The Mindful Athlete – Lifting Consciously

The Mindful Athlete amongst friends. A collection of items that have spanned my life in terms of sports. Lifting has become my current focus and of course mindfulness. A good pairing.

George Mumford’s The Mindful Athlete is the latest book in a series of mindfulness books I’ve had the opportunity to read. Full disclosure, this book is a review copy, and one I reached out too the publisher for a copy of because it fell so close to home. As someone who finds training enjoyable and mindfulness a key aspect in my life it only made sense to get a copy of this book. I received a copy of the hardcover edition however as of March 15th a paperback version is now available.

The book arrived back at the end of January but seeing as how I had a few books on the go I didn’t want to pick it up until I had the others cleared off my list. It came at a pivotal time in my training; weeks before I was about to hit the platform at the United Barbell Open. The first thing that struck me about this book was the initial openness that George provides about his background and past history. Having no previous knowledge of his impact on two NBA championship teams it was disarming to read about his addictions, hitting rock bottom, and coming to find meditation and mindfulness as a new path. His back story including a failed marriage struck home with my own path to mindfulness two years ago. A failed marriage with a lot of the burden on my shoulders was my rock-bottom. George smartly refers to this as having your ass on fire:

“I don’t know why it often takes a crisis or a fastball from the universe knocking us off our feet for us to finally have our ass on fire enough to act. Maybe it’s a flaw in the human condition, or maybe it’s simply part of the human condition. In any case, the gift of desperation compels us to move forward. Without fire in our lives, we sometimes don’t have the internal combustion necessary to change and take risks.”

This ass-on-fire feeling has been a driving force behind the last two years of my life and having it put on paper in front of my was an “Ah-ha” moment. It’s an ironic and sad fact that it took these dark moments in both of our lives to shift our thinking and create a new path. George made it work in an amazing way by finding mindfulness as a pathway to a rewarding life and career alongside many NBA greats. My path has only just started but already there have been many rewards on a personal level.

The path George took included work with renown mindfulness based stress reduction co-creator Jon Kabat-Zinn amongst others. His love of basketball and connections to Phil Jackson, who at the time was also a believer in meditation, brought him into the sphere of the NBA. Not as a player but as a coach; a mindfulness coach. As you hear some of the feedback given by NBA greats you can see the influence that George had on the teams that he worked with and George has taken this opportunity to distill his own learnings down into this book.

The book focuses in on these learnings in the form of Superpowers. These powers are what George considers the key elements of mindfulness that are specific to an athletes mental performance. The Five Superpowers include mindfulness, concentration, insight, right effort, and trust. As I prepared for the upcoming meet, only days away, my reading brought me to the discussion on flow and being in the zone. Before the meet I would have said it was hard for me to describe what the zone truly was but that Sunday afternoon it became very clear to me that flow was present.  Tapping into several key sources including Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, and athletes such as Bill Russell and Craig Lambert, George delves into the idea of flow and being in the zone going one step further and brings meditation into the conversation using a hurricane as a metaphor for our minds and all that goes on around it:

“Think about the eye of a hurricane, or the calm still center in the middle of a cyclone. No matter how intense the storm or what’s swept up in its gale-force winds, that calm, blue centre is always there. .. We all have this quiet center within us. Mindfulness reconnects us to this center space, where we fully experience the present moment and have access to the transcendent wisdom that’s often associated with conscious flow.”

Flow for me was the recognition that time slowed down the minute the referee called out “The Bar is Loaded” recognizing the weight was racked and I had a minute to get on the platform and perform. I vividly recall now how calm I felt going for a personal record deadlift of 600 pounds and looking out at the crowd feeling completely at peace. This was simply another repetition and my mind was 100 percent focused. It was the last lift of the day, the calmness set in and I went for it. The bar moved a foot off the ground and stalled. I had missed the lift. Yet the learnings about myself and being on the platform was incredible. I often recall playing music as a child and being so nervous even while playing that it would disrupt my concentration. This was different. The nerves were there but it was a different kind of nervousness. Nervous anticipation to go out there and perform but calmness the minute I walked onto the platform Motivation and adrenaline all swirling around the center like George’s hurricane. My mind was simply in the eye watching it all go by.

