How Mindfulness Training may mediate Stress, Performance and Burnout

Submitted by  P. Furrer1*, Dr. F. Moen2*,  and. Dr. K. Firing3*

1* Master student; Faculty of Teacher Education; The Nord-Trøndelag University College; Levanger, Norway

2* Associate Professor; Department of Education; Norwegian University of Science and Technology; Trondheim, Norway

3*Associate Professor; Department of Leadership; The Royal Norwegian Air Force Academy; Trondheim, Norway

Frode Moen is currently the head manager of the Olympic Athlete program in central Norway, where he also has a position as a coach / mental trainer for elite athletes and coaches.  He also is an associate professor at the Department of Education at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology.  He previously has worked as a teacher in high school where sport was his major subject, and he has been a coach for the national team in Nordic combined in Norway for several years.  Frode received his Ph.D.  in coaching and performance psychology from the Norwegian University of Science and Technology.  His research focuses mainly on coaching in business, coaching in sport, communication, performance psychology and relationship issues.

ABSTRACT

The aim of this article was to explore the influence of mindfulness training on stress, perceived performance in school and sports, and athlete burnout among junior elite athletes.  One goal was to determine the usefulness of mindfulness training in performance enhancement and burnout prevention in junior elite sports.  A mindfulness-training program (MTP) was conducted with 29 junior elite athletes over a period of 12-weeks.  Six of the athletes who were participating in the MTP were randomly chosen to voluntarily participate in a semi structural interview that explored possible effects from the MTP.  Our qualitative analyses showed that the mindfulness intervention had a positive impact on the athletes’ awareness and recovery.  The authors also discuss positive effects on the athletes’ focus and performances.  The findings are discussed against the usefulness of mindfulness training in athlete burnout prevention.

Key words: mindfulness, stress, athlete burnout, sport

INTRODUCTION

Junior elite athletes often dream about a future in elite senior sports.  The path towards elite sports consists of a wide range of challenges that can contribute to performance impairment, negative overload and eventually burnout (3).  High degrees of stress have an impact on an athlete’s ability for training adaption and performance (19).  This in turn decreases their ability to reach elite levels in their sports.  Possibly unfulfilled expectations within sports are also found to influence higher levels of stress (24, 20).  Junior elite athletes are in a sensitive age for their athletic development (67).  Athlete burnout is therefore especially problematic in junior sports and can be seen as a possible antecedent for early drop out from sports (47).  Research to help prevent junior athletes from getting burned out is therefore of high importance.  Due to the multidimensional nature of athlete burnouts and because of the contributing influence of stress on burnout syndromes (26, 53), stress management and stress reducing training could be an interesting part of burnout prevention.

One widely used intervention method in stress reduction is mindfulness training (2).  In addition to the stress reducing effect of mindfulness training (22), mindfulness is also found to be negatively associated to burnout (44).  Research on neural correlates of mindfulness and clinical sports psychology has further shown that mindfulness can be useful in a wide range of performance enhancement cases like performance development, performance dysfunction, performance impairment, and performance termination (42).  This study seeks to explore if mindfulness training can be useful in stress reduction, performance enhancement and burnout prevention in junior elite athletes.

THEORETICAL FRAMEWORK

To reach an international level in elite sports requires training spans of 10 years or more with high quality training volumes (16, 62).  The main purpose in all these years of elite training is to enhance performance level by adapting the physiology and mind to the specific requirements of the sport by using an optimal training load (49).  Higher degree of adaptation to the training process increases the potential for performance enhancements (4).  “Flow” is described as a state in which a person is completely absorbed in his or her actions and experiences a unity of body and mind that facilitates peak performance (14, 15, 27, 28, 59).  Thus, the idea that mindfulness may improve athletic performance is supported by the theoretical overlap between mindfulness and “flow” (66, 17, 35, 36).

Mindfulness

Marks (42) suggested mindfulness practice to be relevant for athletes in cases of performance development, performance dysfunction, performance impairment, and performance termination.  Mindfulness is described as paying attention on purpose in the present moment without judgment (34).  It is also described as a non-evaluative, receptive moment-to-moment attention or awareness with three principal components – non-evaluation (non-judgment), open receptivity and present-centeredness (5).  According to Weinstein and Ryan (69) these three components together characterize the mindful-awareness state and are believed to work together in producing beneficial outcomes.  A tendency towards open-mindedness and curious introspection has also been shown to be integral in this beneficial process (43, 64).

