How Athletes Use Mindfulness To Achieve Greatness (And You Can, Too)

Tips from the USC Performance Science Institute.

Kobe Bryant (left) and Paul Pierce. Photo by Keith Allison/Flickr.

How do athletes train themselves to maintain a rugged mindset in the face of challenge? Staying connected to the present moment — or mindfulness — is a key component of performance science research. Numerous top athletes and coaches, such as NBA coach Phil Jackson, NBA All-Star Kobe Bryant, and NFL coach Pete Carroll, have long touted its benefits in sports.

We all need tools to help us in high-pressure situations at work or school or in our interpersonal relationships. Mindfulness has even been shown to help with everything from bullying prevention to technology overload to helping us deliver better presentations at work or motivating team members. But until recently, many of the strategies and tactics recommended to meet this need, particularly when it comes to our daily habits, were left to intuition and non-repeatable methods.

The USC Performance Science Institute was launched to try to change that. Housed at the Marshall School of Business at the University of Southern California, the new research lab is focused on bringing groundbreaking performance science to the masses.

Drawing on interdisciplinary research and insights from top athletes and coaches, like Bryant and Carroll, as well as business leaders and experts, such as Arianna Huffington and Brene Brown, the institute’s team — led by business professor David Belasco, high performance psychologist Michael Gervais, and neuroscientist Glenn Fox — believe the same skills Carroll teaches his athletes can be applied to the mindset training of the next generation of performers, leaders, and entrepreneurs.

GOOD caught up with Fox to find out what a high-performance mindset and mindfulness is all about and how we can apply the latest research to our own lives.

What are some resources you recommend for someone who’d like to start a mindfulness practice?

Luckily, we live at a moment when there are many great ways to get started. And, no matter how long one has been practicing, we’re all beginners anyway (or at least I think we should maintain a beginner’s curiosity no matter how much time we’ve practiced). So, that said, some of my favorite authors come from a Buddhist tradition, though their teaching is largely secular. I like Pema Chodron, Charlotte Joko Beck, Noah Levine, and Alan Watts quite a bit for getting started and thinking about the mind carefully. I prefer books over apps, but apps can indeed be great — our own Allen Weiss here at USC released the Mindful USC app which has many great meditations. Just get started wherever you are and stay curious about the process.

In your Jan. 26, 2018, podcast, one of the key takeaways from the study you discussed was that people must apply themselves wholeheartedly to make mindfulness effective. Was this something Bryant spoke about during his recent visit to the institute?

For those like Kobe who perform already at a very high level, they may have a head start on mindful practice since they clearly are detail-oriented and able to focus in the present moment. I think part of why Kobe is drawn to mindful practice is that he is already driven to details and is likely very observant of his own state, and mindful practice may have accentuated some of his better habits to begin with.

The researchers found that mindfulness interventions were helpful as a protective measure for training and for reducing anxiety. Why is this important for athletes?

Like any other profession that deals with high-pressure situations, anxiety and fear can be debilitating. Mindfulness is an approach that has been found to be effective at understanding some of the roots of fear and anxiety and to see it more clearly so that performance can continue in light of fear. It’s something meant to be understood and considered carefully but without having it be something that paralyzes and inhibits us from taking the risks needed to perform at a high level.

Glenn Fox. Photo courtesy of USC Performance Science Institute.

In your Jan. 13, 2018, podcast, you referenced a classic study and the growing body of research your institute is working on in studying competition and intrinsic motivation. How can youth coaches and parents apply these learnings?

We’ve all heard a lot about “rewards” as the key to motivating behavior, and it’s tempting often to reward success on the field, but according to research, this is actually not an effective way to get people to grow and develop. The key is to change the underlying joy and passion that needs to accompany early learning stages and to encourage students to learn and find value in the struggles and trials as part of a longer process. Building a healthy sense of “competition” against one’s self is one way we think coaches and teachers can do that.

Anything else we should know about the institute, what’s going on in performance science as it relates to athletes, or further readings on these topics you recommend?

There’s a lot of great work. In the coming weeks, we’re going to start a special collaboration with Arianna Huffington’s Thrive Global website, so hopefully people can read our work there. Other great thinkers in the space are Anders Ericcson, who wrote “Peak.” Also, fantastic work from Edward Deci and his book “Why We Do What We Do.” Those two books will give anyone a fantastic glimpse into how to perform a little better, and they’re both based on sound research.

via Real Time with Bill Maher / YouTube and The Late Late Show with James Corden / YouTube

A controversial editorial on America's obesity epidemic and healthcare by comedian Bill Maher on his HBO show "Real Time" inspired a thoughtful, and funny, response by James Cordon. It also made for a great debate about healthcare that Americans are avoiding.

At the end of the September 6th episode of "Real Time, " Maher turned to the camera for his usual editorial and discussed how obesity is a huge part of the healthcare debate that no one is having.

"At Next Thursday's debate, one of the candidates has to say, 'The problem with our healthcare system is Americans eat shit and too much of it.' All the candidates will mention their health plans but no one will bring up the key factor: the citizens don't lift a finger to help," Maher said sternly.

Keep Reading Show less

There is no shortage of proposals from the, um, what's the word for it… huge, group of Democratic presidential candidates this year. But one may stand out from the pack as being not just bold but also necessary; during a CNN town hall about climate change Andrew Yang proposed a "green amendment" to the constitution.

Keep Reading Show less
Me Too Kit

The creator of the Me Too kit — an at home rape kit that has yet to hit the market — has come under fire as sexual assault advocates argue the kit is dangerous and misleading for women.

The kit is marketed as "the first ever at home kit for commercial use," according to the company's website. "Your experience. Your kit. Your story. Your life. Your choice. Every survivor has a story, every survivor has a voice." Customers will soon be able order one of the DIY kits in order to collect evidence "within the confines of the survivor's chosen place of safety" after an assault.

"With MeToo Kit, we are able to collect DNA samples and other tissues, which upon testing can provide the necessary time-sensitive evidence required in a court of law to identify a sexual predator's involvement with sexual assault," according to the website.

Keep Reading Show less

Villagers rejoice as they receive the first vaccines ever delivered via drone in the Congo

The area's topography makes transporting medicines a treacherous task.

Photo by Henry Sempangi Senyule

When we discuss barriers to healthcare in the developed world, affordability is commonly the biggest concern. But for some in the developing world, physical distance and topography can be the difference between life and death.

Widjifake, a hard-to-reach village in northwestern Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) with a population of 6,500, struggles with having consistent access to healthcare supplies due to the Congo River and its winding tributaries.

It can take up to three hours for vehicles carrying supplies to reach the village.

Keep Reading Show less
via Keith Boykin / Twitter

Fox News and President Trump seem like they may be headed for a breakup. "Fox is a lot different than it used to be," Trump told reporters in August after one of the network's polls found him trailing for Democrats in the 2020 election.

"There's something going on at Fox, I'll tell you right now. And I'm not happy with it," he continued.

Some Fox anchors have hit back at the president over his criticisms. "Well, first of all, Mr. President, we don't work for you," Neil Cavuto said on the air. "I don't work for you. My job is to cover you, not fawn over you or rip you, just report on you."

Keep Reading Show less