Research Sports

Building Mental Toughness Off the Field

A new study reveals that mindfulness training, but not relaxation training, benefits college athletes' attention. Practice engagement and program adherence are key.
mindfulness, Amishi Jha, UMindful, College of Arts and Sciences

It’s no secret that performance excellence in sports requires dedicated practice and physical training. Much less is known about mental training to deal with the psychological pressures of competitive athletics, the mental game.

A recent University of Miami study conducted in the laboratory of neuroscientist Amishi Jha, asked if mental toughness and resilience can be trained in collegiate football players. Results suggest that just like physical training, practice is key for mental training. Jha’s team found that greater practice and program adherence in a mindfulness training program, but not a matched relaxation training program, led to more stable attention and fewer attentional lapses in football players. 

Mindfulness involves focusing attention on present-moment experiences and observing one's thoughts and feelings without emotional reactivity or judgment.

Jha is an associate professor in the UM College of Arts and Sciences’ Department of Psychology. Her lab has partnered with mindfulness expert and University of Miami Law School professor, Director of the Mindfulness in Law Program, and co-author, Scott Rogers, to develop, deliver, and evaluate the impact of short-form mental training programs involving mindfulness and relaxation for professionals who have high-stress careers from all walks of life—from military personnel and firefighters, to teachers and accountants.

Back in 2014, the University of Miami Hurricanes football program partnered with Jha’s lab for a first-of-its-kind research study, documented by the Miami Herald, to investigate how mindfulness vs. relaxation training can help student-athletes cope with the high demands of collegiate athletics. The study, “‘We Are Talking About Practice’: the Influence of Mindfulness vs. Relaxation Training on Athletes’ Attention and Well-Being over High-Demand Intervals,” was recently published online in the Journal of Cognitive Enhancement.

The study’s first author, UM psychology Ph.D. candidate Joshua Rooks, knows first-hand how demanding the life of a football player can be. Rooks, a former college football player who practiced mindfulness during his time as a tight end for the Northwestern University Wildcats, joined Jha’s lab in 2012.

In the current study, Rooks monitored the attention and emotional well-being of student-athletes on the UM football team over a 4-week interval, during which Rogers delivered two matched training programs to subgroups of players.

One group, consisting of 56 players, received mindfulness training (MT), while the other group, consisting of 44 players, received relaxation training (RT). The players in the MT group participated in breathing exercises, body scans, and mindful awareness sessions, while the RT group partook in muscle relaxation exercises, place-guided imagery, and listening to relaxing music. Players’ attention was measured using the Sustained Attention to Response Task (SART), a test designed to promote mind wandering and measure attentional performance lapses. Their emotional well-being was measured by questionnaires accessing mood, anxiety, and depression levels.

The 4-week interval of this project occurred while players faced intensive demands, both academically and physically, as part of their pre-season training. Prior research has found that high demand intervals, such as the academic semester and military pre-deployment training, degrade attention and emotional well-being in students and military service members. Here too, football players’ attention and emotional well-being degraded from the beginning to the end of the 4-week interval.  Yet high adherence to the MT program, but not the RT program, protected athletes’ sustained attention. The study also found that greater engagement in both MT and RT protected against a decline in well-being.  Thus, practice is paramount for program benefits.

Professional sports teams have long used relaxation training with players. Recently, some teams have also introduced mindfulness training. High performance psychology coach, Dr. Michael Gervais, who serves as an advisor to Jha’s lab for their work with military cohorts, has offered mindfulness to pro-athletes, such as the Seattle Seahawks, with success. He says, “This is the type of research that moves the needle from theory to application. The hallmarks of elite performance within the most hostile environments are the ability to be tough minded, adjust to unpredictable demands, and to properly attend to the task at hand.”

In addition to its potential to help athletes’ attention and well-being, mindfulness training has been examined in military service members during their high-demand predeployment training intervals. Prior studies have found that these intervals deplete attention and degrade emotional well-being.

"Research like this is very important as the Army explores mindfulness training as a possible enabler to Soldier readiness," said Major General Walter E. Piatt, who is on the Advisory Committee for the Mindfulness Based Attention and Training (MBAT) Project in Jha’s lab, which is supported by Department of the Army Medical Research and Material Command.

MG Piatt is uniquely aware of the importance of readiness for Soldiers as the Commanding General for the 10th Mountain Division, which has been nearly continuously deploying Soldiers since 2001.

Thus, the results of this study suggest that more time spent engaging in mindfulness exercises may help build both cognitive and psychological resilience. At its conclusion, the findings of this Department of Defense funded study reveal that training the body and mind may be quite similar for “just as physical exercise must be performed with regularity to train the body for performance success, mental exercises must be practiced with regularity to benefit the athlete’s attention and well-being.”

The study titled “‘We Are Talking About Practice’: the Influence of Mindfulness vs. Relaxation Training on Athletes’ Attention and Well-Being over High-Demand Intervals,” is published online ahead of print by Journal of Cognitive Enhancement. Additional authors who contributed to the study are: Alexandra B. Morrison, Ph.D. and Merissa Goolsarran of the University of Miami.