With today’s modern life, we need mindfulness now more than ever. The pace of life, the endless streams of news and information, the myth of multitasking, technology and social media vying to grab our attention; this is all making us less effective. When we switch attention from one thing to another the attentional systems in the brain go offline for up to half a second and we can miss the information presented to us in that time. Studies have shown when you attempt to multitask your productivity goes down by 40% and your IQ drops by 10%. Our brain is not able to perform two cognitively demanding tasks at once. Multitasking is not an enviable skill, but simply a bad habit. Furthermore, A famous Harvard research study conducted in 2010 by Killingworth and Gilbert found our mind wanders 47% of the time, that’s almost half our life we are not present!
When we think we are multitasking we are attention switching and we are actually slowing ourselves down, losing track of what we are doing and creating unnecessary stress. The average person checks their phone 150 times per day. If your phone is on silent and vibrates in your pocket and you don’t even check it, you make 28% more errors in a task you are engaged in.
Similarly, when you are doing something complex such as writing an assignment, and then you check an email, studies have shown it takes 64 seconds to get your attention back fully into what you are doing. All this distractedness is making us much less effective learners and doers and making us less happy.
75% of mental health problems begin between the ages of 15-25 but we are even seeing them in children younger than this. 1 in 7 primary school children has a mental health disorder and by the time they get to high school that number increases to 1 in 4. Tragically, suicide is the biggest killer of young people. But there is something we can do about it.
Mindfulness is about paying attention in the present moment and having the body and mind in the same place and at the same time. Being present and fully engaged and aware in each moment. Meditation means attention training, and with mindfulness, we focus our attention on the present through the senses. We notice when the mind wanders and we are not trying to stop the mind wandering or getting rid of our thoughts, it’s about noticing when the mind wanders so we can bring it back. With practice we can get good at becoming more aware, not to judge, and then we can apply that to anything that we want to do such as studying for an exam or bringing yourself back into the moment under the pressure of a squash match.
“What we practise grows stronger” - Professor Shauna Shapiro
We can all learn to grow and change no matter our circumstances. We can train our mind to be here where we already are. Repeated exercises shape our brain. They sculpt and strengthen synaptic connections based on repeated practise. Brain scanning found that meditators brains grew bigger and stronger in the regions related to attention, learning and compassion. This is called cortical thickening, the growth of new neurons in response to related practise. We are practising and growing something in every moment and not just in meditation. Mindfulness works! It’s good for you. It’s been proven to strengthen our immune functioning, decreases stress and helps us sleep better. A small footnote here, we need to be careful of our intentions when practising meditation, it is easy to bring in judgment, impatience and frustration and if we are meditating with judgement, we are growing judgement, if we are meditating with frustration, we are growing frustration.
Mindful meditation strengthens the prefrontal cortex and the hippocampus in the brain, 2 key learning areas associated with attention and memory and it dials down the activation in the amygdala, the brain’s fear centre, so we become less stressed and anxious. Mindfulness gives people tools for waking up and being aware. Mindfulness should look to be the source, not the side dish and not just an add on.
Mindfulness is starting to become part of the core curriculum in Universities in Australia due to the benefits it has started to show. Students are less stressed, anxious and depressed and there is better study engagement, increased curiosity, improved social skills, more self-esteem and less procrastination and overall, they are kinder to themselves and others and are overall more productive. In the corporate world, for every $1 spent on wellbeing, you see $2.70 worth of increase in productivity. Mindfulness has shown to develop meta-cognition and awareness of feelings and thoughts. It can get you in touch with values and what’s important and the positive impacts of your actions on others and the world.
SO WHY IS THIS STATE IMPORTANT ON THE SQUASH COURT?
When you are able to practise mindfulness constantly, i.e. away from the courts and in day-to-day interactions, this allows the body and mind to learn to relax and manage stressful moments in a healthier way. In addition, it helps to create a more positive and proactive mental approach to difficulties and problems. It allows you to be aware of your inner voice and to help bring you back into the moment. All very good assets to have on the court in the heat of battle don’t you think?
When you are competing, you need to trust your training has been adequate and let it show itself in the match. Being mindful and present gives you the ability to maximise your play by keeping you in the moment and to keep bringing you back into the moment when your mind has drifted. If you watch Ali Farag for example, he is brilliant at resetting himself and bringing himself back into the moment time after time and this allows him to perform near his maximum in each and every match. This is no random event, and his mental practices away from competition allow him to achieve this state when required in a match. Could you begin to do the same?