Increase your mental capacity and sports performance with mindfulness practice

In today’s world of constant interruption and information overload, it is challenging to stay mindful. It is hard to block the thoughts, especially the negative ones, while constantly being bombarded with news and going through everyday problems.

Regardless of occupation, age, sex or race, everyone would benefit from the ability or better say skill to stay in the present moment, while observing the thoughts and emotions come and go. 

If you ask yourself what mindfulness is, here is a definition (one of many out there):

Mindfulness is the awareness that emerges through paying attention on purpose, in the present moment, and nonjudgmentally to the unfolding of experience moment by moment. (Kabat-Zinn, 2003, p.145) 

There are myriad benefits associated with mindfulness practice. Research suggests it promotes well being by promoting good emotions, improves focus and ability to stay on task or improves your social interactions (which translates to your relationships), positively affects the emotional regulation, provides an opportunity for bouncing back after a setback, etc.

The benefits that mindful practice provides are not limited to everyday life and only ordinary or everyday people (don’t mean to offend anyone), but as well, they can relate to an athlete’s performance. This is the main focus of this post.

Mindfulness practice and sports performance 

For successful sports performance, it is not enough to think only about the physical aspect of the preparation. For a while, it has been known that mental status plays a huge role in how athletes behave, affecting their performance. Therefore, besides planning how to make an athlete faster, stronger, and bigger, a big chunk of athletes’ training routine belongs to mental preparation. 

As part of the mental preparation, coaches use various techniques and approaches to help their athletes to get at pick mental state so they could perform at their best. Some of the strategies and techniques used involve breathing techniques, autogenic training, progressive muscular relaxation, mindfulness, and visualization.

Lately, of particular interest is the impact of mindfulness practice on our lives and sports performance. 

Being mindful is about tolerance and acceptance (nonjudgmental) towards feelings, thoughts, and emotions. This could help athletes stay present and focused on the current task (Goodman, Kashdan, Mallarad, & Schumann, 2014).

The Inner Voice 

How many times you’ve been consumed with thoughts and emotions after getting the bracket and have seen that you are in a group with someone you do not want to be? The first thought is “ Damn it,” “Bad luck,” or “No luck at all.” 


Now it comes the moment you start doubting in your qualities and start overthinking about your opponent, instead of focusing on yourself and what is in your control. If you’ve ever heard about Stoics and their philosophy, you would know that beating up and eating yourself alive about something that is not in your control in number one mistake you what to avoid. 

Negative experience that somehow challenges athletes’ skills, confidence, and ability to perform, results in athlete getting drown toward negative or counter productive self-talk. 


Let me tell you a story…a personal one. 

The whole experience is still vivid since It took me time to recover from the setback. As a member of the Serbian junior karate national team in kata, we took part at the European Cadet and Junior Karate Championship in Istanbul. We have a great kata team. After the first round, we went again the team of Spain. 

We were quite excited (maybe a bit too much). We rushed the begging of Kanku sho, which resulted in me making a mistake after the first jump. After the jump, I lost balance with did not give enough time for me to do the first Yoko Geri. 

And that was it … at that moment I felt a tremendous weight on my shoulders and my brain shutting down. It was the hardest moment of my sports career. 

For a long time, I had the “What IF” voice in my head before that jump. 

I was consumed by the self talk, made by the narrative part of the brain. 

And it took me a while to get rid of it … or did I?

Negative Self-Talk

The process of self-talk is governed by the narrative part of the brain that appears automatically and might not be evident at first glance. At this point, the only way an athlete can get back into the game is by shifting from narrative into the direct experience mode – being mindful (Sam Boys, 2019). 

For this reason, it is essential that athlete gets familiar with strategies that can help him manage and, in some way, direct the “inner voice” in the desired direction to be able to experience increased performance, satisfaction, and enjoyment. This is possible only by learning how to keep attention in the present moment

And by now you probably know the answer … one of the most potent brain enhancing drugs, mindfulness practice.

The Power of Mindfulness 

Practicing mindfulness has been shown to have a positive impact on the overall well-being as well as sports performance (Baltzell, 2016, Pinean, Glass & Kaufman, 2014). 

This is accomplished through becoming more aware of the emotions we are experiencing every day, on the court or the tatami, and the triggers responsible for the sensations. (getting in groups with athletes you want to avoid, or finding out that there have been changes in the schedule and the organizer is using brand new tatami that might be slippery) – tell me you haven’t thought about this at least once? 

Implementing mindfulness techniques can help athletes become more aware of the present moment without getting trapped in an overthinking loop (narrative mode) related to the competition outcome/organization/past mistakes and other variables he or she does not have control over, such as referees, weather, opponents, etc. 

By engaging in a non-judgmental awareness (being mindful), an athlete will become aware of his experiences to different stimuli, as well as the types of distractions (physical, mental, emotional, and social) he might be subjected to during or before his performance.

By being aware of the present moment, an athlete will be able to increase the capacity for concentration which will influence positively how the athlete deals with distractions. Therefore, he will identify a setup of any negative self-talk and act timely.


FIRST OF ALL, no trip to Nepal or sacred temple is needed. No weird clothes or mantras that you need to repeat three times a day. You need to start a simple practice where you draw your attention inwards to yourself (focusing on body sensations or breath) or outwards (perceiving what is happening around you by looking or listening). 