Several mindfulness programs as for example Kabat-Zinn’s (31, 32) Mindfulness-based Stress Reduction (MBSR) or Segal, Williams, and Teasdale’s (59) Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT) have been developed.  The first one (MBSR by 43, 70) is probably the most well-known of numerous mindfulness based interventions (66).  This program is a group-based mindfulness intervention originally designed as an adjunct treatment for patients with chronic pain (37).  The program consists of an eight-to-ten weeks course, in which groups of up to thirty participants meet twice a week for two and a half hours for mindfulness meditation training and instruction (32).  In addition to mindfulness exercises in class, participants are asked to engage in home mindfulness practices and attend an all-day intensive mindfulness meditation retreat.  The assumption of MBSR is that individuals learn to be less reactive and judgmental toward their experiences, and more able to recognize and break free from habitual and maladaptive patterns of thinking and behavior (37).

Stress

Importantly, an optimal adaptation to training and competitions depends on the relationship between stress (physiological, psychological and social stress) and adequate regeneration (45, 46).  Chronic stress and maladaptation to stress over time can lead towards the impairment of training adaptation, the risk of underperformance, the development of overtraining syndrome, and ultimately athlete burnout (12, 23, 57).  Therefore, it is of high importance that athletes and coaches consider these non-training stressors in combination with the training load (24).

Interestingly, mindfulness-based interventions are found to reduce stress symptoms (2, 21) and it is found that mindfulness is negatively associated with burnout (44).  It has also been found that the practice of mindfulness can help improve wellbeing (5, 6), physical health (21), as well as to reduce pain, anxiety, and depression (33, 65).

Performance

An explanation of all the presented positive effects from the mindfulness programs could be that mindfulness practice provides an opportunity to enhance concentration and non-reactivity.  The emotional experience of stressful events is not denied during the practice, but acknowledged and accepted, while maintaining task-focus.  Enhancement of continues attention reduces rumination and facilitates shift of attention focus to desired targets and impede thereby elaboration of unpleasant thoughts and feelings (42).  This explanation fits well with the suggestions of Weinstein, Brown & Ryan (68) about two primary ways through which mindfulness training may produce beneficial effects.  Firstly, mindfulness practice may promote a less defensive, more willing exposure to challenging and threatening events and experiences.  This may reduce negative cognitive appraisals of those situations, thus leading to lower levels of perceived stress.  Secondly, mindfulness training may foster an enhanced capacity to cope adaptively with situations, which are perceived as challenging, threatening, or harmful (68).  They hypothesized that higher levels of mindfulness would be related to both, a lower tendency to appraise or interpret events as stressful and a more adaptive coping in stressful situations (68).

Athlete Burnout

Athlete burnout is a difficult and chronic state and it is demanding to recover from it (61).  However, chronic stress from various sources seems to be the most important antecedent for athlete burnout (53, 58).  Psychosocial factors (13), excessive training stress and lack of recovery (20, 22, 40), sport hassles (12), or perceived performance pressure from coaches (51) are only some of a wide range of stressors, which can contribute to the development of athlete burnout.

Athlete burnout is considered to be a multidimensional syndrome or construct (55, 8), which consists of three central dimensions: 1) Emotional and physical exhaustion, 2) Reduced sense of accomplishment, and 3) Sport devaluation (52).  Emotional and physical exhaustion seem to be the most obvious manifestation of burnout and are characterized by feelings of emotional and physical fatigue associated with training and competing (55).  Reduced sense of accomplishment is explained by perceived inefficacy and a tendency to negative evaluations of oneself, in terms of sports performance and own accomplishments.  Athletes, who experience this phenomenon, perform below expectations and are unable to achieve personal goals (55).  Sport devaluation is defined as a detached attitude towards the sport, reflected by negativity and a lack of concern regarding the sport itself and the performance quality (55).  The most common consequence of high levels of burnout is lack of motivation (18), which may lead to the unwanted outcome of dropout from sports (47).  Although the occurrence of athlete burnout still is not fully understood (29), it is suggested that the number of athletes, who are suffering from burnout, seems to be rising (19).

