Thursday, March 1, 2018

Mind Your Mindfulness - Applying Gallwey's "Relaxed Concentration" in Sport Training

W. Timothy Gallwey shares a personally important coaching epiphany in chapter 1 of his book, The Inner Game of Tennis:
I was beginning to learn what all good pros and students of tennis must learn: that images are better than words, showing better than telling, too much instruction worse than none, and that trying often produces negative results
We have all felt these at some point in our coaching career and we have likely continued on our way without changing our coaching methods too much. But Gallwey didn't. He integrated ideas from D.T. Suzuki (ego-mind), Abraham Maslow (peak experiences), and (presciently) Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (flow) to create his idea of "relaxed concentration". He draws attention to how judgemental we tend to be of ourselves as we perform and goes on to point out the effects that this judgement tends to have on our performance as well as our self image. To move out of this judgemental frame, he encourages us to experience our performance as it is. We do this by allowing the performance to happen without interrupting it with thoughts of what should be or what didn't happen. We may better recognize Gallwey's "relaxed concentration" today as "mindfulness". Mindfulness practices revolve around noticing rather than directing our thinking. If we want to make any changes, don't we first need to fully understand what is currently happening? If our athletes don't know what their bodies are currently doing, how can we expect them to make changes?

A typical coach's response to this is to say that they are telling them what their bodies are doing and my reply is that we are substituting our observations for the athlete's. We are saving them the effort of noticing (and thinking) for themselves and dis-empowering them by doing so. This, whether we intend it or not, is how learned helplessness is learned. In contrast to helpless athletes, autonomous athletes can problem-solve more effectively and can collaborate with us as coaches to find solutions that they couldn't find alone. So let us do the work to empower our athletes and see what they are capable of.

We should ask our athletes to notice what their bodies or specific parts of their bodies are doing. They'll need some guidance from us at first to get the hang of it. They'll ask us to do the noticing for them, to which I usually reply, "it's your body, you tell me what it did." We should get them to notice by asking them questions as opposed to telling them what just happened. Generally, I ask questions like, "can you show me what your body looked like at contact." As they get better at recreating that, I can make the questions more specific like, "where was the ball relative to your hips?" This empowers them as they learn to trust their own senses and their kinesthetic awareness. As they're learning, they'll tend to use evaluative terms like good and bad rather than descriptive terms that demonstrate an awareness of positioning, timing, etcetera. Rather than tell them that they're describing it wrong, I will re-frame their words by asking, "what did you feel that makes you say it was good/bad?" This gets them thinking more in terms of what is rather than what they think should be.

As they get better at noticing and describing what their bodies are doing, then we can build in a mechanism for creating changes. We can take a specific aspect of an action and ask the athlete to vary it in some way, like asking them to drop their hips lower and notice how the feeling differs from previous reps. I like to ask athletes to picture the change they want to make or model the change without actually executing the skill, such as, "show me where you want your hand to be at contact." By creating an image and a physical model of the skill we wish to perform, we can then execute the skill, notice what we actually did, and compare that to our image/model. At this point, it is tempting to use more judgemental terms than descriptive ones when comparing. We will hear that the most recent rep was better or worse instead of higher or lower. As before, I will re-frame these into questions that move us back to descriptive terms, like "what did you notice that made that one feel better?" Then I can go back to having them show me what they felt like at contact, etcetera. To save time in the feedback loop we are creating between coach and athlete, I like to set up different numbers that describe different states or relationships like "one means you contacted the ball in front of your body, two means you contacted it even with your body and three means you contacted it behind your body." Then the athlete can give a number after each rep instead of giving a more complete description of the rep thereby increasing the number of reps that they can get in a short period.

We can also introduce our athletes to new skills by having them observe the skills in others. We can show them a few reps of a new skill and then ask them to repeat what they saw. We then take advantage of their now-developed skill in noticing their own actions and comparing those actions to the ones they observed. As coaches, we will notice differences between the athlete's version and ours. We can then draw attention to those specific parts in the same way discussed above. We may need to model a few more contacts and ask the athlete to watch that specific part of the movement to help them create an image to apply.

So far this describes how we use mindfulness in training but how do we transfer that to competition? The answer is that we remind them that they have the power to decide what to notice about their performance as well as the power to decide how to interpret what they notice. We can encourage them to be proactive about picturing and feeling the next skill that they will perform. When we see them reacting to their last touch, we can help them to re-frame by asking them what they noticed about the touch. We are reinforcing the same mental skills that we built in practice, which helps them recognize the value of those skills. We are also creating an effective way for the athletes to move through stressful situations (see my post about failing faster) by creating a framework for their thoughts.

Incorporating mindfulness into our coaching style and into our athletes requires a shift in how we interact with our athletes as well as a shift in how they think. This shift will require time in the practice environment so that the extra processing can take place. As we and the athletes become more proficient with mindfulness, the process of giving, receiving, and assimilating feedback will become faster. As the athletes learn to picture and feel what they want to do, the coach's act of reminding them to see/feel the thing they want to create replaces the coach's modeling of behavior during competition. The end products are athletes that are more empowered and engaged in their own actions.


  1. Another outstanding and timely post, thanks Eduardo! :) We use video feedback in practice so the athletes can see for themselves what they did, how it looked, etc. I believe using this tool, along with the questioning and re-framing of questions that you mention in your blog, helps move the athlete towards the same end goal you've outlined, just with a visual component that we ask them to interpret, rather than doing it for them as coaches. As always, I welcome your thoughts and comments on what I've said here. Again, thanks for sharing your knowledge with us! :)

    1. Jerry, I love that you have a way to make your athlete's experiences shared so that you are both seeing and talking about the same thing and you can reach consensus about what is happening. I think it helps athletes feel that their contribution matters.

      I hope that you also work to integrate what the athletes see into what they feel so that they can observe their actions in real time and not just after the fact through video.

  2. Yes, we try and help them connect the 'seeing' with the 'feeling', since most athletes (as you know) are visual learners. We want them to become more kinesthetically aware of what their body is 'doing' when the skill is being performed both correctly and incorrectly. We have yet to delve into the emotional aspect and how it affects the process, but with blog posts like your latest one ("Proactively Thinking Like a Pro"), we'll see about incorporating that into future discussions and training sessions! :)


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