Mindfulness and Enhanced Athletic Performance

womens rowing team race against other teams in river

The psychological well-being of an athlete affects how they cope with the challenges of training, their ability to overcome self-criticism, be a team player, and perform well at game time. Anxiety about competition or evaluation, trouble focusing, and overall life stress can all negatively influence an athlete’s performance.

College students face daily stressors in their lives, from adjusting to new academic rigors, living on their own, and being more deprived of sleep. The additional responsibility of team sports makes managing stress and getting restful sleep even more crucial for student athletes who want to stay fit and recharge after tough workouts. Being on point during intense games and races is an essential skill for top athletes.

A recent study of the UMass Amherst Women’s Rowing team examined if a mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) routine could improve elements of their athletic performance, like speed or endurance. The effect of MBSR on the athlete’s psychological well-being, sleep quality, and athletic coping skills was also examined.

MBSR is a cognitive training program, first developed at UMass Medical School, that exercises our ability to observe the present moment without letting harsh judgements about ourselves get in the way. In part, it is the practice of looking at current thoughts and emotions with curiosity and finding a new way to interpret them.

This project was performed by UMass Amherst authors Bethany J. Jones, Senior Research Fellow, Sukhmanjit Kaur ’19, Research Assistant, and Rebecca M. C. Spencer, Director, of the SomneuroLab along with Michele Miller, a Guiding Teacher at Amherst Mindfulness.

The results of this study showed that a mindfulness practice improved well-being and athlete’s physical performance. Sukhmanjit Kaur, a UMass alumna and past member of the rowing team, created the project under the guidance of her research mentor Dr. Jones. Kaur became interested in meditation through a previous project she contributed to at the SomneuroLab focusing on emotional memory and mindfulness.

A very physically demanding sport, rowing has been described as “80% mental and 20% physical” due to the challenges of pushing your body’s physical endurance and power to new levels and working through the pain of hard workouts. For her senior thesis, Kaur decided to investigate if a mindfulness-based practice could influence some of the mental aspects of rowing.

Over an 8-week period, the athletes participated in the MBSR course taught by Michele Miller, and their normal team training. The course taught participants mindfulness through guided meditation, group discussions, and at home practice routines. They completed two 6,000-meter rowing machine ergometer tests to measure their performance, one before and one after completing the course.

“Mindfulness is a lot about accepting what's happening and still moving forward…acknowledging that something is happening but not judging it. That goes with pain, emotions, or sensations, so I figured that the mindfulness course would help regulate the pain and distractedness that happens throughout the ergometer test. This would hopefully contribute to being able to get ‘into the zone’ and really perform at an optimal level,” says Kaur.

The researchers did not have a concrete way to measure the thoughts and sensations the athletes were experiencing during the test, but nonetheless those students who completed the MBSR course improved their physical test results. This is one of the more recent studies on mindfulness to include objective measures of sport, such as the ergometer test, in their data collection.

The athletes also used a wide array of questionnaires to report on their psychological well-being before and after the course. These reports included factors like their levels of stress and anxiety, amount of sleepiness, tendency to ruminate over certain events, and if they used mindfulness techniques. The team’s abilities in athletic coping skill (such as coachability, concentration, and peaking under pressure) were also measured.

To assess the athlete’s sleep patterns actigraphy watches were worn at night to calculate sleep efficiency and timing. The research team found that the MBSR routine had a positive effect on the athlete’s sleep quality. They were able to stay asleep with less time spent awake throughout the night. This may be due to lower stress levels and less ruminating thoughts before bedtime, since participants were encouraged to practice mindfulness daily before nighttime sleep.

“We saw improvements [of well-being] in the anxiety and depression questionnaires, which was great,” says Bethany Jones, who completed in-depth data analysis for the project.

“We also saw improvements in subjective sleep quality as well as daytime sleepiness. That was also good to see because sleep questionnaires are not strongly interrelated with emotion questionnaires, so we felt confident that those were tapping into two different things. The improvement in sleep correlated with the improvements in mindfulness as assessed with the mindfulness questionnaire.”

This study shows that proper training in mindfulness techniques and steady practice can help us to manage the stress in our daily lives, which in turn can improve interconnected elements like sleep and mental health. These findings concur with previous studies that showed mindfulness interventions on athletes improved coping skills as well as self- and team-efficacy beliefs.

Future topics for exploration include the use of deep concentration and mindful attention to elements of an exercise routine that could increase power or endurance. Kaur relates, “associative attention strategies are when you're focusing on the actual sensations or external cues that are related to your performance.”

For example, external cues in rowing could include keeping an eye on your average rate of speed, total distance, and setting performance goals as your workout progresses. Body sensations could be your respiratory rate, muscle exertion, or overall fatigue. A more dissociative strategy that many athletes use is to listen to music and tune out during a difficult evaluative test.

Reflecting on the project Kaur notes, “I became more aware of the mind-body connection…how intertwined your stress levels and ability to regulate impact your sleep, endocrine functions, and other body systems.”

Jones expresses, “my biggest takeaway is how helpful something like this can be to the college population. We know that students are not getting enough sleep, that they have a lot going on, and they're stressed…I think there's a lot of room to help those issues and improve their well-being.”