“The more you practice mindfulness, the more readily you set yourself up to experience conscious flow.”

I had seen the effects in the gym but until I walked off the platform I wouldn’t have believed it could have been so impactful. George’s words once again confirmed my own understanding.  We accept the nervous energy that swirls about as part of the process and keep the mind centered; flowing along and not reacting to anything in particular. George references Bruce Lee, who was a master at flow in his life and in martial arts. He likened flow to being water that takes the shape of whatever object it fills. As Bruce Lee so eloquently put it, “Be water my friend” felt applicable throughout the day.

 

One thing that struck me about the book was the calibre of players that George had the opportunity to coach and work with. Primarily in the basketball world given his own personal background and interest, it was interesting to see the likes of Kobe Bryant and Michael Jordan as two athletes who had taken George’s words to heart. If you knew nothing about meditation and mindfulness and recall watching either of these two players on the court they are the epitome of mindful athletes. Calm, collected, and absolutely the person you got too when it counts in those last few seconds of a championship game. In Kobe Bryant’s own words reflecting on his performance, it’s about being in the moment:

“You have to be in the moment. You can’t worry about what just happened, the basket you missed, the foul you made two minutes ago, because it’s over. … You have to be here right now to play basketball when it’s happening.”

It’s the same theme that threads itself through all mindfulness practices. Being present in the moment and simply allowing energies both positive and negative to pass by without attaching yourselves to them. If anyone must know the pressures of being a world-class athlete in those moments it’s Kobe Bryant.

 George’s writing strings a path through the links between athlete and mindfulness including references to Arnold Schwarzenegger, arguably the very first mindful lifter. Recognizing the importance of that mind-body connection in everything he did, every lift and repetition he made. As the world’s most famous bodybuilder, Arnold’s training is easily comparable across to powerlifting. Repetitions, variations, movement patterns, etc. George takes the idea of repetition as a key aspect in the form of practice. Practice is critical to any high performing athlete but the type of practice can be even more impactful. Powerlifting is a sport of practice. It’s hard to think about any athlete going out on the platform and being technically sound and strong at the same time without practice. In fact 99.9% of a powerlifter’s time is spent practicing with a total of two to three minutes spent actually performing. George refers to this as deliberate practice:

“…deliberate practice involves focusing on and practicing one specific thing that you want to improve in your game – and practicing it with intention and concentration, mentally visualizing or rehearsing while you practice and thus experience the move in your body.”

He goes on to state:

“High performance is less about physical attributes and more about what you bring to the table when you commit to deliberate practice.”

That is in essence the sport of powerlifting and taking performance to the next level. Deliberate practice over time bringing concentration and intention to every lift. Those people at the top of the sport are those that bring this intention and concentration to their training every day. As a novice powerlifter I can say that the moment I walked up to the bar for the first time that routine had become so ingrained in my head there really was nothing else to think about.  I just had to get to the bar and my body took over un-racking the weights, stepping back, waiting for the referee, squatting, racking, three white lights. There is no question that the deliberate practice in this case was simply working through technique and form with intention and concentration. One take away for me was really trying to bring this to every workout. Every workout is an opportunity to train and practice for the platform so it’s just as important to concentrate on the first repetition as the last.

As I progressed through the book it struck me that there are often times when I’m listening to a podcast or reading a book and words jump out at me or a comment strikes me at the core. A ‘that is exactly what I feel’ moment. There were a few moments in particular that stood out and as George moved through the Five Superpowers his discussion on Insight had a particularly sharp connection to how my mind feels most days. The importance of truly knowing yourself is critical to becoming an exceptional athlete. It is in those times of knowing yourself that you can shed away the lies and excuses and see where you need to improve and focus your direction there. George provides an interesting perspective on the sense of urgency that people need in their lives:

“I often remind people that we spend a lot of our time vacillating between boredom and anxiety. If you’re anxious, then it probably means you need to get busy developing new skills. If you’re bored, you’ve got to challenge yourself more and push yourself out of your comfort zone. We need to be wary of being on a plateau and not moving on to the next vista because we’re daunted by the path it takes to get there, or because we’re simply comforted by having reached a plateau.”