Introduce mindfulness practice at the beginning of your training 

Take a moment to notice that is going on in and around you (you can do this practice at home, outside in nature or in your dojo) 

  1. Look around you. What do you see? Choose one thing and pay attention to the colors, shape, or how far away it is. 
  2. Close your eyes. Focus on one sound you can hear. Is it loud or subtle? Is it calming or irritating? Does it have rhythm? 
  3. Keep your eyes closed. Start feeling different body sensations. Do you feel the tension in any body part? Do you feel the ground under your feet? Hands. Legs. Or maybe feel the breath. Where do you feel it? In your belly or chest? Is it slow or fast? 

You do not have to introduce all these steps at the same time. My favorite practice is mindful breathing, where I pay attention to my breath and try to stay with it while observing thoughts come and go. Sometimes I count to 10, recording every inhalation and exhalation. If I get lost in thought before coming to 10, I start all over again from 1. 

Try it!

This could be a great routine to implement at the beginning and end of your practice during MOKUSO time. This would allow you to take away all your problems, ideas, or things to play to do in the future or after your practice and focus solely on your practice. 

Introduce mindfulness during your karate practice (staying in the moment) 

After a few years of practice, it is easy to start performing different karate techniques mechanically without thinking much about the movement. It comes naturally. Which is a good thing. But what’s not good is that we also, stop giving thought about the feeling and sensations accompanying the movement. This is the moment when you stop being mindful. 

We think about performing better, faster, and stronger than the opponent, consumed by the idea of winning. This subconsciously puts an enormous burden on us mentally, leading to anxiety, doubt, too much excitement, and overwhelming. All this strips us away from the opportunity to enjoy the moment. And when you are not in the moment, you are somewhere else. You get absorbed by our feelings, taught, and emotions that are not associated with the present. 

Become mindful of your practice!

During your karate practice try to introduce mindfulness practice as much as you can. Start by being aware of you breath and inner voice before executing a certain techniques, sparring with your partner or performing a kata. 

How to start being aware of your inner talk

  1. Take a moment to acknowledge your inner dialogue;
  2. What are you thinking and telling yourself when preparing for your belt exam of competition? (first start practicing this on training) 
  3. What are thinking: “I am not as fast as he is” or “the judges will be on his side”. 
  4. Is this a useful information? Do you have control over these things and is this really relevant to your performance? 
  5. Become aware of the inner dialogue and if it is counter-productive, gradually get rid of it. Remember, mindfulness practice is non-judgmental. 
  6. The next thing you should do is to BRING YOUR AWARENESS TO THE PRESENT MOMENT. The best way to do that is by taking your attention to the breath. Remember, the great is your achor, not allowing you to get lost in thoughts and negative inner dialogue. 

Try becoming aware about your self talk during practice. It can be before 

Stay and be absorbed at the moment while performing a kata (this can be applyed to kumite as well or any technical performance)

Practicing any kata is a perfect way to stay present. Especially ones you’ve moved to a stage where you don’t think of the upcoming element or the direction in which you need to move. 

People are more mindful when they start learning a kata. You think only about the element that is coming, instead of the previous one or the element that is two or three steps ahead. 

Ones you get comfortable with a particular kata, mainly if you compete, your mind might start wandering around, asking questions, or throwing doubt on specific techniques. Since the kata require less brainpower (you’ve already done the kata hundred times), we open space for thought and inner talks, which can be non-productive. 

What to do?

To avoid getting trapped in this loop, during your performance, bring your attention to the current sensations and feelings you have for a particular element:

  • Feel the ground under feet;
  • Your hips, legs, core, arms, neck;
  • Feel your breath; (are you breathing normally or holding your breath)
  • Is it comfortable or challenging in that particular stance?
  • Do you feel stable?
  • Do you feel the flow of energy throughout your body?

Focus on the present moment, sensations, and accept them. Doing so has been shown to have an effect on some physiological skills such as the ability to relax. Consequently, this will result in reduces anxiety level, sadness, and confusion, which is part of the athlete’s life (Keng, Smoski, & Robins, 2011; Peterson, &Pbert, 1992).

Start using mindfulness during training time, to be able to experience its benefits during competition

While kata/kumite, focus on the element you are performing. Do not stress about the previous mistakes (at practice, if you make a mistake, do not stop to repeat the part. Instead, continue and learn to deal with that and focus on the present) or upcoming elements (maybe the jump in kata Unsu) until you get there. Stay present. Get in the zone.

indfulness = getting in the zone and effortless activity 

Have you ever been into a situation where everything you do is effortless,  perfectly synchronized and in its place. A place where you have control over every movement. In sports this is described as a state of flow or being in the zone.

“In positive psychology, flow, also known as the zone, is the mental state of operation in which a person performing an activity is fully immersed in a feeling of energized focus, full involvement, and enjoyment in the process of the activity. In essence, flow is characterized by complete absorption in what one does and loses a sense of space and time.” – Mihalyi Csikszentmihalyi

There are many definitions describing the state of flow. The important thing is to remember that it happens when athletes are focused on what they are doing, being aware of the feeling of the movement. Consequently their enjoyment in a particular activity increases.

As mindfulness becomes a popular segment of sports psychology, it has been used extensively to help athletes achieve the state of flow or get in the zone. Although additional research and evidence are needed to understand how this can be adjusted for different sports, the benefits of mindfulness are clear and is something to be included in the training process. 

Remember, the most important thing is continuity. Every moment in your day and karate practice pose an opportunity for practicing mindfulness. You just need to start, and keep going.

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