“Peak performance is meditation in motion,” said Olympian Greg Louganis, “where you’re not thinking, just doing.” Whether the task at hand is mental, physical, or a little bit of both, getting “in the zone” for peak performance requires more than skill. “The only way to achieve [peak performance],” Louganis said, “is by letting go of self-judgement.”
In this context, self-judgement means forming an opinion or emotion around a thought, rather than let it pass without fixation. When you judge your thoughts, you break focus. And without focus, you can’t reach peak performance.
With 60,000 to 80,000 thoughts crossing our mind each day, tuning out the noise is no small feat. Lena Franklin, a psychotherapist who specializes in mindful practices, estimates around 70% of our thoughts are negative. And, predictably, “negative thoughts fuel poor performance,” she confirmed. But there is a way to cut through the chaos and hone your ability to focus effectively: mindfulness practice.
Mindfulness is the ability to be present and engaged, free from distraction or judgement. It is a skill that can be honed, and regular practice can actually change the brain.
Scientists have identified at least eight different regions of the brain influenced by mindfulness practices. These areas regulate functions including perception, body awareness, pain tolerance, emotional regulation, introspection, complex thinking, and sense of self.
Mindfulness can give athletes like Louganis an edge in training and competition, but it’s also beneficial for performing in business or school. “Mindfulness should no longer be considered a ‘nice-to-have’ for executives,” wrote a team researchers in an article published by Harvard Business Review. “It’s a ‘must-have’: a way to keep our brains healthy, to support self-regulation and effective decision-making capabilities, and to protect ourselves from toxic stress.”
In this article, we’ll explore the effects of mindfulness and meditation on performance of the mind and body.
The Mind-Body Stress Connection
In the scientific community, the physiological effect triggered by meditation is called the “relaxation response.” The relaxation response is thought of as the opposite of the stress response (AKA fight or flight). When you put stress on your body (through physical training) or your mind (through intense mental work), you can restore balance by putting yourself through the opposite of stress: relaxation. And you won’t be able to reach peak performance again until you’ve fully recovered.
“When the brain relaxes it sends out a message to the body that it can relax, too,” said Jennifer Houghton, a trainer who specializes in mobility. “Body and brain learn from each other.” Mindfulness practice calms the nervous system, which stops mental and physical responses to stress, like tense muscles, high cortisol, and poor digestion. Through this, you’re setting yourself up to recover more quickly and restore your mind and body to their optimal potential for performance.
Not only does mindfulness practice have an impressive effect on the nervous system and hormone production, it also has a measurable impact on the brain. In a study published by the journal Brain Research Bulletin, researchers found that people who were trained to meditate over an eight week period were better able to control a type of brainwave called alpha rhythms. Alpha waves flow through cells in the brain’s cerebral cortex, where sensory information is processed, helping to suppress distracting sensory information. Another study, dating back to 1966, found Buddhist monks who meditated regularly had elevated alpha rhythms across their brains. With improved alpha wave rhythms, one is able to discern what matters in the present moment and sidestep what’s irrelevant. In other words, mindfulness meditation measurably improves your ability to focus!
Additionally, mindfulness practice has been found to increase the concentration of gray matter (a major component of the central nervous system) in parts of the brain involved in learning, memory, emotional regulation, and perspective taking.
Power of the Pause
The goal of mindfulness isn’t to have zero thoughts. It’s about gaining awareness of our thoughts and thought patterns. If we can become aware of negative thoughts — about ourselves, our abilities, our circumstances — we can intentionally shift our mindset to one that embraces our abilities and even elevates our potential.
Before a high-pressure moment (like competing in a sport or presenting to an important group) pause for five to ten minutes to breathe, reset the mind, and repeat a positive affirmation. Drop into the body using mindful breathing and align with your intention for this performance, whether it’s setting a new personal record on a solo jog around the neighborhood, or you’re about to step in to the final round of interviews for you dream job.