Mindfulness and Performance

Mark Pottenger


Over the years I have written several things inspired by some of The Great Courses that I have listened to. The latest inspiration is The Psychology of Performance by Eddie O’Connor, a clinical sport psychologist. The core of the course is about performance in sports, but quite a bit of it is applicable beyond sports. As someone with a life-long disinterest in sports, it is the broader implications that interest me, though the course has actually made me appreciate how large a mental component there is in excellence in sports.

Lecture 4 is The Benefits of Mindfulness in Performance. Mindfulness is touched on in many courses I have listened to over quite a few years, but this clicked for me in a way many previous lectures haven’t. It explains HOW mindfulness practice is helpful—because it develops/trains/builds up brain circuits for focus and concentration and accepting emotions without getting bogged down in reacting & responding to them.

The core mindfulness practice is to focus attention on awareness or sensation in the present moment, usually by attending to your breathing. The lecture described it as paying attention on purpose in the present moment without judgment. When your attention wanders, recognize the intrusion (thoughts or emotions about past or possible futures or present-time this isn’t present-place) without reacting to it and bring your attention back to the intended focus. I have known of this for many years and seen or heard it described many times, with many virtues mentioned. Most descriptions I have previously encountered have included some baggage from the Buddhist traditions that mindfulness comes from. This course mentions the key point that mindfulness practice changes the brain in specific ways that are helpful in many parts of life. It improves ability to focus and concentrate. It improves ability to notice mental or emotional intrusions when they happen without tying up mental resources reacting & responding to them.

This lecture didn’t mention System 1 & System 2 (which I have discussed before), but it is clear that mindfulness practice is building mental habits & circuits that increase the speed of and reduce the conscious mental effort & energy required for focus, concentration, and the ability to recognize and dismiss distractions/intrusions without reacting to them. This greatly improves our effectiveness in many tasks and activities in our lives.

Understanding that mindfulness practice is like isometric exercises or calisthenics—something one does for the benefits it produces, not something one does for the experience itself—removes my main problem with most discussions of mindfulness. It moves mindfulness into the same category in my mind as the physical exercises that I do for health maintenance.

Successfully training oneself to be able to recognize a distracting thought or emotion and dismiss it without judging it and without fighting it makes a huge difference in the conscious mental resources available, because it bypasses the large chunk of conscious resources required to try to fight a thought or emotion with a conscious counter, and we return our focus to our current task faster. This also ties in with something I have encountered in discussions of psychological and mystical traditions and in a number of novels: achieving a mental state that is neutral about outcomes, or setting a behavioral goal that works toward an intended outcome without getting emotionally attached to that outcome in a way that can interfere with the behavioral goal.

This ties into the tradition of viewing desire as a bad thing. Desire, in the sense of emotional attachment to an outcome, uses up some of our limited conscious mental resources, so the faster we can dismiss it when it pops up the better we can accomplish our current tasks.

The full course is 24 lectures, but I won’t go into any detail about the rest of the lectures. They cover expertise, deliberate practice, talent, values, goals, positive thinking, commitment, internal/intrinsic motivation, external/extrinsic motivation, imagery, self-confidence (which usually focuses on results), self-efficacy (which usually focuses on abilities), self-talk, focused attention, concentration, superstitions, rituals, routines, peak performance (in the zone), flow, performance anxiety, choking, the quiet eye, perfectionism, self-compassion, self-improvement, burnout, recovery, pain tolerance, rehabilitation, body ideals, fan psychology, teams, leadership, and more. As a side note, I noticed during the discussion of leadership that the current occupant of the Oval Office has none of the qualities listed for good leadership.

Copyright © 2020 Mark Pottenger

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