High atop a snowy bluff in Alta, Utah, in a cozy ski lodge, a motley group of people bundled in various layers of ski jackets and snowpants are sitting in a circle with their eyes closed. “Pretend your body is a corporation,” says an athletically built woman with light brown hair. “And pretend that corporation has 10,000 employees. Now we’re going to call each of those employees forward and let them speak.”The woman leading the meditation is Kristen Ulmer, one of the most celebrated female extreme skiers and former member of the U.S. mogul team. For 12 years, Ulmer chased death, racing avalanches down impossibly steep slopes and flying off 70-foot precipices. As the first woman to ski down Wyoming’s 13,771-foot Grand Teton in 1997, Ulmer made a career of careening down you-fall-you-die slopes, and her daredevil tricks inspired the awe and admiration of many cult ski movie fans. But by the time she retired, she had burned herself out. She no longer loved skiing; in fact, she hated it. Ulmer met with many sports psychologists in an attempt to enjoy her sport again, but none of them made a difference. Then she met Zen Buddhist master Genpo Roshi. Roshi took her through several sitting meditations where she explored her body and her emotions. “Tears just started streaming down my face,” Ulmer said. “I was repressing my fear for so long. I believed my own hype, I was called the most fearless female athlete, when really, I was just really, really good at repressing my fear.”
THE PRICE OF PERFORMANCE
That disconnection from her body cost Ulmer dearly: when she retired, she discovered that she had a crashed adrenal system and was no longer producing cortisol. She had gone through nine knee surgeries and her whole body constantly throbbed with pain. But as she built a meditative practice with Roshi, Ulmer began to face that fear head-on and it elevated her skiing beyond the level of competition and fame to spiritual transformation. Now, Ulmer runs a ski camp called Ski to Live where she teaches skiers meditation techniques that will help them better connect with their skiing. Her camps are part of a growing movement of athletes and coaches who believe that mindful sports practice helps people achieve a flow state that is akin to a spiritual experience. “The basic practice for all spiritual disciplines… is becoming mindful and not being distracted by all the stuff that goes on in your mind,” said David Meggyesy, former NFL player and author of “Out of Their League.” “I believe that people can become better human beings by doing sport, if they’re doing it mindfully. They can achieve a greater sense of self and a greater sense of the world.”
TESTING THE EFFECTS OF MINDFULNESS IN SPORTS
In the 1970s, two psychologists, Jon Kabat Zinn and Ellen Langer, began studying the effects of mindfulness in sports. In the first empirical study of mindfulness-based intervention for athletes, which was published in 1985, researchers found that a group of college rowers and a group of Olympic rowers significantly improved their performance after mindfulness training. In the early 2000s, two scientifically proven methods for mindfulness in sports were developed: Mindful Sport Performance Enhancement (MSPE) and the Mindfulness-Acceptance-Commitment (MAC) approach. Both approaches teach athletes awareness, mindfulness, non-judgment and how to connect their core values. Research has shown that both techniques have helped athletes decrease anxiety and perfectionism and increase confidence and flow. This type of mindfulness goes beyond simple sports psychology. While sports psychology strives to actively combat negative inner self-talk, mindfulness advocates for simple awareness of negative self-talk, which can be more productive. In their book “Clinical Sport Psychology,” sports psychologists Frank Gardner and Zella Moore wrote, “Traditional sports psychology interventions, such as imagery, self-talk and goal-setting generally aim to facilitate optimal performance by helping to control internal and mental factors that affect athletes. However, scanning for negative internal states may actually increase their occurrence by priming athletes to search for those phenomena.” In contrast, “non-judgmental awareness” of all sensations, which is the hallmark of a mindfulness practice, has been found to put athletes in a flow state more effectively than simply positive talk, because it helps athletes connect more fully with the moment. Commenting on meditation in 2004, Seattle Seahawk defensive back Earl Thomas told reporter Hugh Delehanty, “You’ve got to. That’s how you get into the flow.”
THE LINK PERCEIVED
The idea that these “flow states” are linked to spiritual experiences has gained popularity in the last decade. In the 1990s, Hungarian psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi first popularized the concept of flow states in various activities, but particularly in competitive sports. His book “Flow” describes the flow state as a moment of complete and intense focus in an activity during the present moment. People in flow states completely lose a sense of reflective self-consciousness and lose track of time. They have a greater sense of control over their actions, and they find the activity intrinsically rewarding. Csikszentmihalyi argues that this flow state is comparable to the flow states achieved in spiritual experiences where people feel a loss of self-consciousness and feel connected to something greater than themselves. Many people can achieve this transcendent flow experience through yoga and meditation. The difference, says Mike Spino, author of “Beyond Jogging: The Inner Spaces of Running,” is that this type of spiritual awakening is baked right into spiritual-based activities like yoga. “In yoga there is a part of the discipline that automatically has a mental component, while in sports it has to be built into and adjacent to the training,” says Spino. Ulmer agrees. “Sports have the possibility for a spiritual experience, but it doesn’t happen organically. You have to make sport your practice.” And, Ulmer says, because playing competitive sports is such a common pastime in American culture, it can be a more accessible vehicle for achieving spiritual transformation than yoga or meditation.
