Did you watch the final of the Women’s US Open in 2021? Something remarkable happened. Never before had a player made it to the final of a grand slam (men’s or women’s) by qualifying, let alone win the actual tournament. Yet, that’s exactly what Emma Raducanu did by winning the US Open.
Her raw talent was there on display. Yet there was something else that was evident – Emma is a natural practitioner of mindfulness (without her probably even knowing it).
In sport, mindfulness plays a crucial part in success. ‘Mental toughness’, and the ability to concentrate and focus are essential to winning. As Emma emphasised, it was her mindful attitude that was one of the reasons for her being crowned US open champion in 2021.
What is mindfulness?
Much has been said and written about what is mindfulness. A very simple definition offered by my teacher Cyndi Lee, is that ‘mindfulness’ is about placing the mind. From this, certain qualities or attitudes emerge.
Mindfulness brings stability in terms of coming back to the present moment. It may bring clarity in terms of seeing things or situations for what they are. Mindfulness may also bring strength in terms of the ability to carry on with what you are doing even whilst duress or pressure. All by the simple act of placing the mind.
Mindfulness and sport
When it comes to sport, once you reach a certain level, the difference between success or failure is often due to the ability to cope and perform under pressure. There is enormous focus and scrutiny on a player’s performance – by selectors, the media and of course the fans, whether it be club or country. As former international English cricketer Kevin Pietersen, tweeted:
“Talent is one thing, but mental toughness is what separates the good from the great in sport! Dealing with pressure, bad form, negative media etc is HARD, but that’s sport. It’s demanding.”
The mental side is therefore a crucial skill and needs to be cultivated.
Qualities of mindfulness
There are other qualities that help too. We know that in life everything is constantly changing. We also know that mindfulness tells us that nothing independently exists and that each object is subject to another object arising.
In other words, we know that the pressure at one point will ultimately ease. We also know that the pressure is a result of the mental energy being placed upon the individual. In other words, ‘stress’.
Without the stress producing thoughts, there would be no bodily response. To the contrary, when one is in fact ‘mindless’, it is like chasing shadows that you are always projecting. The dog is always chasing its own tail.
Some form of ‘separation’ is in fact required between the thoughts that create the pressure, and the witness of those thoughts. If you know that the feelings of stress and anxiety are as a result of the thoughts that created them, then there is a way of achieving liberation from them.
It is easier though said than done. When it gets too much, place your mind on the breath. This is a way of taking back some control and getting into the body again.
Thich Nhat Hanh, in the ‘Miracle of Mindfulness‘ said that:
“Breath is the bridge which connects life to consciousness, which unites your body to your thoughts. Whenever your mind becomes scattered, use your breath as means to take hold of your mind again.”
Mindfulness is about coming back into the body
The ability to come back into the body, through the breath can make all the difference when an athlete needs to regain some composure. This helps the athlete to remain grounded and focused. It is the keys to success.
Before the match, Emma explained that her parents brought her up with an attitude of always remaining calm. Interestingly enough, it was only in the previous grand slam at Wimbledon that Emma had to pull out of her 4th round match because of ‘breathing difficulties’.
Breath is the ‘conscious anchor’
By her own admission, the situation had got to her. When a person becomes anxious, the flight and flight response activates. Pressure is directed towards the centre of the upper body and breathing becomes shallow and tight. As a result, breathing is primarily through the chest, which is not an efficient breath.
On the contrary, when a person breathes through the nose, it draws air into the deeper part of the lungs where there is a richer supply of blood vessels which supports the gaseous exchange of C02 and O2.
This also activates the parasympathetic nervous system, or otherwise known as the ‘rest and digest’ response. This enables an athlete to remain calm, even whilst under the most extraordinary stress.
This was this situation that Emma found herself in. Fighting to save a break point on her own serve for the championship, Emma was forced to take a medical break because of a gash to her shin below her knee that caused blood to arise. When I watched this, I really couldn’t believe it. It felt like the fairy tale was going to come to an end.
Many other athletes may have crumbled. But no, she came back and saved that break point. She then went on to win the game and the championship. Incredible. Emma in her post-match interview admitted that she was just trying to take each moment as it came. The maturity she showed was remarkable, especially for an 18 year old who had only qualified to compete in the tournament.
Mindfulness & sport: the winning edge
Mindfulness is a key skill in life to learn. It helps us become stronger and more stable in our personal and professional lives. When it comes to sport, mindfulness is what makes good players, great as Kevin Pietersen said. In Emma Raducanu’s case, now a sporting legend.
If I can help you achieve personal or professional success or help you cope better with mindfulness, please get in touch.