Mindfulness & Competing Optimally- the importance of the Present Moment

The essence of Competing optimally is described by Professor Justus Potgieter in his book about mental toughness is golf- and although he did not plan it so, he also describes how to be mindful:

Compete in the Here and Now

Your mind can be in one of three places at a particular time: the future, the past or the present. Your body, on the other hand, can only be in the present. For good performance, you should “put your mind where your body is,” namely, in the present. You will perform best if you compete in the here-and-now. Worrying about future (outcomes) or about what has already happened, causes pressure.

Staying in the present is probably one of the most important yet simple principles in golf, but it is also one of the hardest to master.

When you focus on outcomes, you become more anxious, and the more anxious you become the more you are distracted from the here and now.

When winning is critical, the last thing to think about is winning (Alan Goldberg in Sport Slump Busting.

You can anchor your mind to your body by focusing on your breathing….

Justus R Potgieter, The Mind Game, Peak performance Consulting, Stellenbosch 2008

Staying in the present is one of the most important principles, not only in sport but in life in general.

“The key to this is an appreciation of and defining the present moment for yourself. Ignoring the present moment in favour of those to come, which is an almost universal habit, results in a lack of awareness and understanding of our own mind, and how it influences us, our bodies, our relationships and the web of life around us.”

Professor Jon Kabat-Zinn, Wherever you go, there you are, Piatkus, 1994, p5

As the good Professor says, it is a universal habit to ignore the present moment, in favour of those to come. Jon Kabat-Zinn is an emeritus professor at the University of Massachusetts Medical School and probably one of the most well-known advocates of mindfulness.

Bob Bowman, USA Head swim coach, and coach of Michael Phelps describes a typical discussion between Dr Jim Bauman, a sports psychologist he has worked with, and a swimmer:

Jim: What’s your job when you go out to race?

Swimmer: To win a medal, to beat the guy, to win money.

Jim: No, your job is to swim as fast as you can between point A (the start) and point B (the finish). Swiming fast has nothing to do with your opponent or a medal. It is important to focus on your job and only on what is relevant to swimming fast- your race plan and the technique of your stroke. Medals, money, your heat, your lane, other swimmers, social media, the media- they’re all sources of irrelevant noise that will only slow you down. If you pull in all the irrelevant stuff, it will make things chaotic for you. Keep it simple.”

Bob Bowman, The Golden Rules, Piatkus , 2016

Professor Justus Potgieter and Dr Jim Bauman in the conversation above, assist the golfer and swimmer to define the present moment, and the flow from moment to moment.

Professor Jon Kabat-Zinn beautifully describes the magic of doing, whilst being in the present moment to moment, as an effortless activity (not dragged down by the burdens of the “irrelevant noise” ) happening…” at moments in dance and in sports at the highest levels of performance; when it does, it takes everybody’s breath away. But it also happens in every area of human activity from painting to car repair to parenting. Years of practice and experience combine on some occasions, giving rise to a new capacity to let execution unfold beyond technique, beyond exertion, beyond thinking. Action then becomes a pure expression of art of being of letting go of all doing- merging mind and body in motion. We thrill in watching a superb performance whether athletic or artistic because it allows us to participate in the magic of true mastery, to be uplifted, if only briefly and perhaps to share in the intention that each of us, in our own way, might touch such moments of grace and harmony in the living of our own lives.”

and further:

“This has everything to do with holding the present moment in its fullness without imposing anything extra on it, perceiving its purity and the freshness of its potential to give rise to the next moment. then, knowing what is what, seeing as clearly as possible, and conscious of not knowing more than we actually do, we act, make a move, take a stand, take a chance. Some people speak of this as flow, one, moment flowing seamlessly effortlessly into the next, cradled in the streambed of mindfulness.”

Jon Kabat-Zinn, Wherever you go, there you are, Piatkus, 1994, pp 44-46

Bob Bowman, describes, in contrast, what it means “to choke”:

“To me, choking is the inability to perform under pressure owing to psychological, not physical, reasons. It afflicts people who are normally good with an activity until the moment becomes overly demanding. They let the environment overwhelm them. They lose sight of why they are there: to simply execute what they have studied or practiced. Instead, they look ahead and become focused on the outcome. They think, what happens if I don’t do this? When you face a pressure situation, stay true to yourself and your plan. Remain in the present….(Phelps) always talked about a time goal, not a victory goal. He kept his focus on something he could control.”

