Updated: Aug 25, 2021
Jonathon M. Sullivan MD, PhD, SSC, PBC
Mindfulness is an essential attribute for any athlete, and for any fully developed human being.
When people first begin a training program or a new sport, there is always a neurocognitive adaptation that has to occur. Indeed, neurocognitive and neuromuscular adaptation are the first adaptations in physical training--motor patterns have to be learned, and the neuromuscular system undergoes remodeling at multiple levels to bring more motor units into those movement patterns. This kind of adaptation is rapid, and it is metabolically and physiologically inexpensive. As loading (tonnage lifted or miles run or intensity of the routine) increases, and as the motor patterns become increasingly ingrained and natural, neurocognitive and neuromotor adaptation give way to more expensive structural adaptations: new muscle, new tendon, new bone, new capillaries, new mitochondria, a stronger heart, and so on.
But the neural adaptation doesn't stop, because the entire organism, including the brain, must continue to adapt to the undulating stresses of more advanced and more demanding training. But at the beginning, neural adaptations predominate, and they are incredibly important. A new t'ai chi practitioner must learn a new approach to movement and balance. A new runner must learn that running requires attention to technique and rhythm, and to turn off that part of the brain that says this is too crazy hard you'll hurt yourself and there's a Gino's Frozen Pizza with your name on it at home, just 5 minutes from hot and delicious! One of the first things a new lifter learns under the bar is that a set of five squats or presses is not like an aerobics routine or a set of jumping jacks or burpees. If I tell somebody who walks into the the gym to do 25 jumping jacks, I don't have to tell them how, because jumping jacks are ridiculously simple as movement patterns go, and everybody has known how to do them since they were four. (This may be changing, but that's a different essay). And when they duly undertake their 25 jumping jacks, their focus will not be on the individual jumps, or the jacks, or whatever the singular is. Their focus will be on the twenty-five. They'll just thrash them out (or wheeze them out, depending on how dire their fitness situation is when they first walk through the door). Now, there is a place for this kind of thing. We love the prowler because it's a very simple movement pattern that you can learn in about six seconds, and the focus can be not on technique, but on surviving the session and driving yourself to finish. But when a newcomer gets under a set of squats, they require a complete re-orientation, away from this thrashabout, thrash-it-through, thrash-away mentality. Squats aren't that complicated a movement pattern, but they are not as simple as jumping jacks or prowling, and increasing the loading requires ever more attention to the technical requirements of the exercise. So one of my jobs as a coach is to re-program the trainee's focus, away from the five and into the individual rep. It's a set of five, yes--but it's a set of five single perfect squats performed one after the other. Unlike the set of 25 jumping jacks or the programmed number of prowler pushes, the emphasis is on the movement pattern, not on getting through the number of repetitions (although that, of course, is important, and can be neurally very challenging). If, during a set of squats, your attention is on anything but the individual squat you are doing right now, you are going to have a bad set. You may even get into an adventure, and as many of you have heard me say, we don't want to get into adventures under the bar. We have a word that encapsulates all of this nicely: Mindfulness. Mindfulness is an essential attribute for any athlete, and training (as opposed to mere exercise) sharpens the attribute of mindfulness. It focuses the attention, and trains the ability to focus attention. This is a very good thing, because mindfulness is also an essential attribute for any fully developed and self-actualized human being. And just like any fitness attribute (strength, endurance, balance, etc), you can't have too much of it. Think about it: have you ever met anybody with too much mindfulness? In fact, I've never met anybody who actually had enough, and I've been known to hang out with Buddhist monks. Mindfulness, attention, being fully present--it's a skill, one that requires constant polishing and practice. It's a trainable skill, and a skill we must bring to our training, but also to the rest of our lives: What we eat. How we drive. How we treat and talk to others. How we spend our time. How we do our chores and our jobs. So there's both a technical lesson and a life lesson here. During a set, make every rep its own perfect, complete, focused, all-or-nothing performance. After every rep, you re-set, get tight, take a breath, forget the rep you just did or how many you still have to do, and make the next rep just as deliberate, focused, and mindful as the previous one. And when you've mindfully racked the bar and mindfully changed into your street shoes and mindfully logged your workout, go out into the world and bring that same sense of focus, intensity, attention, presence, and mindfulness to all you do and all you meet. It's just one more attribute we can take from the gym into our larger lives as Athletes of Aging.
Jonathon Sullivan MD, PhD, SSC, PBC is a retired emergency physician and research physiologist, and the owner and head coach of the Greysteel Strength and Conditioning Clinic in Farmington Hills Michigan, which specializes in training adults over 50. He is the author of The Barbell Prescription: Strength Training for Life After Forty, with Coach Andy Baker.