In the days where high schooler students have 32 hours of things to do in a 24-hour day, and college students are expected to do well in school, maintain a job, get an internship, volunteer, and never take a break… we could all learn a little more about mindfulness.
Mindfulness and meditation are both big buzz words right now, but for good reason. There are now volumes of psychological research to demonstrate how both skills can improve your mental health and well-being.
While sometimes used interchangeably, these are actually two very different things. Both are powerful tools in your mental skills toolbox, but mindfulness is especially influential when it comes to improving your athletic performance. As coaches, we always want our dancers to perform at their very best when it counts. Teaching them mindfulness is one way to help ensure that happens. And it’s easier than you think.
Mindfulness is defined as “the nonjudgmental focus of one’s attention on the experience that occurs in the present moment.” (Bernier, Thienot, Codron, & Fournier, 2009 p.320. Click here for the full research study). It’s the ability to stay in the present moment, without judgment. Your mood is positive, confident, optimistic, and non-judgmental. If a mindful dancer makes a mistake in competition, he or she is able to focus on each ensuing count of the dance without getting lost in negative thoughts for the remainder of the routine. Or during practice, a mindful dancer is unlikely to ever have a truly bad day. Instead, he is able to let go of a poor turn sequence or a fall across the floor and focus on the next attempt without judgment for how the earlier failure felt.
When you practice mindfulness, you practice a controlled focus, and that certainly comes in handy for athletes.
It’s Easier Than You Think
Mindfulness is an astonishingly simple skill that helps you regulate your emotions, improves concentration, teaches you to focus on the current moment, and maybe most importantly in our crazy lives, it helps you learn to slow down. High school and college athletes are often extremely overwhelmed. There are so many demands on their time, devices in their hands, and pressure coming from all sides, including within themselves. Mindfulness can help them slow down and live in the moment.
Mindfulness exercises (even a one-minute exercise) can help alleviate stress and remind us how to stay present in the current moment. Isn’t that why we all love to dance anyway? It’s about being lost in the moment, experiencing the flow of movement without judgment and just letting it all go!
Image your favorite routine you’ve ever performed.
What made you love it? Was it the technical skill you got to show off or the way it made the crowd cheer? Ok maybe. But for many of us what makes a routine so special is how it makes you feel in the moment. You get lost in the routine on stage. A high energy routine can make you genuinely smile bigger than you ever have in your life. And a passionate contemporary routine might leave you crying on stage. ( I may or may not have completely lost it while performing a contemporary on stage during nationals one year… I’ll never tell).
It’s the emotion…
It’s the emotion of the routine that makes dance so special, but in order to feel that emotion, you have to get out of your own way. You have to allow for space in your mind to experience the movement and not judge what you’re doing. Mindfulness is the secret pathway to allow that to happen.
Mindfulness doesn’t mean you stop having emotional reactions or negative thoughts. It means you have that experience, don’t judge yourself for having that thought or emotion, and flow onto the next moment. If you’ve ever felt a sense of flow while you dance, where every moment just easily flows from one to the next, your body does what it’s supposed to without fear of failure, and you are able to experience the joy of each second, there’s actually a term for that. It’s the psychological state called flow. And a talent for mindfulness helps you get there.
Don’t fight it, live the moment…
It’s not about suppressing negative thoughts or fighting against them. Rather mindfulness teaches you to accept a negative thought when it happens and accept difficult emotions when you experience them. And it’s not just about your state of mind. Mindfulness research has revealed a positive link between present-moment awareness (mindfulness) and peak performance. Athletes who are able to stay in the present moment without judgment are more likely to experience flow, and therefore their personal peak performance.
Easy Mindfulness Exercises
Mindfulness exercises are surprisingly simple on the surface. Yet it’s in the simplicity that athletes learn to hold a narrow focus and build concentration. It may seem easy to hold your focus for a one-minute exercise, but don’t give up if you find it harder than you thought. Many mindfulness exercises include breathing techniques (like this one) or simply breathing slowly, observing your own body. I love recommending mindfulness to dancers because we have a special awareness of our bodies and are usually better at body awareness exercises since we are trained to be acutely aware of our bodies as part of our sport. Give it a try.
One-Minute Mindfulness Activity
Take one minute during a hard practice and ask your dancers to sit or lie down in a comfortable position. Have them close their eyes and just breath slowly for one minute and focus on their body. How does it feel? Notice the sensations of breathing in and out, notice any parts that are uncomfortable or maybe need a stretch or a break. The goal is to maintain an inward focus on your body, noticing how you feel, for one minute without distraction or wandering thoughts.
Likely, that will be hard to do at first, so it’s ok to notice the thoughts that come through (like impatience, boredom, homework I need to get to). But tell your dancers to label those thoughts and move on, returning their focus to their breathing. If your dancers need help to stay focused, you can tell them to repeat a personal positive mantra to themselves during the one-minute breathing as well.
You can step it up a notch and take five minutes to complete a full body scan. Again lying down with eyes closed, start with your feet, noticing how they feel. Then move up to your calves. What do you notice? Then move up through your legs, hips, stomach. Gradually move through your chest, shoulders, neck, and head. Again, the goal is to stay present with your breath and taking notice of how you feel without judgment. 5 minutes can be an incredibly long time to stay focused on just your body, but it’s something to strive for. Likely, your brain will wonder a bit, and that’s ok. Mindfulness is about letting those thoughts wander in when it happens, notice what comes up, acknowledge it, and don’t fight any negative thoughts.
Have your team start with a one-minute slow breath, just noticing your body. Then work your way up to a five-minute full body scan. Especially for dancers, I think the full body scan has other benefits like making you more aware of areas that are especially sore or need to be stretched and cared for after a difficult practice. It helps a dancer recognize areas of potential injury before something goes very wrong. It makes you stop and take a minute to notice how your body is doing before you go grab your phone and run off to the next thing you have to do.
Mindfulness Exercise for the Skeptical:
Another great option, especially if you’re trying it for the first time or have more skeptical dancers, you can trace your hand. I know it sounds silly, go with me. Slowly trace your left hand with your right index finger. As you trace up your thumb, breath in, then breath out as you come back down. Move to your index finger and the middle finger, slowing breathing in on the way up and out on the way down. Move through all 10 fingers and you have completed a mindfulness breathing exercise!
That’s it, but it allows you to practice slow breath and staying focused on one narrow thing (your hand). The added tactile sensation on your hands helps you stay focused on one task. Once dancers are comfortable with this, they have learned to control a narrow focus and slow their breathing, they are ready to move on to body scans or other more challenging mindfulness activities.
Try it for yourself, and see if you can find one minute today to be more purposefully present in the moment. You won’t regret it.