“Meditation is as important as lifting weights and being out here on the field for practice,” Russell Okung
WFTDA publicly announced their rules revisions for 2014 today. Quite possibly the biggest change to the rules is the reduction of penalty time from 60 to 30 seconds. This change has been welcomed by many who see it as a mechanism for reducing the impact of penalties on game play. I have my reservations. Here’s why. As a coach and an NSO who specializes in running penalty boxes, I know that penalties beget future penalties if players don’t have the opportunity to calm down and refocus. We’ve all seen a skater exit the penalty box “hot” only to forearm, back block, or low block her way back in.
30 second penalties pose a new challenge for skaters. Those who are able to utilize mindfulness will be able to return to play focused and controlled. Those who are unable to do so will likely see themselves quickly racking up 7 penalties or riding the bench. As we transition to 30 second penalties, mindfulness becomes ever more important as the recovery time from a penalty has been halved.
I’ve been trying to sell mindfulness to the skaters that I work with for a while now. When I started researching for this article, I was pleased to see that I’m not the only one who prioritizes these practices. A recent ESPN article explored the role of meditation in the Seattle Seahawks’ training. While psychology and mental game have long been discussed in sport, these conversations tend to focus on “shutting out” negative thoughts. Mindfulness training, however, seeks to undo this approach. Here’s your quick guide to mindfulness and its role in penalty recovery and game day resiliency.
Lesson 1: It’s not enough to tell yourself to stop being upset
The traditional approach to cognitive performance in sport focuses on controlling one’s thoughts. We’ve likely all experienced control-based pep talks before a game. They come in phrases like “no bad thoughts!” and “don’t stop smiling on the track!”. They are well-intentioned ideas rooted in ol- school sports psychology. But a review of psychology studies demonstrates that control-based approaches fail to yield results. “Attempting to suppress unwanted thoughts and emotions can actually have a paadoxical effect, triggering a meta-cognitive scanning process that actively searches for signs of “negative” or unwanted cognitive activity and brings it to awareness when detected” (Gardner & Moore, 2004, p.709). Simply put, when you try to ignore your anger, frustration, and fear, you end up exerting a lot of cognitive energy. As a result, you are less capable of focusing on the task at hand.
Hayes et al., (1999) suggested that low experiential acceptance (ignoring inner thoughts and feelings) may lead the athlete to employ a number of tools to ignore these types of thoughts including self-talk or thought stopping which some supporters of the mindfulness approach view as maladaptive. Gardner & Moore (2007) suggest that rather than trying to get rid of or change unwanted thoughts, athletic performance can be enhanced through a “mindful present minded acceptance of internal experiences” along with other skills needed for optimal athletic performance such as response to external cues and pursuing the achievement of goals. (McCanny, 2013, para.5)
Gardner and Moore (2012) report that the absence of negative thoughts and anxiety is not a pre-requisite for success. But ignoring or suppressing these feelings can impact performance negatively.
Lesson 2: Sometimes we don’t realize that we are upset
I’m line managing. My skaters come back from a messy jam. One of them just took a high block that didn’t get called while the pivot was sent to the box on a questionable failure to reform. While the bench manager is out disputing the call, I look down at the bench and see one of my blockers: his back is tense, he is grinding his mouthguard, his hands are clenched. I put my hand on his shoulder and say, “hey, you look upset. Let’s work on getting you calmed down.” He quickly and emphatically responds “I’m not upset!” He may genuinely believe that he isn’t upset. But his body is telling me a different story. And this is where mindfulness gets tricky. How can we address our reactions if we don’t recognize them?
Here the mindfulness practice of body monitoring comes in handy. Body monitoring is a quick exercise that involves taking an inventory of your various bits. Your feet in your skates. Your butt on the bench. The tightness in you chest. Your breath. When we take inventory of how our bodies feel, we can get a sense of our anger and anxiety levels.
Lesson 3: I’m pissed off, now what?
This is where we get into the guts of mindfulness, which is “open-hearted, moment-to-moment nonjudgmental awareness” (Kabat-Zinn, cited in Gardner and Moore, 2012, p. 312).
