This is going to sound ridiculous, but it’s the truth: when I visited Martin Paulus’s neuropsychology lab at the University of California, San Diego in October 2013, less than five short years ago, I had no idea what “mindfulness” was. This was way back before the hype cycle had kicked into overdrive. In a way, I guess I contributed to that early hype, because I then wrote an article for Outside about Paulus’s brain-scanning studies of elite athletes and Special Forces troops, and how this bizarre thing called mindfulness training could seemingly alter your brain activity so that, in stressful situations, you’d react more like these high performers. Things are different now, of course. We’re all so sick of hearing about the wonders of mindfulness that another article about it seems more like satire than science. But sometimes you have to make exceptions, and I think this one is worthwhile.
At a conference in San Antonio a few weeks ago, I ran into Walter Staiano, an Italian researcher who currently works in Spain. Working with his countryman Samuele Marcora, Staiano has been involved over the past decade with some very pioneering research into the effects of mental fatigue in sports, and the possibility of using “brain endurance training” to enhance athletic performance. More recently, he spent a few years working with the Danish Institute of Elite Sport—and while he was there, he had a chance to implement some of his brain training ideas with elite athletes.
There are a bunch of different approaches to brain training in sport, but one promising avenue is mindfulness. In fact, Paulus and his colleagues, led by neuroscientist Lori Haase, developed a modified sports-specific form of mindfulness training that they called mPEAK, or Mindful Performance Enhancement, Awareness, and Knowledge, which they beta-tested with the U.S. BMX cycling team (and which I also wrote about for Outside in 2015). The mPEAK approach is based on a widely used protocol called Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction, which involves techniques like meditation and yoga poses, but with additional emphasis on facing sports-specific challenges like maintaining concentration and overcoming perfectionism.
Staiano, it turns out, had implemented the mPEAK program with some of his athletes in Denmark—and, crucially, had run a carefully controlled study to investigate whether it had any measurable effects. He presented those results at the European College of Sports Science congress earlier this month, and they’re worth taking a look at.
The study involved 24 members of Denmark’s national junior handball team, a sport I’m not very familiar with, but which someone recently described to me as “water polo on land.” They were split into two groups, who then did six weeks of either mindfulness training or (as a control group) breathing exercises on top of their regular training. The mindfulness training consisted of two to three hours of a week of mPEAK training (which you can read more about here) plus using the Headspace app.
Before and after the six-week intervention, the athletes completed a series of cognitive and physical tests. The cognitive tests included a “mind wandering test” and something called the Stroop Test, which assesses “cognitive flexibility [and] resistance to interference from outside stimuli.” The physical tests included a “reactive agility test” and a handball-specific agility test.
The results showed that mindfulness training improved, well, everything. In the cognitive tests, they had faster reaction times and got more right answers (avoiding the usual trade-off between speed and accuracy), and their minds wandered less. In the general agility test, they quickened their decision times, and in the handball test, they completed the task more quickly and with fewer mistakes. The control group, meanwhile, stayed roughly the same.
Will these subtle improvements translate into actual wins on the handball court? That’s hard to say, although it’s perhaps worth noting that Denmark picked up a silver at the last Junior World Championships in 2017. When I asked Staiano about the results, he seemed almost as excited about some of the harder-to-quantify effects he’d observed off the court. In post-study interviews, the athletes reported feeling more focused and present in school and private life as well as on the court, better social competence, and better sleep. Mindfulness, he believes, fits into a larger narrative about the mind’s role in sport, alongside ideas like resilience, mental fatigue, and flow.
All of this is starting to sound like one of those breathlessly overhyped articles I’ve been trying to avoid for the past few years. So let me dial it back a bit. Mindfulness isn’t a superpill or an instant game-changer. The effects are subtle. But there seems to be something here, and it’s an important step that we’re starting to see careful studies that look not just at brain scans and other proxy measures, but at sports-specific outcomes like the handball agility test. That’s why this particular study, unlike so many previous ones, seemed worth writing about. Another study presented at the same conference, from researchers at the University of Limerick, saw an improvement in golf putting performance following a four-day mindfulness training program.
These days I have much better grasp of what mindfulness is—“non-judgmental awareness” is a common gloss—than I did five years ago. But I’ll admit that I come to this topic with a fair amount of skepticism and even squeamishness. I haven’t tried mindfulness training myself. But studies like this really grab my attention. Put it this way: I’ll be following the Danish handball team with great interest over the next few years.
My new book, Endure: Mind, Body, and the Curiously Elastic Limits of Human Performance, with a foreword by Malcolm Gladwell, is now available. For more, join me on Twitter and Facebook, and sign up for the Sweat Science email newsletter.
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