This is a struggle I think many people have. Energy that seems to go back and forth between these two points. For me it’s anxiety over not getting enough done vs. being bored and not doing anything. It’s the sense of urgency that is missing at times. Being able to sit with those feelings though can help to alleviate the stress they cause to one’s mind. Rather than lashing out at boredom or anxiety we can sit with it, see how our body responds, becoming familiar and friendly with those feelings. Is the act of not-doing truly a negative thing? Sometimes not-doing can be as important as doing and that’s a lesson I’ve had to learn and work with.

In this case George focuses the idea towards an athlete who is struggling in their training or have reached a plateau. It felt as though George referring to my progress on the bench press that seems to have plateau’d now for years. It’s true to say though that a sense of urgency in my own training plan could help to move past it. Bringing true insight into what the issues are. My shoulders typically get injured, why is that? Where does the plateau seem to be? Is my training sufficient and if not what could I do to switch things up trying new methods to help break through. This type of insight of being able to look at our feelings and emotions with honesty translates well to an athlete struggling with their own performance. It’s self inflicted honest feedback that we listen too and not try to push away as self talk. Whether it’s losing weight, gaining strength, speed, or size it all can tie back to how we propel ourselves forward. For me this includes finding new strategies to work with the bench press. Changing up volume loads, accessory lifts, and variations of the lift itself. This, combined with the right kind of effort, will be one of the factors for seeing improvement at my next meet.

Speaking of effort, George describes it as a dichotomy split between right and wrong. Effort itself is how we direct our energies as not only an athlete but as an individual. Wrong effort leads us down the path of force and exertion; brute strength to get there typically motivated by factors such as greed, ignorance, and selfishness. On the platform this translates into sloppy technique, loss of focus, and ultimately failed lifts as the basis for our training didn’t have the necessary insight and we aren’t necessary in the moment as we move through the lifts. Right effort is bringing wholesome qualities to the energy and directing it in a way that focuses on the path that we take rather than the end game. George summarizes this thoughtfully:

“When your actions are based on right effort, you cultivate an entirely different energy; rather than acting out of greed, or doing things strictly for yourself or from self-interest, you act for selfless reasons and thus generate more energy and opportunity for flow.”

I missed 3 of my 9 lifts at my first meet; all three final lifts. Did I walk off the platform in anger and frustration? There wasn’t any need because I had done what I set out to do and that was show up, do my best, and enjoy the entire process.  The platform and meet is a minute detail in an otherwise beautiful journey. The people you meet, the things you learn about the sport and the people competing, the complexities to each lift and training programs out there, and the love that exists out therefore competition and the sport itself. Right effort is recognizing those as the most important factors in any sport. I go out there to do my best and simply enjoy everything as it occurs. For six hours I spent time with other athletes, both new and seasoned, who had their own motivations for being there yet we all shared a common interest and had put in the time and effort to be there. You could tell those who struggled may not have been motivated by the same kind of factors. Sure achievement and winning can be important but there were a few athletes so focused on this that they didn’t seem to be in the right headspace and in fact one in particular bombed out in the first three lifts.

I was skeptical at first. I’m an amateur when it comes to mindfulness, and powerlifting for that matter, but I hadn’t heard of George Mumford. The Mindful Athlete wasn’t a book that stood out to me at first. Having read through it now seeing the connections between what I’m doing in my own training and competition, the message rings true. Disarming me at the beginning with a personal connection, then traveling through the ideas of mindfulness previously studied, all while pointing to how they directly connect to the mind of an athlete, was a great experience. This book is for the athlete who endeavours to learn more about mindfulness and the potential impacts the mind can have on their own sport. Powerlifting is defined by physicality. It’s ultimate physical strength encapsulated in a few moments on the platform. More than anything though it’s a mental game. The mental conditioning needed to train every day with insight and right effort really focusing on the things that matter. Technique doesn’t develop without deliberate practice. The zone doesn’t open up without a specific mindset. George has done a good job of opening the door to these concepts for any athlete.

 

 

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