Because of the strong research support on the influence of from meditation on stress, performance and burnout syndromes (3, 25, 53, 54), mindfulness training should be seen as an interesting tool in stress management, performance enhancement and recovery (48).

Based on the presented theoretical background this study aims to investigate the influence of a 12-weeks mindfulness intervention on perceived stress, perceived performance in school and sports, and especially athlete burnout among junior elite athletes.

METHOD

In order to reach a deeper understanding of the influence and the mechanisms of mindfulness training in performance enhancement and burnout prevention in junior elite sports, a mindfulness training program was developed and offered to junior athletes in Norway.  Twenty-nine Norwegian junior athletes from biathlon, cross-country skiing and shooting were asked to voluntarily take part in a 12-weeks mindfulness training intervention.  Their average age were 18 ½ years and they all studied at a Norwegian high school specialized for elite sport.  These athletes were all in an elite training group in their different sports and were considered to be the best athletes in their sports.  The athletes’ experiences from the mindfulness program were investigated qualitatively by semi-structured interviews.  The study is approved by the Norwegian Social Science Data Services.

Mindfulness program

The mindfulness intervention lasted 12 weeks in total, divided into 4 continuous periods of three weeks.  After each of these periods athletes, who agreed to take part in this intervention, were invited to a 2-hour mindfulness-class conducted by an experienced mindfulness coach.  There, the training was discussed, the planning for the next period was made and mindfulness was trained.  The mindfulness-intervention program consisted mainly of 2 different types of mindfulness training: a) sitting meditation with focus on breathing and b) body scanning (laying and standing position) with help of sound files in different length varying from 10-30 minutes.  All participants received the audio files used in this intervention before the start of the first period.  The mindfulness training-periods differed in content, volume and intensity (Table 1).

Throughout the whole intervention, participants were asked to write a personal mindfulness training-diary, including type of training, training-volume, and personal thoughts and findings linked to the program to assure the program followed up as good as possible.  These diaries were used to improve the follow-up of the athletes during the program.  Additionally, the mindfulness classes every 3th week were observed by the author to secure the program-content and to gain deeper understanding of the influence of the intervention throughout the program.  These observations helped also to gain wider understanding of athletes’ thoughts about the program and their follow up during the periods.

Table 1

Overview of the 12-week mindfulness-intervention divided into 4 periods of 3 weeks.

Period Training plan Goal
 1 Minimum 5 times weekly;
Mornings: Body-scanning (13 minute audio-file).
Evenings:  Meditation in sitting position with focus on breathing (10 minute sound file).
To train on keeping concentration and focus over longer periods of time in a relaxed way.
2 Minimum 3 times weekly;
Mornings: 3-5 minute mix of meditation-body-scanning with focus on whole body in sitting or lying-position (without use of audio-file).
Evenings: Body-scanning  (30 min audio-file).
To get used to meditate individually without use of guiding or audio-files.To train the change of direction and intensity of focus.
3 Monday: Body-scanning in laying position(30 min audio-file)
Tuesday: meditation in sitting position with focus on breathing (6 min).
Wednesday: body scanning, (13 min audio-file).
Thursday: meditation in sitting position with focus on breathing (6 min).
Friday: Body-scanning in laying position(30 min audio-file)
Saturday: no mindfulness training
Sunday: no mindfulness Training
To train the different mindfulness skills.
 4 Athletes were guided to make individual mindfulness training plans. The minimum weekly training volume was 90 minutes of self-chosen meditations.
In combination with this period’s training plan on formal meditation the athletes were asked to train non-formal meditation.
To maintain reached level of mindfulness and to learn participants to plan and train mindfulness individually.

Qualitatively Interviews

After finishing the Mindfulness program, 6 athletes were selected semi-randomly to take part in qualitative semi-structured interviews.  This ensured that all the important topics were explored, while flexibility in individual responses was still allowed.  The sample consisted of 3 female and 3 male athletes, who ranged in age from 18 to 20 years (2 biathletes, 2 cross-country skiers, 2 shooters).  In-depth interviews were chosen because they can provide greater breadth and allowed the athletes to articulate their own thoughts and feelings about the mindfulness training intervention (17).

