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UVA Program Trains Mindful Student Athletes


Student athletes train hard– running, lifting weights and fine-tuning techniques they hope will translate into victories and medals.  Now, the University of Virginia is adding another discipline to the mix, awarding fellowships for mindfulness.

Maddie Boylston plays volleyball for the University of Virginia, and she’s one of the first Community Impact Fellows – students who get special training to build mental muscle. 

“You can have two athletes with the same athleticism. The one with a better mental game will always win,” she explains.

Toward that end, she and three others enrolled in a special course that explored techniques designed to promote focus and what athletes call flow.

“Athletes perform better when their mind and body are really in sync,” says Leslie Hubbard with UVA’s Contemplative Sciences Center.  “They’re not over-thinking that free throw shot. The body works more efficiently when we’re able to just let go of that critical thinking, that judgement and just let the muscle memory take over.  It’s when the mind starts to interfere with that – starts to judge and starts to get distracted by people who are chearing and what not that we start to get disconnected and start to question our performance.”

One key to achieving flow is to master certain breathing techniques.

“One is controlled breathing – so taking longer inhales and exhales for example. Or just being passively being aware of your breath as a way to anchor your attention in the present moment.  It’s to bring your mind into the present moment and really ground yourself in your body, so you’re not lost in anxiety in the future or thinking about past results where you failed for example, that could influence your present moment decisions.”

Fellows also commit to a project.  Runner Emma Myer, for example, launched a blog to share what she’s learned from the program and from her dad – who runs marathons and takes part in Iron Man competitions.

Credit UVA
Runner Emma Myer shares tips for success in sports through a blog.

“Say you’re like running in a 5K race.  Rather than thinking about the end of the race or the next mile, just think about every step you’re taking, and my dad always told me to say, ‘Right, Left,’” she explains.  “If you just focus on how your body is feeling right now, your physical ability will be able to bring you to the end, so your mental ability is really what’s holding you back most of the time.”

Maddie Boylston is using an online platform called Flip Grid to help build team spirit.

“It’s similar to Instagram/SnapChat, but it’s a little bit more private for my team, and I have questions that each player asks the team, and we respond with videos.”

Questions like “What annoys you when you’re on the court,” or “How do you feel when you make a mistake?” And “How can your teammates support you when that happens?”

“How I would like my teammates to respond if I mess up is being supportive by telling me that I’ve got the next one and that I can do it and that I’m confident enough,” says one player.  

“After I’ve make more than one mistake and you guys can see me getting down, I like when I have those people who look at me and say, ‘Alright – you got the next one!’ adds another.

“I also like it when I get feedback.  If they see something that I don’t, then telling me how I can fix my mistakes is definitely helpful.”

Some team members also have fun with their answers, but there’s a serious side to what they’re doing according to Heather Downs with UVA’s athletics department.

“They’re doing research. They’re measuring their outcomes, working with a faculty person who is guiding so that it’s scholarly and not just a hobby.”

In the future, she also hopes the program can tap into a pool of alumni who can mentor student athletes, sharing their own techniques for improving concentration, relaxation and success in their sports.

***Editor's Note: The University of Virginia is a financial supporter of Radio IQ.

Sandy Hausman is Radio IQ's Charlottesville Bureau Chief