The summer before my freshman year of high school I tried out for the volleyball team. This was a pretty bold (or just stupid) move as I had never played before in my life and was really just doing it because my bff didn't want to try out alone. The good news: I actually made the freshman team. The bad news: my lack of experience meant that...well let's just say my coach had his work cut out for him. I moved up quickly, skipping a team and making varsity before some of my fellow players. Sounds great, but I was still always the runt of the team. Aka; lots of bench time. I worked my ass off in the gym and practiced on my own at home, but I continued to struggle with certain skills. I don't remember how I came to this conclusion, but my 16 year old self somehow knew that it wasn't my physical training that was lacking, but rather my mental training. My solution at the time was purchasing The Mental Athlete by Kay Porter. I devoured it in no time and have since then been fascinated at the power of our own minds. In her book Kay states, "Like most athletes, you've trained hard to overcome the physical barriers to peak performance in your sport. And yet you may not have paid the same attention or applied the same effort to the equally important mental and emotional factors influencing your performance." I have experienced this too often myself. I can easily recognize the importance of my physical training, but forget that mental conditioning is just as much a priority.
Developing mental skills is not just for athletes. It's for artists, musicians, businessmen and women, and anyone else who owns a brain and desires more from themselves and their lives.
So what exactly are these mental skills that we're working on?
- Setting goals and intentions
- Relaxation and letting go
- Focus and concentration
- Resiliency; the ability to bounce back from stebacks
- Cultivation of a positive self-esteem, as well as positive outlook towards life
- Healthy management of emotions and stress
- Using mental imagery/ visualization
There are countless exercises for increasing your capacity for the above skills, so find one you like and make it a priority. If you don't have a meditation practice, I highly recommend starting one. Meditation doesn't have to mean sitting cross legged in silence, though there are many benefits to this. Walking, writing, and prayer are great forms of meditation and can sometimes be a better way to ease into the practice. I will be writing more on mental practice later on, but here a couple to get you started.
Mindfulness Meditation: this one helps build concentration, reduces stress, and increases ability to manage difficult thoughts and emotions
- Sit quietly with the eyes closed. Take 5-10 deep breaths to calm the body and the mind. Relax any tension you might be holding, especially in the shoulders, jaw, face, mouth, and belly.
- Begin to bring all your awareness into the present moment; notice sensations happening in body, room temperature, noises, etc. Let any thoughts you have pass without judgment, and when you find your attention wandering, bring it back to the present moment. Practice being completely in the present for as long as possible, if even only for a couple seconds.
- If you're having a hard time with this one, try this variation: open the eyes and pick a single object to stare it. Give that object your full attention, noticing as many things about it as you can. Notice colors, shadows, shapes, lines, reflections, etc. Practice giving the object your full concentration, and again, when the mind wanders, bring your attention back to your object of focus.
- I like to set a timer for myself so that time is one less thing I have to think about. Even 5 minutes is so beneficial. Do it!
Progressive Muscle Relaxation: This practice is great for letting go of physical and mental tension, and although this practice can improve sleep, it teaches us how to relax while still awake.
- Begin in a comfortable reclined position. You can lie down, but remember the idea is to stay awake and aware so if you think you'll pass out, try sitting upright a bit. Take 5-10 deep breaths, and allow the body to completely relax.
- Start with your feet. Take a deep inhale and tense up all the muscles in your feet and ankles. Be mindful and feel all the muscles contracting. As you exhale, let go of that tension and allow your feet to become very relaxed and heavy. Move up your body, doing the same thing with the lower leg, upper leg/thighs, hips/glutes, abdomen (lower and upper), arms shoulders, hand neck, face, etc. You can go through as many or few muscle groups as you want, but try to at least do this for about 10 minutes. If you have the time, spend a few minutes in complete relaxation after going through all your muscle groups.
- If you find your mind wandering, bring your attention back to your breath and the contracting and relaxing of each muscle. The idea here is to feel and notice the difference between a tensed muscle and a relaxed one. This practice will make you more aware of tension you might be holding on a daily basis.
Some Sweet Reads:
The Mental Athlete by Kay Porter walks takes the reader through several detailed exercises such as goal setting, creating and using affirmations, fighting fatigue and mental blocks, and using visualization. It is written specifically for athletes, but is definitely applicable to anything in life.
Love love love this one. In Buddha's Brain, Rick Hansen and Richard Mendius bridge the gap between Eastern philosophy and modern neuroscience to explain how changing the patterns of the brain changes the way we experience life. This book provides exercises in mindfulness that anyone can practice, and combines it with the science of why these tools are useful.
And Just for fun...