he couldn’t recover from one bad shot.


Sir Richard Hadlee, a legend of New Zealand cricket, experienced a breakdown at the peak of his career, which included irrational fears of failure:


‘First it was the Winsor Cup, a trophy that’s presented in New Zealand each year to the best bowler. I’d won it for seven years on the trot. What would happen if I lost it? That would be the end of the world… Similarly, for the last few years, I’d invariably been named Man of the Series at home and abroad. I could lose that as well. The thought of someone from the opposition winning it was bad enough; the thought of one of my New Zealand team mates getting it was worse. There was so much to lose. My pride wouldn’t take it and my reputation would be finished.’

Hadlee (1985), At the Double: The Story of Cricket’s Pacemaker, Auckland: Hutchinson, p26


Wandering from the present moment

Neuropsychologist Jennifer Wolkin comments,


‘If left to its own devices, our human mind habitually wanders away from the present moment. When we’re not in the here and now, we dwell in the past, grasping and replaying it, or we project into the future, trying to anticipate the unknown (and often catastrophising).’ 


For athletes, this can mean an inability to move on from a past mistake or disappointment. You label yourself a ‘failure’ because of just one incident, magnifying that above all the success you’ve achieved.


Likewise you can become paralysed by the fear that you might fail in the future, let people down, or be humiliated.


A star is born?

Young people who show potential at an early age are especially vulnerable to the pressure of expectation. Samoan rugby international Timo Tagaloa experienced this soon after he left school:


On the back of the newspaper, in the sports section, there was a big photo of my face and in big headlines it said: “A STAR IS BORN”.


While trying to live up to these expectations, Tagaloa contemplated taking his own life.


Successful athletes master their mind as well as their body. Part of this is about learning to live in the present, to be able to quickly move on from past disappointments, while also not allowing your mind to run too far ahead into the future. It’s about being able to focus on the now and the job at hand, making the most of every moment.


Mindfulness is a practice that has become popular with many sportspeople, as well as others. 


5 benefits of mindfulness for sportspeople

Here’s some scientifically proven benefits of mindfulness for sportspeople:


Learning to be mindful

Mindfulness is not difficult to do, because it’s just about taking notice. The Mental Health Foundation encourages us to:


Be curious and catch sight of the beautiful, remark on the unusual. Notice the changing seasons. Try savouring the moment, whether you are walking to work, eating lunch or talking to friends. Be aware of the world around you and what you are feeling.


Mindfulness is not a new thing; it has been around for centuries. Ancient disciplines such as prayer, solitude, recitation of scriptures, silence, and fasting, have helped many to clear their mind of anxiety and connect with the divine. Some have taken these practices to great extremes. It is possible however to experience their benefits without checking out of 21st century life, by taking some small simple steps.


For our first anniversary my husband bought me a beautiful rose bush, ‘Aotearoa’. Though I would pass by it frequently, after a while I barely noticed it was there. I was struggling and feeling overwhelmed; I felt I had too much to do, was always rushing, and thought I had no time to literally ‘stop and smell the roses’. Once I realised this, it became my practice to stop every time I walked past the bush and enjoy, just for a minute, the colour, shape and smell of the blooms. This small practice helped me to catch my breath and gain perspective, and know that things were okay.


If you would like to talk more about mindfulness for sportspeople, or any other issue, please contact us in confidence, and we will put you in touch with a Sports Chaplain.


What do you think about mindfulness for sportspeople? Is it something that has helped you in sport?

What practices do you use?


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Author Info

Rebecca Hawkins

Rebecca is the Communications and IT Manager for Sports Chaplaincy NZ. In her younger days she played cricket and football with great enthusiasm but very little skill. Now she spends a lot of time supporting her four sons in their sport. She especially loves scoring their cricket matches, which she insists on doing the old fashioned way, with pen and paper.

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