Get top performance without mindfulness – difficult. But how much mindfulness is necessary, how does it help to achieve athletic goals, when does it become toxic and why the concept is often misunderstood – we have the answers.

Present in the moment: this is how you practice mindfulness

Image Credit: Daniel Mingook / Unsplash.comMental strength is important for achieving sporting goals, one of which is mindfulness. In order to find the right balance between motivating incentive and unhealthy ambition, there are a few things to consider during training. International studies also show that mindfulness and self-care are not a sure-fire success. On the contrary, they can increase psychological problems. The American psychologist Dr. David Udelf does not use the term mindfulness at all because it has negative connotations for so many people. “Why does he have a negative connotation in public? Because most practitioners who use it do not explain the purpose.”

What does mindfulness mean?

Mindfulness is a state of active, open awareness of the present. This state is described as observing one’s thoughts and feelings without judging them as good or bad. This is the definition given by the journal Psychology Today.

“The problem with mindfulness is the misunderstanding of its purpose by professionals. The purpose is not to make you feel better,” says renowned psychologist Dr. David Udelf. That would be the antithesis of Contextual Behavioral Science (CBS) and Acceptance and Commitment Training (ACT) , an approach he says is revolutionizing the practice of performance psychology and clinical psychology. Because: CBS and ACT would not try to eliminate disturbing emotions and thought fluctuations. ACT trains “psychological flexibility,” the ability to effectively deal with unwanted thoughts, emotions, and bodily sensations.

dr David Udelf in an interview with ISPO.com

Image Credit: Dr. David UdelfThe real purpose of “focus training” is, as Dr. Udelf is about enabling people – in this case athletes – to be present and in the moment. “So that they can do what matters: perform the actions required to perform the skills they were trained to do.” 

Athletes of all ages and performance levels experience unwanted thoughts and feelings, as well as tiredness and sore muscles, which can distract them and impair their optimal performance. Dealing with these things or trying to ignore or change them is a trap many athletes fall into. This leads to an inner struggle that amplifies these inner distractions. His advice: focus on the actions and skills necessary for successful performance. This is far more effective “than dealing with the inner stuff”.

Finding the balance: Set realistic goals

At Tristyle , the sports science training institute run by the Austrian Lissi Niedereder, the first thing on the agenda is a meeting to find out what goals the customers have in mind. Second is a multi-stage lactate test. This is the basis for every training plan – regardless of whether you are a competitive athlete or a health athlete. “And that makes a lot of things obsolete, because some come with goals that are completely unrealistic.” And then it’s their job to interpret the values ​​and make a forecast – in relation to medium- and long-term goals.

Former professional athlete Lissi Niedereder trail running

Image Credit: TristyleFor extreme mountaineer David Göttlerit is “always important to be able to reflect and honestly assess yourself”. He needs that in order to develop and stay healthy. “I’m happy to set myself very big goals that are currently unattainable, but then I have to accept that it will take me a long time to achieve them here.” The German therefore recommends dividing goals into different categories. “These are the really big ones, which sometimes take many years or even a lifetime to be realised.” Then of course there are also the small daily goals, such as completing a training session well or simply having a relaxed rest day. “And everything in between,” says the professional mountaineer with a laugh, who knows what he’s talking about:

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Adventurer Jonas Deichmann , who circumnavigated the world in triathlon in 2021 , does it in a similar way to Göttler : “I break down the big goals into smaller goals. If day 1 was hell in swimming, then I won’t say, that was just ten kilometers and there are still 450 kilometers to come. That is extremely demotivating. Arriving is my vision. But my goal is the next rock, the next gas station, the next chocolate bar. I always swim to the next candy bar.”

Is it also possible without a goal?

Whether competitive or health athletes – everyone trains differently. But all athletic training includes goals. It doesn’t matter whether the goal is to run a ten-kilometer run in a certain time or to jog three kilometers in a row. Without a goal, it works for very few. “Personally, I don’t ride that well with it,” admits alpinist Göttler openly. He needs a goal. “And then I have big, small and intermediate goals. So I can always train in a targeted manner and my motivation is pretty high. I also know how and what I need to train, what I need to improve on. Without a goal, I would lack the compass in which direction I have to work.” 

Lissi Niedereder, former top Austrian athlete and current trainer, describes the crux with the goal as follows: “We have known since March 2020 at the latest: Sport also makes sense without having a competition as a goal. Due to the Corona lockdown, many goals for the season have been postponed to a later date. Some of my athletes didn’t have it easy to cope with, since the competition is also the reward for the months-long and sometimes tough training program .” But healthy athletes enjoyed this time because they “were happy to finally have enough time for training, to have rest and a balanced diet”.

Deliberately pushing boundaries – that can also be fun

“For me, joy was always the priority,” emphasizes Olympic champion Christian Schenk . “So if someone tells me that professional sport is a psychological burden, then I think the approach is wrong. Of course I say in my book that pain and sport are like Siamese twins for me. We high-performance athletes are all masochists. And of course you have to constantly shift boundaries in individual sports.”  

