So, roughly 7 years and two Olympic Games later I was excited to come in to contact with Sam Parfitt and The True Athlete Project. TAP’s mission of making a positive social change through improving athletes experiences in sport with a strong focus on mindful practices, resonated deeply with me. I had spent some time leading up to competing in the Rio Olympics thinking about the social impact and costs involved in hosting the Olympic Games and writing about athletes’ responsibility to speak out on social issues that concern them. TAP seemed to encompass what I had been thinking about and go further still by setting out practical methods by which real cultural change could eventually happen. This was an organisation that I wanted to get behind.
As the performance director of a fencing club in Copenhagen, Denmark, it’s my task to optimise training and competition practices to enable our athletes to fulfil their potential and hopefully achieve world class results. The resources available to us in the sport of fencing in Denmark are a fraction of those in the nations that we must compete and succeed against in order to rise in the ranks. Since we cannot hope to compare in terms of financial support, participation numbers or organisational capacity, we know that we must find smarter, more innovative ways to develop and improve. Mindfulness in my opinion is, today, considered much the same way as sport psychology was 40 years ago. A small number of top athletes and coaches are ahead of the curve in using mindfulness techniques to improve their game. Some, such as the Chicago Bulls, embraced it with incredible success as far back as the late 80’s when their team was led by Michael Jordan. But mindfulness is by no means mainstream in elite sport, which is where the opportunity lies for those of us who are searching.
The connection between the mindful training of your ability to be more present and the experience of being in Flow (or, 'in the zone') is clear enough to justify special focus on mindful practice. When you add in the numerous physical and mental health benefits that have been attributed to that very same practice, it becomes almost irresponsible to ignore.
Step into the fold TAP’s Mindfulness for Sport workshop; a packed two days of discussing theory and picking up practical tools, interspersed with experiencing first-hand the various mindful techniques that can be deployed. The wealth of experience and expertise in their team combined with the organisation’s values and mission, position TAP firmly at the heart of the mindful sport revolution.
The flow of the weekend was tangible, starting with an introduction to mindfulness, it’s benefits and applications, as well as methods for communicating them to the coaching team, athletes and parents. This was followed by moving outside to go through a dynamic, mindful warm-up, some high-intensity mental focus agility games and a surprisingly enjoyable introductory session of Tai Chi. Then came one of the highlights for me; a guided mindful walk. As simple as it sounds it was a powerful experience, showing just how engaging a simple exercise such as standing, focusing on the feeling of shifting weight from one foot to the other can be. After just ten or so minutes, having gradually progressed up to normal walking speed, the exercise finished, and when I brought my attention back to ‘normal’, found myself in a wholly different state of mind to the one I started in. In fact, it even felt like I had been roused into a different physical location entirely. It struck me that the inherent simplicity of this practice combined with the resulting feeling would make for a powerful way to bring uninitiated athletes into the mindful world.
This part of the workshop naturally progressed into a discussion on the theme of a ‘container’; the environment and conditions under which mindfulness is introduced and practiced with groups. This is where organisational psychology meets spirituality, using clear communication, agreements and rituals to create an open and safe space that allows participants to feel comfortable exploring new perspectives.
Day two included trying out another style of mindful sitting, this time the Zen method, which turned out to offer up a very different kind of struggle to hold focus on the present moment. I’d never really considered the variety of experiences that come from the different forms of mindfulness practice, but I found out it can feel very distinct both during and after a session.
The culmination of the weekend was the detailed work on formulating a structure for weaving mindfulness into the culture of my club back home. We will start with a series of introductory weekly sessions, where the athletes will get to experience the various forms of mindful practice, and then instil a short breathing exercise at the beginning of training sessions. The program builds up from there, including exercises to do at home, a points system for mindful activities undertaken and then eventually regular, scheduled group or team sittings.
Having started talking to some of my athletes around this theme, I can feel a genuine sense of intrigue from them, but I also know that it will not be a straightforward sell. There will be some that don’t see how the practice links to their performance or are put off by the traditional spiritual stigma around mindfulness. It can also be difficult to stick to a regular routine of mindfulness, and paradoxically it’s often the first thing to drop off when life gets busier or more stressful. But that’s precisely why integrating it into the structures of our athletes’ lives is so important. If we can make it a part of every training session then they don’t need to set aside time for it and they can just go about their day as usual getting their dose along the way.
I’m excited to get going with the project and to see what the reactions from the athletes will be. I have a feeling that this program will be especially valuable to the teenagers who struggle with the usual distractions and confusions of teenage life on top of those in their sport. But the plan is also to bring on board the youngest fencers too, so that hopefully by the time they get to that stage, they are already better placed to deal with what comes.
My thanks to Sam and to TAP for organising a fantastic weekend of learning and first-hand experience. I’m certain there is a huge, positive impact to be made by spreading this fantastic approach to sportspeople of all levels.