We wanted to stimulate a production of storied communication, meaning extensive elaborations of a topic and how these topics influenced their lives as athletes.  All stories were spontaneous and the episodes spread throughout the interview were considered narratives and later given a meaning analysis (39).  The interview guide consisted of five main sections.  The interviews started with: (a) demographic background; (b); an open question about how they experienced the intervention; (c) the athletes experience with the present during the period (mindfulness); (d) their perceived stress and amount of exhaustion; and (e) their performances in sport and in school.  The participants were encouraged to express their views as fully and freely as they possibly could, both prior to and during the interview.  The interviewer was flexible to change the order of questions and probe areas that arose to follow the participants’ perspectives.  Probes and follow-up questions were also used to deepen the responses. The interviews (ranging from 35-60 minutes) were recorded and transcribed (88 pages).

Data analysis procedures

The interview transcripts were analyzed through Interpretive Phenomenological Analyses (IPA), a process conducted through six steps (62).  First, the transcripts were read to ensure the focus of the participant involved. Second, initial coding, attaching one or more code words to the text paragraphs of relevance, was conducted to identify what mattered most to the participant (e.g. how the mindfulness training had enhanced the athletes’ ability to recover).  In this stage we stayed close to the participants’ meaning in a descriptive way.  Third, to develop emergent themes, we reduced the volume of transcripts and initial codes.  Fourth, using a table with relevant utterances in one column and code words in another, we developed clusters of meaning bringing significant statements into themes (e.g. how different utterances considering “sleep” and “calmer” were developed into the theme “recovery as it was experienced during the mindfulness training).  In the fifth step, the four first steps were repeated for all informants.  Through the sixth step, bringing different tables with relevant utterances and code words together, we developed common patterns across the different interviews, a process of gathering information about the same theme within its respective category (e.g. how the athletes’ awareness had been developed through the mindfulness training).  In our case, four categories were developed.

Trustworthiness

In accordance with Lincoln and Guba’s (41) criteria for trustworthiness, we spent prolonged time in the field to build trust with the participants.  Furthermore, we used analysis triangulation to help establish accuracy in the interpretations (50).  All participants were sent copies of their individual interview transcripts, and were asked to comment on the accuracy of the preliminary analyses.  Second, following data analysis, they were sent a summary of the study findings and asked to comment on the degree to which the analyses were concordant with their own interpretations.  Some of the athletes clarified some details during this process.  Finally, a thick description of the context and other aspects of the research setting were made to provide evidence for transferability.

RESULTS

In examining how the junior athletes experienced the attention training we developed the categories raised awareness, improved recovery, improved focus and improved performances, as outlined below.

Raised awareness

Investigating the effects of the mindfulness training intervention qualitatively, the influence on awarenessis prominent.  All six athletes described their experience of raised awareness.

(1)   I feel I have an improved awareness now… I discover more… I discover easier when my focus drifts away and then I’m able to refocus on what matters in the present moment (Athlete 3).

(2)   I feel I have an improved awareness for inner experiences now, such as nervousness. I don´t feel that it creates any stress; on the contrary, I feel I am calmer because of that (Athlete 4).

(3)   I am more aware of things than before… and my evaluations have improved because of that (Athlete 1).

(4)   I am more aware of my technique in skiing and how different solutions feel when I try these different technical solutions (Athlete 5).

            The first quotation illustrates how the programme has helped the athlete to become more aware of his attention.  As a result from raised awareness this athlete is able to reallocates his attention when it “…drifts away”.  In the second utterance we see how the athlete has increased his “…awareness for inner experiences now, such as nervousness”, which makes him calmer.  In the third utterance raised awareness has resulted in improved evaluations.  The fourth utterance illustrates how raised awareness makes the athlete become more aware of how she performs different techniques when skiing.

Although improvements in awareness generally were mentioned as something positive, it also seems to have the potential of causing higher rumination.

