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Mindfulness May Improve Athletic Performance

In a pilot study conducted at the University of California, San Diego, elite competitive athletes who took a Mindful Performance, Enhancement, Awareness and Knowledge (mPEAK) training program improved their ability to sense stressful situations without necessarily reacting to them.

This ability may help athletes achieve peak performances, instead of succumbing to panic or fears of failure during competition. Lead study author Lori Haase, PhD, a postdoctoral fellow at the UCSD School of Medicine, developed the mPEAK training program with Steven Hickman, director of the UCSD Center for Mindfulness, at the request of James Herrera, the USA Bicycle Motocross (BMX) team coach.

“You hear athletes say, ‘My head wasn’t in it,’” said Haase in a UCSD news release. “Most of the time, people in sports have focused on the neck down.
. . . Scientists are really beginning to be able to see that thoughts can get in the way of performance.”

Haase and colleagues conducted the study on seven USA BMX team members, who completed 7 weeks of intensive training in mindfulness and body awareness. The athletes practiced mindfulness exercises for 20 minutes, twice a day, and attended 90-minute follow-up sessions with instructors for 6 weeks. The researchers took two functional MRI scans of subjects, one 3 days before the course started and another a week after it ended.

Scan reviews showed increased activity in parts of the brain related to motivating future actions and controlling attention, and decreased activity in areas involved in bodily arousal. Limitations of the study included its small sample size; the all-male, elite-athlete subjects; and the lack of a control group.

While it cannot directly be attributed to the mindfulness training, mPEAK program participants went on to win in the 2014 national championship competitions. Coach Herrera said in a UCSD news release that meditation sharpened the team’s edge, with the most obvious change occurring at the race’s start. “Their body language is calmer in the gate. They move their hands less on the bars, and they get out of the gate a little faster.” A quick start is a big help in BMX, as it gives a rider a better shot at being in front at the first turn and controlling the race.

The study, published in Frontiers in Behavioral Neuroscience (2015; doi: 10.3389/fnbeh.2015.00229), is open access and available for download at http://journal.frontiersin.org/article/10.3389/fnbeh.2015.–229/abstract. To learn more about the UCSD mPEAK program, go to http://health.ucsd.edu/specialties/mindfulness/programs/mpeak/Pages/default.aspx.

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