Ministry of Sport

Mental Training Programs Attributing To Elite Performance In Athletes

Meditation has long been attributed to success in the business world and has been instrumental for people like Jeff Bezos and Bill Gates, but now it’s also helping elite athletes reach a level of performance previously inaccessible, through the use of personalised mindfulness programs.

U.S. Soccer and Major League Soccer has formalised a three-year partnership with Headspace, one of the world’s leading meditation and mindfulness apps.

As part of the deal, Headspace will conduct in-person introductory training sessions with U.S. Soccer and MLS athletes, as well as creating a personalised training program for each individual athlete on the U.S. Women’s National Team to support their preparation on the journey to the 2019 FIFA World Cup in France.

Headspace also has partnerships with the NBA (including the WNBA, the G-League, and the NBA 2K League), Nike, USA Swimming, and UCLA athletics through the Kevin Love Fund, along with a host of individual athletes.

Headspace’s head of sport and fitness, Lindsay Shaffer, said the popularisation of mental training in sport is great for the future of sport and athlete welfare.

“Being able to seamlessly integrate your mental training into the rest of your routine is something that, I think, college athletic departments and pro teams are quickly being attracted to,” Shaffer said.

“Throughout the history of sport, we have kind of completely neglected the mind even though the mind underlies everything that we do.

“We liken it to a muscle, we talk about, if you want a stronger biceps, you do biceps curls.

“We point out to athletes that the science behind meditation shows that it increases the thickness of the grey matter of the prefrontal cortex, which is where focus comes from, and decreases the size of the amygdala, which is where stress and fear comes from.

“You are actually physically changing the structure of your brain,” she said.

The U.S. women’s national soccer team, however, is benefiting from Headspace’s first construction of daily, personalized mental training programs for the five months leading up to and through the France 2019 World Cup, set to begin in June.

U.S. Soccer’s high-performance director, James Bunce, said the team is using Headspace as an additional support tool alongside the national team’s sports psychologists, who don’t get a lot of time to work with the team.

“We often focus on the neck-down in order to get improvements in the game and try to get those marginal gains, whether it be strength and conditioning, tracking, monitoring, sports science,” Mr Bunce said.

“Less time is often spent looking at the neck-up and, as we all know, the neck-up is where the magic happens.

“That’s where the decisions are made, the emotions are felt, those crucial moments are decided.

“I do think the area of mental conditioning now is really, really taking off.

“I do think it will be the next push point in the sport in regard to people trying to get that edge because we are grinding out every bit of knowledge we have in the medical area and the physical area,” he said.

Headspace’s results in measuring the effects of mental training on elite athletes are supported by 20 published studies, one of which was published in the Journal of Cognitive Enhancement in 2017, reporting Headspace helped subjects improve focus by 14 per cent after 10 days of use.

There is no doubt meditation and mental training have a future in assisting elite athletes to realise their full mental potential, boasting such benefits such as reduced stress, increased focus, improved preparation, recovery and even performance.

Shaun Carney

Shaun Carney