Moore (2003) reviewed 30 years of studies on the effects of goal-setting, self-talk, visualizations, and getting “pumped up” pre-game. She found that none of these techniques had concretely demonstrated their capacity to improve athletic performance. This lack of success led to the development of the Mindfulness-Acceptance-Commitment model for athletic performance enhancement. In subsequent studies, MAC users have had significantly greater increases in their performances (as rated by coaching staff) than those who did not utilize the MAC protocols. The participants also reported increased ability to focus on their goals and increased sense of control during game play (Gardnder & Moore, 2012).
This integrated approach to performance enhancement targets the development of mindful, nonjudging, present-moment attention (mindfulness), acceptance of internal experiences as natural to the human experience, willingness to remain in contact with those internal experiences, and a focus of attention on performance-related cues, contingencies and situationally appropriate actions/choices in the service of valued athletic goals (commitment). (Gardner & Moore, 2004, p.714)
We’ve done our physical inventory. Next up is the mental inventory. My preferred exercise for this is performing some mindful breathing. During mindful breathing, follow your breath through your nostrils, down the back of your throat, and into your lungs. Don’t try to change the breath (make is slower or deeper). Simply observe. During this time, thoughts will try to interrupt your focus. Don’t criticize your brain for the interruptions. Rather, recognize that these are your brain’s concerns at the moment. Classify the thoughts (worry thought, anger thought, frustration thought, etc.). Refocus on your breathing.
Lesson 3: Nothing’s gonna change my world
In a training that I took on mindfulness, I was taught to recognize the role that my inner critic is trying to fill. When I am in the penalty box, my critic is trying to prevent me from getting another penalty. Unfortunately, it is doing so by saying “hey genius, wtf do you think you are doing out there?” Rather than pretending that I don’t have these negative thoughts, I was told to thank my inner critic along the lines of “hey, angry voice. Thanks for pointing out that I should not have cut in front of that opposing skater. You are right that it was a bad idea. But I’m going to take it from here and problem solve my way out of this conundrum”. Yeah, it might seem ridiculous, but it’s this recognition and refocus that can help you shift back to focus quickly and effectively.
Another important thing that I try to remind my skaters of is that time in the penalty box is temporary. Everyone makes mistakes. Everyone goes to the box. Your time in the box does not change your value as a person, as a teammate (hence, nothing’s gonna change my world). But your response to these setbacks defines your character and your capacity for resiliency.
What does this mean in a world of 30 second penalties?
Our time to regroup has been cut in half. I used to tell my skaters that they had 10 seconds at the start of every penalty to feel upset. But we are required to do a faster turn around now. So here’s my guide to a well-executed penalty in this new world order:
- Hustle to the box thinking only about getting there quickly and entering with control (hitting NSOs is never okay)
- Sit down. Perform 15 seconds of mindful breathing (about 3 breaths). Recognize what thoughts are coming to mind. Catalogue them, tell yourself it is time to put your frustration aside, and focus on what the most productive action will be when you return to the track
- When you are told to stand at 10 seconds, make your action plan. How will you re-enter, which teammates will you connect with on the track, what will you do to contribute to the jam? How will you avoid receiving another penalty?
- As you return to the track, focus on your body’s movement and the movements around you, rather than your brain. Return to the present moment. If it helps, talk out loud about what is happening and where you are on the track.
Make it a team effort
Studies employing EEGs and MRIs have shown that continued and purposeful mindfulness practice can reroute brain functions (Gardner & Moore, 2012). The key to harnessing mindfulness as a tool on the track is practicing it every day and practicing it as a team. It is a lot easier to keep your cool when you are supported in this pursuit by your entire bench.
Mindfulness in and of itself is a lot like getting a penalty: it’s not about ignoring the rough parts. It’s about accepting that bad things happen (angry thoughts, trips to the box). The mindful skater is able to recover from the rough patches. Even in under 30 seconds.
Gardner, F.L. & Moore, Z.E. (2004). A mindfulness-acceptance-commitment-based approach to athletic performance enhancement: Theoretical considerations. Behavior Therapy 35, 707-723.
Gardner, F. L. & Moore, Z.E. (2012). Mindfulness and acceptance models in sport psychology: A decade of basic and applied scientific advancements. Canadian Psychological Association, 53(4), 309-318.
McCanny, C. (2013). The application of mindfulness practice to sport. The Sport In Mind.