At Deichmann, 95 percent is a matter of the head. “The limit is just me” – is not only the title of his book, but this message is aimed at everyone. “I’m always convinced that I can do something. And if you have a dream, believe in it, and be positive, you can achieve so much more than you thought possible.”


German adventurer Jonas Deichmann finishes his round the world triathlon in Munich

Image Credit: Pheline HankeTo stay healthy while pushing boundaries, Dr. Udelf: “Activate yourself after a success or failure and concentrate on the process. What are the actions you will take? After the game or competition—win, lose, or tie—identify what you need to improve on (performance goals) and what you need to practice or train to achieve those goals (process goals).” And adds: “When push comes to shove comes, the tough ones take action.”

These sports stars champion mental health

Mindfulness minimizes the risk of injury

According to current studies, including the American College of Sports Medicine, there is evidence that injury risk and athletic performance are significantly related to well-being. Recent research has examined how mindfulness can increase athletic performance, improve athletes’ mental health, reduce the risk of injury, and even facilitate recovery from injuries. Further studies prove that the use of a psychologically based intervention by sports coaches and sports therapists can effectively reduce the number of injuries in athletes. Sports medicine professionals can also help athletes reduce stress, increase mindfulness, and engage in mental health to reduce the risk of injury (source: Journal of Sport Rehabilitation ).

Caution: Mindfulness can become toxic

“The Potential Dangers of Mindfulness: The Facts Nobody Talks About Mindfulness,” writes Dr. Jason N. Linder in an article for Psychology Today . Mindfulness has been overhyped, misunderstood, and overly commercialized. “It is largely ignored that there have already been more than 20 published reports or studies describing mindfulness or meditation experiences that were so serious or frightening that they prompted additional treatment or medical attention,” emphasizes Dr. Linder. Especially for people with trauma and depression, meditation can lead to a deterioration in their mental health. Both the American Psychological Association and the US National Institute of Health (NIH) pointed this out


No panacea: Mindfulness practices can make problems worse

Image Credit: Keegan Houser / Unsplash.comThe psychologist warns, “Practicing mindfulness when you’re not mentally ready, or when you actually need a nap, something to eat, a massage, work, or an important conversation with a loved one, can clearly cause more trouble than it does.” actually supposed to mitigate.” In addition, mindfulness meditation is just one of many tools, practices and strategies to promote well-being, awareness and calm. dr So Linder recommends, “It’s important to have some others in your toolbox and learn when to learn or practice the others and when not to.”

Extreme mountaineer David Göttler works regularly with a mental trainer and says: “The more sensitive and honest you are with yourself, can reflect on your weaknesses and honestly ask about the status quo again and again, the better and more satisfied you will be when you reach your goals .”

Mindfulness exercises for (sports) everyday life

In summary, mindfulness, or “focus training” as Dr. Udelf calls it “aims to be present so that we can pay attention to what we are doing. It’s not meant to make you feel better, although it can be comforting, but that’s not the primary purpose.”

Former professional athlete Niedereder finds mindful running ideal for switching off and reducing stress . The 26-time Austrian state champion has once again dealt with the topic of mindfulness after the end of her career and the violation of the doping law. “It is important that you are on the road for at least 30 minutes so that, for example, the stress hormones can be reduced. That’s why endurance sports are so rewarding.” It is also “great” to work out for ten minutes with high-intensity strength training (HIT), “but it often just causes more stress”. And walking slowly and calmly is simply ideal.

Train mindfulness: walk slowly and smell the scent of the woods

Image Credit: Nathalie Desiree Mottet / Unsplash.comFor many years, Dr. Tatjana Reichhart, specialist in psychiatry and psychotherapy, with the topic of self-care and mindfulness. Her second book “Self-determined: How we deal with expectations and lead an authentic life” was only recently published. She recommends the following mindfulness exercises for everyday (sports) life: 

  1. Ask yourself every morning and evening while brushing your teeth: How am I doing physically? How do I feel (psychologically, mentally)? So what do I need?
  2. End the evening with a positive review of the day. What went well and what was my part in it? If your thoughts wander, for example into the negative – what didn’t work out or what still needs to be done (i.e. thoughts about the past or future) – notice this and focus on: What went well?
  3. To use sport again and again as a mindfulness exercise without a training goal: for example when swimming or trail running. Then it’s time to perceive the sensory impressions and focus on what you see (forest, trees) or feel (water, ground under your feet), what you smell or hear. So away from the specific goal, towards pure perception in the here and now without evaluation.
  4. In everyday life: away from multitasking towards one after the other! When I eat, I eat. When I’m reading a book, I don’t look at my cell phone at the same time. When I speak to someone, I listen carefully. This increases the ability to maintain focus, energizes, and reduces stress or feelings of being controlled.
  5. The same applies to sports. What I’m doing right now, I’m doing with full attention. When my thoughts drift off, I notice that and bring my attention back to my focus.

dr Tatjana Reichhart has been dealing with the topic of mindfulness for many years

Image credit: Dominik Rössler

One Comment

  1. Thank you, your article has benefited me a lot and helped me a lot. After reading carefully, I still have some doubts, would you like to help me solve it? I’ll be back often and follow up on this comment. thank you for your help.

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