SCIENCE IS STILL INCONCLUSIVE
However, the science linking flow states achieved during competitive sports with those achieved through spiritual practices is still very new. A study published in the Journal of Sport Behavior in 2000 tested 62 college students at a Division III school and found that students who had a spiritual practice were more likely to enter flow states. However, researchers also found that athletes who scored high on the Athletic Coping Skills Assessment (which tests for ability to cope with adversity, coachability, concentration, confidence and achievement motivation, goal-setting and mental preparation, peaking under pressure, freedom from worry and personal coping resources) also entered flow states more readily. Scientists have also not yet found strong neuropsychological evidence linking flow states in competitive sports to spiritual experiences. In fact, current research might suggest that the two are not related: research has shown that people in flow states show decreased activity in the prefrontal cortex (the part of the brain that is in charge of abstract thinking and self-consciousness). On the other hand, studies that have looked at people experiencing religious and spiritual experiences show an activation of the pre-frontal cortex as well as activation in the superior parietal lobe. There is evidence that activation of the caudate nucleus, which happens during religious experiences, also happens when a writer is in the flow state. Therefore, it may be possible the flow states are similar to religious experiences, but not entirely the same. What’s not in question is that meditation paired with competitive sports is a transformative experience. Seattle Seahawks coach Pete Carroll made waves last year when he began to incorporate mindfulness and meditation in training — and saw that players not only played better, but had improved personal lives. As for Ulmer, she’s slowly healing from her last 12 years as a competitive skier — almost as long as she has been skiing professionally. A few weeks before we spoke, she had gotten another saliva test and found out that she was finally producing saliva normally again. And best of all, she has rekindled her love for skiing. Standing atop a slope and flying down the snow, “It’s like I’m having a 10,000-body experience,” she said.
TRANSFORM YOUR GAME
Ready to take your competitive sports (or your club sport) to the next level? Here are some exercises from expert coaches and former athletes you can use to incorporate mindfulness into your training.
This is a famous drill from Timothy Gallwey, the author of “The Inner Game of Tennis,” which is one of the first books that popularized the concept of mindfulness in competitive sports. This drill, which is specific for quieting the mind on the tennis court, can be applied to other sports as well.
Try it: When the ball bounces on your side, say the word “bounce.” When you hit the ball, say “hit.” This forces you to focus on the ball and clear your mind of other distracting thoughts. You can apply this exercise to other sports, by saying “kick” every time you make a stroke when swimming, or “right foot,” every time your right foot strikes the ground when running.
THE DEEP CENTERING EXERCISE
This technique was created by sport psychologist Dr. Robert Nideffer in the mid-1970s, and championed by performance coach Dr. Don Greene in his 2002 book, “Fight Your Fear and Win.” Since then, the technique has been used in various sports mindfulness programs.
Try it: First, focus on your breathing and the sensations of your breath as it enters and exits your nostrils. Gradually breathe more and more deeply into your diaphragm. Scan your body for areas of tension. Release the tension. Next, visualize the area two inches below your navel. In traditional Chinese medicine, this is considered the center of your body. Direct your breath to that place in your body and imagine that there is a ball of energy at your center. Imagine that energy spreading to the rest of your body.
This meditation was pioneered by Zen Buddhist master Dennis Genpo Merzel. It is similar to the one that Kristen Ulmer uses in her Ski to Live camps. The technique imagines that our entire identity is built up of many disparate parts that are constantly in flux and sometimes in conflict with each other (some Buddhists believe that we have 10,000 identities). The goal of the meditation is to soothe those disharmonies by becoming more aware of each of those identities and working through the difficulties each one has.
Try it: Visit Big Mind for some free, guided Big Mind meditations.
EMOTIONAL FREEDOM TECHNIQUE (EFT)
EFT is very popular among psychologists, but it can also be used for competitive athletes. Barry Robbins, former professional softball player and founding member of the Sports, Energy, Consciousness Group (a group of athletes and coaches that uses meditation in competitive sports), uses EFT with his clients to address their unconscious fears and anxieties.
Try it: The tapping instructions can be pretty specific. For free guided EFT techniques, go to optimal-eft.emofree.com.
SPORTS, ENERGY AND CONSCIOUSNESS FESTIVAL
This is not a meditation technique, but it’s one of the only festivals in North America that focuses on the intersection between mindfulness and competitive sports. There will be hands-on workshops, break-out sessions and panel discussions. The festival will be held from June 10-12, 2016, in San Rafael, California. More information is at sportsenergygroup.com.