Harnessing mindfulness and virtual reality simulations to maximize sports performance

Ath­letes at the very high­est lev­el of their sport face the chal­lenge of per­form­ing con­sis­tent­ly under pres­sure amid many poten­tial dis­trac­tions, includ­ing per­for­mance anx­i­ety, crowd behav­iour, their own and oth­ers’ expec­ta­tions, and the respons­es of their opponents.

The per­for­mance of play­ers in the 2023 Aus­tralian Open, for exam­ple, demon­strat­ed the psy­cho­log­i­cal fac­tors need­ed to suc­ceed at elite-lev­el tennis.

It had plen­ty of excit­ing moments that are the hall­marks of a great tour­na­ment. Andy Mur­ray made an aston­ish­ing come­back from two sets down against Thanasi Kokki­nakis, fol­low­ing his long recov­ery after major injury.

Rafael Nadal exit­ed in the sec­ond round of his first major slam after the birth of his child, due to ongo­ing injury – reports described him as being men­tal­ly destroyed. And Novak Djokovic became the only male play­er to win three con­sec­u­tive Aus­tralian Open cham­pi­onships. The Ser­bian recent­ly shared that he has “learned the strength and resilience to bounce back from adversity”.

One of the key char­ac­ter­is­tics of resilient ath­letes is their abil­i­ty to focus on the moment. As a researcher in high per­for­mance and resilience – defined as the “role of men­tal process­es and behav­iour in pro­mot­ing per­son­al assets and pro­tect­ing an indi­vid­ual from the poten­tial neg­a­tive effect of stres­sors” – my work looks at under­stand­ing this impor­tant qual­i­ty and exam­in­ing ways to improve it in athletes.

Performing under pressure

This focus and resilience was embod­ied by the 2023 Aus­tralian Open women’s cham­pi­on Ary­na Sabalen­ka, who won her first grand slam despite los­ing the first set of the match. More recent­ly, how­ev­er, she appeared to buck­le under pres­sure at the Indi­an Wells Open cham­pi­onship, against the com­posed and focused Ele­na Rybak­i­na. Sabalen­ka seemed to dwell on her dou­ble-fault errors, which led to her attempt­ing more risky and inac­cu­rate ball strikes.

Two of the men’s game’s great­est play­ers in recent times, Nadal and Djokovic, have been described as hav­ing the abil­i­ty to “play every point like it’s a match point”. This abil­i­ty to per­form con­sis­tent­ly at the high­est lev­el can be under­pinned by a psy­cho­log­i­cal state, abil­i­ty and skill called mindfulness.

Mind­ful­ness is under­stood by researchers and sport psy­chol­o­gists as “pay­ing atten­tion in a par­tic­u­lar way: on pur­pose, in the present moment, and non-judg­men­tal­ly”. The notion is root­ed in med­i­ta­tive prac­tices in Bud­dhism, and has drawn the atten­tion of sport psy­chol­o­gists in west­ern soci­ety over the last decade.

Recent research has shown that mind­ful­ness train­ing – both sit­ting and active med­i­ta­tion prac­tices – can allow ath­letes to be present in the moment, and to access opti­mal states of mind such as con­fi­dence and self-belief.

It can also help reg­u­late the emo­tions by mon­i­tor­ing and chan­nelling them in a way that enhances per­for­mance. And it can help ath­letes reach a state of “flow” – mean­ing being com­plete­ly in the moment and per­form­ing with clar­i­ty, flu­en­cy and ease.

Focus and intense emotions

These psy­cho­log­i­cal fac­tors are cru­cial in sports like ten­nis which require play­ers to focus on per­form­ing at their best dur­ing each point, while “let­ting go” of pre­vi­ous mis­takes. This abil­i­ty to accept intense pos­i­tive and neg­a­tive emo­tions, and to avoid wor­ry­ing about past mis­takes or future per­for­mance, can allow ath­letes to expe­ri­ence men­tal clar­i­ty and focus on their per­for­mance in the cur­rent moment.

Research has found that mind­ful­ness train­ing is a promis­ing inter­ven­tion that can improve con­fi­dence, self-belief and flow.

I work as part of team that seeks to eval­u­ate the effect of both “tra­di­tion­al” mind­ful­ness, such as sit­ting med­i­ta­tions, and “active” or “applied” prac­tices, such as engag­ing in mind­ful­ness while play­ing sport. We have been research­ing this in swim­mers, with promis­ing find­ings in pre-elite ath­letes, and we plan to do the same with elite ath­letes who com­pete in oth­er sports includ­ing ten­nis and cricket.

Our research has found that mind­ful­ness can improve an athlete’s “action aware­ness” – their self-aware­ness of phys­i­cal move­ments or actions, and their abil­i­ty to be in the moment and pos­sess clear goals. These fac­tors are like­ly to lead to think­ing clear­ly, per­form­ing con­sis­tent­ly, and being tech­ni­cal­ly and tac­ti­cal­ly aware in each ten­nis point, for example.

With the devel­op­ment of ever more sophis­ti­cat­ed tech­nol­o­gy, sport psy­chol­o­gy is enter­ing a par­tic­u­lar­ly excit­ing peri­od that will see fur­ther oppor­tu­ni­ties to help ath­letes devel­op their resilience and improve per­for­mance under pressure.

For exam­ple, the grow­ing acces­si­bil­i­ty and sophis­ti­ca­tion of vir­tu­al real­i­ty (VR) adds anoth­er use­ful tool. Ten­nis play­ers and oth­er ath­letes can be immersed in vir­tu­al per­for­mance envi­ron­ments where audi­to­ry and visu­al dis­trac­tions and pres­sures can be intro­duced to test their resilience.

The use of VR sim­u­la­tions are par­tic­u­lar­ly use­ful to mon­i­tor and assist ath­letes to prac­tise mind­ful­ness under “con­trolled” con­di­tions, while sport psy­chol­o­gists mon­i­tor their respons­es and improvements.

Recent research from Queen’s Uni­ver­si­ty Belfast and the Uni­ver­si­ty of Lim­er­ick has shown that VR meth­ods can sim­u­late or repli­cate real-world per­for­mance anx­i­ety and pres­sure in a con­trolled way, allow­ing pro­gres­sive and man­aged expo­sure to stress.

This can help the ath­letes get used to states of anx­i­ety that are typ­i­cal in high-per­for­mance sport – and to prac­tise sport psy­chol­o­gy tech­niques like mind­ful­ness to man­age them, in a way that ups their game.

– Jen­nifer Meg­gs is an Asso­ciate Pro­fes­sor in Psy­chol­o­gy at Heri­ot-Watt Uni­ver­si­ty. She has a PhD in resilience and men­tal tough­ness in high per­for­mance con­texts, and is also an HCPC Sport and Exer­cise Psy­chol­o­gist prac­ti­tion­er. The arti­cle was orig­i­nal­ly pub­lished on The Con­ver­sa­tion.

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About SharpBrains

SHARPBRAINS is an independent think-tank and consulting firm providing services at the frontier of applied neuroscience, health, leadership and innovation.
SHARPBRAINS es un think-tank y consultoría independiente proporcionando servicios para la neurociencia aplicada, salud, liderazgo e innovación.

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