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The Science behind Mindfulness in Athletic Training

The Science behind Mindfulness in Athletic Training

Well-designed training plan, hours-long practice in the court, controlled diet, the right amount of sleep, supplements, therapy sessions – How else can a basketball player get ahead of the pack?

Mindfulness – also known as “being present” or “getting in the zone” – is an underrated but powerful tool in accelerating athletic performance. It’s easier said than done, especially when stakes are high. Athletes are constantly exposed to anxieties, worries and fears. When a basketball player is unable to rein these in, the mental noise can creep in and cripple performance in court. The adage “It’s all in the mind” still holds true, but it pays to go a little further and invest in professional mental conditioning for serious athletes.

A growing body of research is presented below that discusses the benefits of mental training for mindfulness to sharpen an athlete’s attention, memory, and emotional intelligence.

Visualizing the Ideal Outcome

Edmund Jacobson was a Harvard-educated psychologist who devoted his life to studying muscular responses to mental activities. His works on the intersection of the physiological and mental are still referred to by succeeding related studies.

 Jacobson had one group in his 1930 study[1] imagine lifting weights with their right forearm. The other group was instructed to not imagine lifting with the right arm or to imagine lifting the left arm. He found that there was a ‘significant increase of muscular activation in the first group than in the second group.

A similar study[2] published by The Cleveland Clinic Foundation in 2004 also showed that subjects who imagined lifting their fingers experienced a 35% increase in strength compared to their counterparts who did the same thing but did not participate in the mental contractions the other group did.

The astounding results of these studies have paved the way for harnessing the mind-and-body relationship. Basketball greats have already attested to the power of visualization.  

 Michael Jordan mastered the game through visualization by already “experiencing” the desired outcome. The late Kobe Bryant also encouraged his mentees to perform visualization - a combination of “concentration, imagination and belief – vital elements to success in any sport.

 Visualization takes practice, but with consistent mental training, athletes can vividly visualize the performance of the skill and consequently activate the needed muscles for the actual execution. 

Training the Brain to Deal with Uncertainty

 A study[3] published in 2014 by the George Mason University showed the effects of eight sessions of 90-minute mindfulness training followed by 60 minutes of Hatha yoga on Division I National College Athletic Association (NCAA) players. Mindfulness training activities included centering exercises, visualization, reflective writing, body scan and task-focused attention, among others.

In the course of eight weeks, the respondents who underwent mindfulness training and yoga said they experienced “increases in goal-directed energy” compared to their counterparts who did not go through it. Although the effect did not reach a statistically significant rate, the training participants noted were also able to tolerate negative emotions such as disgust and anxiety. 

 There are many unpredictable factors in the career of a basketball player. Moreover, negative experiences are heightened in a highly competitive team sport. This is where mindfulness training comes in useful since it helps a player deal with negative emotions and events without judgment.

 Additionally, the proponents of the study highlighted the benefits of including a yoga component in the athletes’ mindfulness training. Citing a previous study, they advised mindfulness training coaches to incorporate a body exercise component like yoga for athletes who may “prefer to learn through active and experiential methods.”

Self-talk to Enhance Performance Quality

Encouragement from the coach, team, fans and other people who matter may give athletes a boost, but self-talk shouldn’t be discounted as a useful tool to enhance performance quality. Self-talk, done internally or aloud, is the processing of guiding oneself in attaining a specific goal.

 Andy Anderson, Paul Vogel, and Richard Albrecht undertook a study[4] on using self-talk, goal-setting and imagery as learning strategies for grade three students mastering the overhand throw. It was revealed after nine sessions that self-talk was effective compared to more traditional treatments.

Most people engage in some form of self-talk. However, athletes must be careful not to go through negative self-talk. An earlier study by Ellis and Miechenbaum (1994) suggested that a person’s thinking can affect emotional and behavioral outcomes. 

Mindfulness as a Recovery Tool

Rehabilitation is a necessary albeit painful process for injured athletes to get back in the game the soonest time possible. Mindfulness may improve pain tolerance of injured athletes during rehabilitation.

Mohammed, Pappous, and Sharma studied[5] 20 athletes suffering from severe injuries, which prevented them from participating in their sport for at least three months. One group went through mindfulness meditation sessions for 60 minutes for eight weeks. Their pain tolerance was tested before and after the sessions. The group that received mindfulness meditation intervention was found to have increased its pain tolerance.

Mindfulness is Not Uncharted Territory

While there is still an ocean of possibilities to uncover on the mind-body connection, it definitely isn’t a novel, suspicious concept. There are already sufficient studies to back up the role of mindfulness in the success of athletes in whatever stage of their sporting career.

 Mindfulness tools like visualization, yoga, and self-talk are useful in training, during the event itself, and in recovering from injuries.  Any athlete – be it a basketball player, football player, tennis player or any serious contender in any field – can go far if they can wield their mental strength to the fullest.

 If athletes can control their emotions in high-pressure situations, they have already won half the battle. A serious basketball player will uncover abilities they never thought existed through mindfulness training.


[1] Munzert, J. and Krüger, B. 2018. Task-Specificity of Muscular Responses During Motor Imagery: Peripheral Physiological Effects and the Legacy of Edmund Jacobson.

[2] Ranganathan, V., Sieminow, V., Liu, J., Sahgal, V., and Yue. G. 2004. From Mental Power to Muscle Power – Gaining Strength by Using the Mind.

[3] Goodman, F., Kashdan, T., Mallard, T., and Schumann, M. 2014. A Brief Mindfulness and Yoga Intervention With an Entire NCAA Division I Athletic Team: Initial Investigation.

[4] Anderson, A., Vogel, P., and Albrecht, R. 1999. The Effect of Instructional Self-talk on the Overhand Throw.

[5] Mohammed, W.A., Pappous, A., and Sharma, D. 2018. Effect of Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) in Increasing Pain Tolerance and Improving the Mental Health of Injured Athletes.