(5)   I somehow feel like being more aware of my inner experiences… In the mornings I can for example make a body scanning and feel immediately what state the body is in… if I feel my body is very tired, that can stress me a little bit… It somehow lies there all the time and I ruminate about it (Athlete 3).

This utterance illustrates that being aware of unwanted feelings “…if my body is very tired…” can stimulate the athlete to start ruminating about it.

Improved focus

All six athletes also mentioned changes in their focus abilities as a result from the mindfulness intervention.

(1)   I`m able to keep concentration on more shots for example (Athlete 1).

(2)   Earlier my focus easily drifted away, now it´s much easier to just keep the focus on the things that matters, as e.g. in shooting… If I`ve e.g. plan to focus on the way I pull the trigger, the focus on this task is much clearer and stronger (Athlete 2).

(3)   I am just much more focused… for example if I am reading school things I am much more focused on what I am actually reading… it´s easier to remember things I read and I get things done in shorter time… It´s easier to pay attention to- and listen to the teacher.  When I am working in the class I don´t get distracted by others (Athlete 4).

(4)   I now had some races where my shooting was crazy …  I was 100% focused on myself and every single shot…  I was only present in this one moment without thinking on possible outcomes…  I was extremely determined and had a big self-confidence…  I have never been like this before (Athlete 6).

The first quotation illustrates how the programme has helped the athlete to stay focused “…keep concentration on more shots for example…” In the second utterance also illustrates improved focus “…the focus on this task is much clearer and stronger. In the third utterance we see how improved focus at school “… I am much more focused on what I am actually reading…”, and as a result “… it’s easier to remember things I read …” The fourth utterance illustrates how the athlete has improved his ability to just focus on his shooting “… I was 100% focused on myself and every single shot…” without any rumination about possible outcomes “ …without thinking on possible outcomes…” Interestingly, this experience is his first “…I have never been like this before…”

One athlete expressed that higher awareness in combination with a too poorly defined focus task in a performance situation could cause insecurity, stress and rumination.

(5)   I got more aware of things now, but in shooting it feels like I haven´t found the key yet…  and when I shoot badly I suddenly can lose my self-confidence in shooting…  So in shooting I still struggle to accept and refocus (Athlete 3).

This utterance illustrates how a poorly defined focus task could be a potential stressor in competition situations.  This athlete struggled with insecurity about what to focus on to perform well, while he was aware about doing this. Such cases seem to have the potential to cause more rumination.

Improved recovery

Besides the positive influence of mindfulness training on changes in awareness, change in recovery (as mentioned by all athletes) seems to be another positive outcome of this training intervention.

(1)   I feel a big difference in sleep. I fall asleep much easier. Earlier I struggled with falling asleep and I lay awake for a long time, ruminating about a lot of things…   Now I don`t ruminate that much anymore, so it takes like 5 minutes and then I fall asleep…  that`s strange…  but feels very good (Athlete 1).

(2)   I felt the improved sleeping quality had an effect on how recovered I felt in the mornings…  I could get up earlier and I was less tired…  That´s really good (Athlete 2).

(3)   I slept better…  and feel I wake up more recovered…  maybe that´s because I don’t think so much anymore when I go to bed (Athlete 3).

(4)   I feel that I relate a little different to my expectations now than I did before…  I don’t put that much pressure on myself as before…  I focus more on myself than on my opponents and therefore I feel less stressed…  somehow I have become calmer and less anxious in according to my sports performance (Athlete 5).

The first quotation illustrates how the programme has helped the athlete to sleep better, possibly because “…  I don’t think so much anymore when I go to bed…”  In the second utterance we see how the athlete has increased his “… awareness for inner experiences now, such as nervousness”, which makes him calmer.  In the third utterance raised awareness has resulted in improved evaluations.  The fourth utterance illustrates how raised awareness makes the athlete become more aware of how she performs different techniques when skiing.  Interestingly, all four utterances indicate that the main effect on recovery seems to be rooted in less rumination, which then leads to improved sleep and relaxation.

Although all athletes expressed improved recovery, some of the athletes still experienced stress due to the combination of school, sports and eventually also the mindfulness-training program.

