Mindfulness – More Focus Equals More Fun!

Ever beat yourself up after missing a shot? Or get anxious before a big match? These are perfectly normal reactions, but did you know that mindfulness tools can help you better cope with these reactions? 

Essentially, mindfulness meditation is a form of mental fitness. Just like you practice your forehands and backhands, you can also train your mind. It is a practice we can utilize to optimize our brain in ways that improve our health, focus, clarity, relaxation, productivity and joy. Mindfulness means paying attention in a particular way: on purpose, in the present moment, and nonjudgmentally. Mindful self-compassion encompasses mindfulness and then adds a layer of not only nonjudgmental awareness, but also a kind and loving awareness. This is a particularly useful coping mechanism in times of stress or suffering – or when you find yourself beating yourself up after that unforced error.

Let’s explore a few key mindfulness tools to help you focus better on the court and therefore enjoy the wonderful game of Pickleball even more. 

1) Bringing Your Attention to the Present Moment

Do you ever find yourself on autopilot? Maybe you drive somewhere and arrive at your destination but then realize you have no idea how you got there? It’s very common for our “monkey minds” to check out, wander off, or think about so many things at once we don’t even know what’s happening right in front of us… Maybe you’ve even noticed this when you’re playing a Pickleball match. Instead of your attention being on the shot, you’re thinking about the point you just lost or how if you don’t win this point, you’ll lose the match. Mindfulness can help us connect back to the present moment to what’s happening right now, this next shot. To help us take it one shot at a time.

Champions call this state “flow” or “zone” and we’ve all experienced it at one point or another mostly likely. When everything seems to be happening effortlessly and flowing – that’s us happening to be mindful and is something we can practice and train ourselves to do. The key to mindfulness is when we notice our mind wandering (as all minds will do) to just gently and non-judgmentally bring our attention back to the present moment. Connecting to present moment anchors such as our breath, the sound of our paddles hitting the ball, or our feet on the solid ground can help with this, to connect us back to the present. You can even do a mini “meditation” between points, just noticing with all 5 senses what’s around you and in your own body. When we are fully engaged in the here and now, it’s impossible to be analyzing the past or worrying about the future whether we are on the court or off. 

2) Learning How to Breathe Right

Do you ever notice that when you’re nervous, you’re breathing gets faster and shallower? On average, we take 12 to 20 breaths per minute, but it’s amazing what happens when we slow that down a little to say 6 breaths per minute. Our tendency, especially when our adrenalin kicks in (close match anyone?) is for our breathing to get shallower and stay in the chest (maybe going even faster than that 12 to 20 breath per minute average!). This means you are not using your diaphragm to fill your lungs to their full capacity; you are not getting as much oxygen as you need, which in turn exacerbates your stress and tension. To counteract this process, practice proper breathing techniques. Simply breathe in by expanding your belly and fully exhale, flooding your cells with more oxygen. As a result, your heart rate and blood pressure decrease, ultimately giving you more focus and energy. A great exercise to slow down your breath in between points is to simply count, i.e. inhale for a count of 6, and exhale for a count of 6 (which will achieve those 6 breaths per minute we talked about earlier). 

3) The Power of Visualization

Our mind is a powerful tool – or it can be if we harness it correctly and don’t let it rule us. One of the most powerful tools in this regard is visualization (even though strictly speaking it does not fall under mindfulness). You may hear of top athletes doing this and there’s a reason why. When we talk about muscle memory what we’re really talking about is the memory in our neuropathways, i.e. the signals our brain sends out. Studies actually show that visualizing performing an activity activates the same neuropathways as actually doing the activity. So how can you use this knowledge to your advantage? Why not try visualization before your next Pickleball match. Begin by connecting to the present moment and the breath and then start to visualize say whatever stroke or match moment you tend to struggle with and visualize that going exactly how you want it to. End the visualization by perhaps offering yourself some positive affirmation to seal your practice such as: “May I be focused and relaxed”, “May I be kind to myself when I make a mistake”, or “May I be patient and stay light on my feet”. 

4) A Dose of Self-Compassion – Accepting Where You Are Today

We have the very human tendency, especially after making a mistake (I’m sure you never make mistakes when playing Pickleball), to be very critical of ourselves. Perhaps we think we need to be or we won’t improve. Think again … because studies show quite the opposite. People who are compassionate to themselves are in fact more focused and perform better – they’re just less attached and worried about the results. Sound like something your coach may have told you? A sport like Pickleball is so wonderful because it mimics life. We need to stay focused on one shot at a time while still keeping a game plan for the future and learning from but not dwelling on past mistakes. So next time you find yourself beating yourself up whether in practice or a match (or just in life), try taking a “self-compassion break.”

First, simply take a deep breath and say to yourself, “This is a moment of suffering.” Other options include “This hurts” or “This is stress.” What you are doing here is acknowledging what is happening in the present moment. This acknowledgment is mindfulness …. in contrast to feeling overwhelmed the whole day and not realizing you were stressed until the end of the day when you collapse, exhausted. 

Second, acknowledge that suffering is a part of life. That’s common humanity. You could say to yourself “I’m not alone. Others are just like me.” Or “We all struggle in our lives.” When we are suffering, we can feel alone.

Finally, offer yourself some compassion. This could be putting your hands over your heart, or wherever feels soothing, and just feeling the warmth and gentle touch of your hands. And then perhaps offering yourself some words of loving kindness, such as “May I be kind to myself” or “May I give myself what I need.”  If you’re having difficulty finding the right words, imagine what you would say to a friend or loved one in need and perhaps gently try offering yourself that same message from the heart. 

Now get out there and have fun with your mindful playing!
You can’t stop the waves, but you can learn to surf” -Jon Kabat Zin 

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