Bob Bowman, The Golden Rules, Piatkus , 2016

Mindfulness, or being fully and deeply aware, as a practice, or living consciously, as a way of living, is a way of preparing ourselves for competition, and a way of competing whether in sport or life in general.

As with sport, mindfulness, or being fully and deeply aware, as a practice, or living consciously, becomes a way of living only after practicing diligently.

Matthew Syed in The Greatest, the Quest for Sporting Perfection, John Murray, 2017, p 47, writes about the great Pete Sampras succeeding to be fully in the present when competing:

“Only two things we knew for sure about Sampras. The first was that he served and volleyed like an angel. The second was that he was surrounded by an almost mystical calmness. His most memorable press-conference answer came after his three-set demolition of Agassi in the 1999 Wimbledon final. He won on a second serve ace. What was going through your mind before that serve, he was asked. “There was absolutely nothing going through my mind”, he replied. “The strange thing is that I was always incredibly nervous on the morning of a grand-slam final…my mind would be racing..but something would happen when I walked on to play…my head would clear out all the other stuff and focus on something incredibly simple…the act of playing would free my mind…the body takes over…it about repetition…about good technique…about having everything in place.”

Practice and repetition in sport increase the capacity of sportsmen and -women to focus on something incredibly simple once the event starts. Practice of full and deep awareness and conscious living, and consequent stillness of mind will enforce the positive consequences of repetitive practice of sports, to bring about “…the pure expression of art of being of letting go of all doing- merging mind and body in motion...”(Kabat-Zinn). With “letting go of all doing” Kabat-Zinn describes what Sampras describes, in the moment, non-striving, “doing coming out of being.” Sampras says “my head would clear out all the other stuff and focus on something incredibly simple…the act of playing would free my mind…the body takes over”- this is non-doing as in non-striving, letting things be as they are- i.e. the body takes over in the game- and action coming out of being, intuitively, perceptively with much greater wisdom and much greater appropriateness.

In family life, business and teaching, constant practice to live with deep, full and conscious awareness will bring the fruits of a clear and uncluttered focus, without fears, insecurities, anger and prejudices into the business, family or classroom.

Conscious, full and deep awareness or “having everything in place” or being mindful, “requires no religion or spiritual environment and is not a belief system.” It “provides a simple but powerful technique to get yourself or your team unstuck and in touch with your vitality.”

Jon Kabat-Zinn, Wherever you go, there you are, Piatkus, 1994, pp 5- 6

It is simply a practical way to get into touch with yourself, almost in the way you get into touch with yourself when you do physical exercise, at a higher level, with a bigger impact.

The essence of it is simplicity, and this is an important point because we tend to expect that anything worthwhile must be complex.

Note the use of the word “simple” by Dr Bauman and Pete Sampras.

Conscious, full and deep awareness or “having everything in place” or being mindful, is a simple concept. Its “power lies in practice and application.” Its application, living it out, will create efficiencies in every facet of our lives, depending on the fullness of application.

Jon Kabat-Zinn, Wherever you go, there you are, Piatkus, 1994, p 4

It is also important because the practice of mindfulness has a direct and big impact on our lives. If you do physical exercise, you can measure it – you get fit, your heart rate improves, and recovers quicker after exercise, and your body gets into better shape.

If you practice full and constant deep awareness, conscious living, or mindfulness, your mind gets into shape, and your living in your environment is influenced directly.

Mostly however, we “choke”. “Our actions are normally driven by ordinary thoughts and impulses, (our fears, our greed, our insecurities, our anger, our incorrect perceptions) rather than taken in full and constant deep awareness”

Jon Kabat-Zinn, Wherever you go, there you are, Piatkus, 1994, p 9

We mostly look ahead to the outcome, or to the past, with critical judgement.

Practicing full and deep awareness, conscious living, or mindfulness, “is not about shutting the issues of the world off or out...it is seeing things clearly and deliberately positioning yourself differently in relation to them.” It will not prevent the waves of the world reaching you, but will help you ride the waves.

It is not about refraining from competing, but competing better. It is not about not doing and it is no threat to those who are active doers, but about doing things better.

“Doing something viable and wholesome requires focus and the effort must be spent in a way which focuses your abilities and energy. “

Jon Kabat-Zinn, Wherever you go, there you are, Piatkus, 1994, p 32

Doing something wholesome therefore requires from us to let go of everything which prevents us from being 100% involved in what we are doing.

Dirk Joubert

June 2018

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