(5)   I felt I was very low in energy levels true big parts of the season…  Because I succeeded well in sports, I had very high expectations to myself in both sports and school, and I also felt high expectations from other people…  During this period I also felt that the mindfulness program was intensive.  However, I felt I had more energy thanks to the mindfulness training (Athlete 5).

This quotation illustrates that the athlete experienced a high amount of exhaustion during the season.  Still, the athlete believed that the mindfulness training had helped her to prevent even higher degrees of exhaustion, even though the mindfulness training was demanding itself.

Improved performances

The last category represents the athletes’ experiences of better performances in both school and sports.  Influences on performance have already been touched in the previous categories, but are presented more specific in this category.

(1)   I feel that the program has helped me to perform better in shooting, my results are better now.  I think that`s because of the improved quality of the training sessions, in combination with my improved skills of being focused on just the one thing that matters at a particular moment (Athlete 1). 

(2)   The improved ability of focusing has generally had a very positive effect on my school performance…  Since I my awareness in school is higher and since it’s easier to focus and work well, my grades have improved…  It´s also easier to get interested and stay interested on what s going on at school (Athlete 2).

(3)   I feel being part of this program also paid off in school performance…  If you work more focused, off course, it helps…  I think I am better at school now than I was before…  We didn´t so many exams in this period, but I feel that all exams that we did have went pretty well (Athlete 4).

The first quotation illustrates a positive effect on shooting performance “… I feel the results are better now…” The second and third utterances illustrates that the athletes believe that their school performances are improved “… positive effect on my school performance…” and “… I think I’m better in school now than I was before…” The perceived positive changes in both, school and sports performances seem to be mostly because of the improved attention awareness “… If you work more focused, off course it helps…”

DISCUSSION

This study explored the influence of mindfulness training on stress, performance in school and sports, and athlete burnout.  The existing literature has a lack of clarity concerning the link between mindfulness training and stress, performance and athlete burnout, and therefore we chose to explore the link between mindfulness training and burnout prevention and performance enhancement among junior elite athletes.  Some of the major findings that emerged are given below.

“Raised awareness” includes how the athletes have become more aware of the situation, and have been more able to relocate their attention.  “Improved” focus is captured by athletes having a clearer and stronger focus, being able to focus on what they are doing without thinking of possible consequences.  “Improved recovery” encompasses how the athletes have reported less rumination and increased sleep and relaxation.  Finally, “improved performance” is reported through improved results in sport, in shooting, and in school, on exams.

Researchers seem to reach different conclusions as to the efficacy of mindfulness training, depending on the theoretical framework and the methods used for investigation.  Our study takes a step forward to explore the experience resulting from mindfulness training.  In the following, the opportunities and constraints regarding mindfulness training will be discussed.

Mindfulness training: Adding weight or improving recovery?

Our findings indicate that mindfulness training leads to lower perceived mind stress, lower rumination, improved sleeping quality and better recovery.  However, several of these athletes experienced high total loads due to the combination of school and sports.  Several of the athletes also reported they had a period where they struggled with the motivation to train mindfulness.  From here, the experience was twofold.

First, the athletes who mentioned these kinds of struggles with motivation during the program reported they restarted with mindfulness training after a short break.  This was because they felt things had worked better in periods where they trained mindfulness.  This may indicate that mental training methods, such as mindfulness training, have to be maintained.  Otherwise the positive effects could decrease.

Second, the mentioned periods with a lack of motivation could also be viewed in the light of junior elite athletes’ schedules, already having fully programmed days with academic and sport-related activities.  If a mental training intervention takes too much space, it could cause more stress and thereby the beneficial effects could be weakened or entirely lost.  It seems important that a mindfulness-training program is not too extensive, and is properly adjusted into the athletes’ existing training programs.  Thus, finding a balance between the mindfulness training itself and the athletes’ total load seems to be important in making mindfulness training improve recovery rather than adding extra weight an already heavy load.  A possible difficulty regarding this balance, however, is illustrated by the words of St Francis de Seles: “A half-hour daily meditation is a must – except when you are very busy.  Then you need an hour” (32).

Mindfulness training: improved awareness or more rumination?

