Whenever we evaluate current levels of stress, anxiety, debilitative factors affecting confidence, or blocks to achieving optimal performance in a variety of vocational tasks and domains, whether that be human functioning in operational business, or collective team performance in sport, such conceptions of these barriers are atypically a result of past experiences or future events. Furthermore, from personal experience, within any life domain, when individuals are asked to reflect on their three highest sources of stress, the responses often related to past experiences or future events. In business this may be hitting weekly/monthly targets, in football, goals per game ratios. To elaborate in more detail, using football as an example, it is a common occurrence to witness teams ‘crumbling’ under pressure. Whether that be teams in the relegation zone, or underdogs with a shot at the title. What often happens in these situations is rather than being in the present moment and focusing on the tasks and resources needed to complete a specific task or game to the best of their ability, the egoic mind is all too often reliving past experiences or worrying about future outcomes, which reinforces (quite often negatively – due to negative tendencies in though processing) our current levels of self-worth and ability in that present moment.
For the individual saleswoman pitching to a CEO, her direction of thoughts on securing the deal (end result) and potential future business generation (future event) from this pitch debilitates her ability to pool resources together for; building high levels of rapport with the CEO in question, focusing on the tonality, language and pace of the pitch, the details and intricacies of the product. For the footballer who is taking a penalty kick in the cup final, he is often distracted by the consequences of success or failure rather than the decisions needed to succeed in the present moment (i.e. target, ball placement, shot choice, pace, power, wind direction, position of the goal keeper). The fear of not attaining the cup, letting down team mates, comparing this situation to the last time he missed and/or scored a penalty, is preventing the individual from optimal headspace needed to achieve success.
From my experience of working with business leaders, C-suite, employees, football managers, sport coaches, and athletes/players, what separates the best performers in the world, to the average ones, is an ability to recognize the direction of their thoughts, and an even stronger recognition to disassociate specific thoughts, thus allowing them to maintain in the present moment. Sport and business psychology consultants have long dedicated time to helping individuals change such thought processes, their attention, focus and direction, and the direct and indirect influences on performance and well-being. Traditionally, this has been addressed through models of practice such as CBT (thought stopping, cognitive reframing) NPL (reducing the impact of thoughts and feelings) and PST (increasing the use and applicability of psychological strategy).
A more contemporary approach which has aimed to help individuals with such thought processes relating to their well-being, is mindfulness. Practitioners are now incorporating such models of practice across a range of performance domains. For those that may not yet be fully aware of the way in which mindfulness works, Buddhism (the origins of mindful meditation) places emphasises on ‘being’ in the present moment. However, by identifying with the egoic mind, an illusory distinction is made with our past experiences and future events. Such identifications are the difference between being mindful or mindFULL. That’s not to say that we can not recognize our past, as inevitably it has made us who we are today, but continual recognition of past mistakes, missed opportunities, broken relationships etc., or conversely, solely focusing on future opportunities, and promotions, and living the future significantly impacts upon well-being by not allowing us to recognize the present moment for what it is.
It is not surprising to know that through clinical research and reports, looking back is directly associated with depression, whilst looking forward (for some) is directly related to anxiousness. Having worked with individuals with such tendencies, I feel that ultimately what causes such performance decrements and well-being issues (depression, anxiety, anger) is the lack of control which we have over events which have happened, or going to happen in the future. Mindfulness recognizes that all we can control is the present, by not evaluating thoughts of previous or upcoming events, we allow ourselves the freedom to enjoy the present moment. It is in this moment we see people flourish in performance and they experience feelings of content (not happiness – dictated by external sources). It is also during these episodes, elite athletes report being ‘in the zone’. With the ‘quiet mind’ being reported time and time again as a characteristic during such peak performance. Through neuroscientific evidence, we know this not to be 100% accurate. Whilst there is a significant reduction in brain activity, what actually is happening during such episodes is that the individual does not directly associate with his/her thoughts. He/she actively becomes an observer of thoughts through non-evaluative means. This allows him/her to be truly present in the moment.
A great example of someone who currently lives in the present moment is Claudio Ranieri – Leicester City FC Manager. His ability to not focus on the outcome of the season and to approach performance on a game-by-game basis, he is a prime ambassador for advocating the positive effects of being mindful (as opposed to mindFULL). Through a deep understanding that team performance will be dictated by the resources he has at any given moment in time, through his language, communication and actions, he instills a positive mentality in players, whereby their focus is intensely on the present moment for the following 90 minutes, and nothing else. Though we cannot examine brain activity and recall accurately during a football match, it could be assumed that players mindfulness on the pitch is exemplified in their behaviours i.e. logical as opposed to emotional reactions, verbal and non-verbal communication and body language after successful and unsuccessful outcomes.
