Mindfulness in Sport — and Beyond

Julia Miller and teammates celebrate during a volleyball match

In high school, Julia Miller ‘19 was highly involved and doing it all — a full schedule of sports, academics, and student organizations. “I was enjoying it, but felt I couldn’t catch my breath at times. But there was nothing I wanted to quit doing, so I needed to figure out a strategy to help me manage it all and be present.”

Her neighbor had a yoga studio, so Miller tried it out and learned techniques for controlling her breath. She noticed it made a big difference in her ability to feel present and gain a sense of balance in her life. 
A double major in global commerce and communication and a member of the varsity volleyball team at Denison, Miller finds a lot of value adding mindful breathing into her day. “During season, your body is getting beat up every day. It’s important to connect my breathing to my body and be cognizant of how my shoulders and legs feel.”

Under the guidance of Head Coach Carter Cassell, Miller’s team also includes mindfulness practices into the its routine. The players lie down on the court and start with 30 seconds of gratitude thoughts, then 30-60 seconds of breathing exercises, followed by 30-60 seconds of visualization. “Not only do we have to warm up the physical body, we need to warm up the mind,” says Cassell.

Miller appreciates this routine a lot. “We reset and prepare ourselves to only focus on practice, not what I have to do that night, or the test I have tomorrow. I honor the commitments I have later in the day but turn my focus to what I’m doing right now.”

Cassell adds “Mindfulness practice helps the players with their transition from class to practice. Student-athletes can carry a lot of stress with them into the gym after a long day of rigorous classes. We use mindfulness techniques to help them switch gears to ‘practice mode.’”

Miller says it’s helped the athletes recognize when they or their teammates are feeling overwhelmed. “Since our team began practicing mindfulness, we’ve seen a lot of positive changes in team culture. We’re more open to conversations about mindfulness, daily stressors, and sharing what we’re going through on and off the court. It’s helped us to be more patient with each other.”

Mindfulness can also be valuable in normalizing and bouncing back from failure. “The idea of finding our breath has helped us bring a sense of calmness to chaotic situations,” says Cassell. “In volleyball, errors are common. On average, a team will give their opponent approximately eight points off per set due to errors. It’s important to move on from errors and not dwell on mistakes. Mindfulness helps us compete one play at a time.”

Coach Cassell and the team still have very high expectations for one another, but also have more open conversations about other things in life. “He lets us vocalize when we need a pause for five minutes before practice. We perform and compete with the same mentality but you feel differently,” says Miller. “There’s less tension in your shoulders because the mind and body are so connected. A minor shift in your mental game can have a complete shift in your physical game!”

Mindfulness has changed Miller’s approach to her day. “I’ve learned to be where my feet are. In middle school, everyone is so ready for high school. Then in high school, you can’t wait for college. And in college, you’re looking to the next thing,” she says.

“Why are people in this rush? Why are people always looking to the next thing? So I’ve made a decision to not be in a rush. Every moment of your life is really special and I focus on that. I try to be where my feet are and find a way to be present — to be a more present friend and teammate, focused on what’s in front of my face in that moment.”

Cassell adds, “With cell phones and social media, it can be difficult to completely immerse ourselves in the present moment. In a society that encourages us to always be doing something, I like to think of mindfulness as the art of non-doing. By appreciating and recognizing the present moment, we can truly live.”

April 8, 2019