Another highly important and often perceived outcome of the conducted mindfulness intervention seems to be the effect of athletes’ improved awareness.  This corresponds very well with the findings of De Petrillo et al.  (15), who showed significant increases in the awareness in runners taking part in a Mindful Sports Performance Enhancement intervention (MSPE).

Although it seems that improved awareness offers several beneficial outcomes, it may also lead to more rumination, insecurity and mind stress.  This is especially the case if athletes become aware of no beneficial feelings, which they do not know how to handle or if work- or focus-tasks are not defined clearly enough.  Improved acceptance of stressful experiences was also reported by Kabat-Zinn et al., (33).

Mindfulness training: increased internal focus or lack of external focus?

Our findings also indicate that during mindfulness training the athletes had improved their focus abilities and all explained that they had increased the duration of time in which they could keep a strong focus.  Therefore, it seems that the meditation training improves athletes’ endurance in keeping a high level of attention and focus on specific tasks.  Although athletes mentioned they are better at focusing, there seem to be differences in how clearly they could e.g. explain what their focus was like when performing at their best.  Therefore it is hypothesized that it is rather the change in awareness of their own experiences rather than the focus abilities, which has changed.  It has to be considered that barely defined focus tasks in combination with higher awareness of one’s own internal experiences, could lead to higher insecurity; creating more stress and rumination.  Also, if the internal focus abilities are trained extensively through mindfulness meditation, there could be a lack of external focusing skills resulting in little clarity of one’s own focus tasks.  To improve both, internal and external focus, it could be useful to combine mental training methods such as mindfulness training (internal focus), with training methods focusing on improvement of external focus, such as attention training techniques (71).

Mindfulness training: happening or integrated trough follow up processes?

Against our findings related to the mindfulness-training program, it is important to keep in mind that the athletes have been followed up over a 12-week period.  Thus, the findings have to be judged in two directions. First, this follow-up process itself could have caused feelings of positive changes.  Second, the close follow-up of mental training interventions by a coach seems to be important.  This is due to positive influences on motivation and a more beneficial adaption of experiences.  In addition, the analysis of this 12-week intervention shows that it is highly important that a possible mental training intervention, like this mindfulness program, in junior elite athletes should not be too extensive because of their already busy days.  Too extensive programs could become a possible antecedent of even higher perceived stress levels, which in turn could affect athletes negatively.

CONCLUSION

Based on this study it can be concluded that mindfulness training is an interesting mental training method, which can possibly be used in both performance enhancement and especially burnout prevention in junior elite athletes; the latter is due to increased stress reduction and recovery.  Mindfulness training seems to have a positive, but mostly indirect influence on levels of athlete burnout in junior elite athletes through the link of impaired perceived stress.  Reductions in athletes´ perceived mind stress seem to lead to lower perceived stress levels, less rumination, better sleep and improved recovery.

Positive effects of mindfulness training were found in athletes’ awareness abilities (e.g. attention awareness, focus awareness, awareness on what is beneficial and no beneficial, present-oriented awareness).  It seems that improved awareness is beneficial for enhanced recovery, school and sports performance.  Higher perceived performance led to higher satisfaction and improved motivation, which also had a positive influence on burnout prevention.  It seems as the possible positive effects of mindfulness training on school and sports performance also seems to be indirect as for e.g. true improved recovery or improved task awareness.

Higher awareness in combination with an insufficiently defined focus task can cause insecurity, higher mind stress and rumination in performance situations/tasks.  For future use of mindfulness training in performance enhancement, it is, therefore, important that focus tasks are defined as clearly as possible.  A close cooperation with the sports specific coach could therefore be highly interesting in future mindfulness training interventions in sports.  For clarifying focus tasks and thereby minimizing the risk that improved awareness can lead to insecurity in performance situations, it could further be interesting to combine mindfulness training with other mental training programs, which focus more on external focus abilities.

APPLICATIONS IN SPORT

Mindfulness training has the potential to prevent athlete burnout because of stress reduction and increased recovery.  It also has the potential to enhance performances.  Mindfulness exercises could be beneficial for athletes who struggle with demands from several sources.

ACKNOWLEDGMENTS

This study was done in cooperation with The Olympic department in middle-Norway and the Center for Elite Sports Research, Norwegian University of Science and Technology.

 

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