To illustrate this through a practical example (and in an attempt for you to understand your current levels of mindfulness, or mindFULLness) if you took your dog for a walk this morning, ate breakfast with your family, or grabbed a take-out coffee on your way to work, take time to relate back to the direction of your thoughts. Were you thinking about upcoming bills at the end of the month, the potential promotion at work? Or, were they solely focused on experiencing that laughter of your two year old son as he dribbled porridge down his chin, or the fresh crisp air at 6am when you walked your dog through the park, with the trees damp with the thaw of overnight frost? The layman will often volitionally accept the direct relationships between thought, feeling and behaviour without conscious attention. As a result, this lack of self-awareness often necessitates living (not being) in the present moment through thoughts of past circumstances or future events.
Being a Mindfulness Practitioner, I am fully aware and endorsing of the many ways that mindfulness could assist the well-being of the general population (feel free to ask me any questions you may have), but for the purpose of this article we will focus on the holistic benefits for individuals and teams in both sport and business.
By combining Mindfulness Diploma training with clinical, business and sport psychology education, practicum knowledge and experience, I have devised a mindfulness strategy (applied through either individual consultations and/or groups workshops), which follows the three stage process of; recognition, observation and acceptance.
This first step to becoming more mindful (as opposed to mindFULL) is understanding the cognitive behavioural hypothesis. By comprehending the cyclical relationship between thoughts, feeling and behaviours, we become more self-aware of the direction and intent of our thoughts, and the resultant impact on feelings, emotions and subsequent behaviours. If we relate this to business, as another example, due to the cut-throat nature of sales in high performance environments, a salesman’s typical response to each and every telesales call may be “I need to hit my target” (which could be a result of self-worth, paying bills, evaluation apprehension or all of these factors). This thought directly results in feelings of nervousness and tension, and the subsequent unconscious (sometimes conscious) behaviour of pressurized selling, not accurately listening to the customers queries and demands, poor memory of product features and applications etc. By focusing on future events (outside of his control at this present moment) he is unable to be in the present moment, resulting in a whole host of debilitative factors. From my own consultancy experience, when individuals who understand (even at a low level) such relationships between thoughts, feelings and behaviours, this recognition is a powerful enough tool for initiating change.
Through intense self-refection and analysis, individuals will become more aware of both positive and negative cyclical relationships through the cognitive behavioural hypothesis. It is here (or should be) where CBT therapists may use thought blocking or cognitive reframing for changing faulty thinking processes. At this stage, mindfulness opposes traditional therapies by allowing thoughts to be (as opposed to controlling them) which results in reduced association with such thoughts, removing the negative impact on feelings and behaviours. Using quicksand as an analogy, this approach frees individuals from identifying and wrestling with their thoughts (sometimes debilitative, sometimes facilitative). For visual representation of this process, please refer back to the figure above.
For this to be achieved successfully, I have developed a bespoke introductory mindful meditation, which supports individuals and groups to become mere observers (and not evaluators) of their thoughts. This practice to the layman may seem ambiguous, however mindfulness is an art form that needs to be practiced practically. Once doing so, the self-awareness individuals experience will far supersede any retrospective reflections. Not only does this process support individuals to disembody thoughts and the typical volitional relationships with feelings/emotions and behaviours, it actively promotes individuals to experience ‘being’ in the present moment.
Finally, once an individual has experienced and achieved observing thoughts in the present moment, positive behaviour change will become both conscious and unconscious. Subsequent mindfulness sessions with clients are therefore aimed at further disassociating with the egoic mind, allowing thoughts to be just thoughts (and not subsequent feelings and actions) through objectification and non-evaluation, resulting in acceptance of thoughts and intense focus upon the present moment. For the salesman with the recurring thought of “I need to hit my sales target”, whose typical responses are nervousness and debilitative behaviours, he has now become consciously aware that he is not controlled by his thoughts and as such can actively be in the present moment. Not only will this transpire to more effecting performance (asking the right questions, listening to the wants and needs of the client, recalling the product features and applicability) and well-being (confidence, recognition of character strengths, presence) in this specific sales pitch, a significant positive shift will occurs across all contextual domains of the individuals life.
By Luke Whiting
Elite Mindset Coach at Norwich City FC, Life Coach and Mindfulness Practitioner
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