Scene: Interior of high school gym at a girls basketball game.
No. 15 positions herself at the free-throw line.
She places her toe on the small dot that represents the center of the line. She dribbles three times and spins the ball in her hands for good luck. She sets herself—knees bent, back straight, the ball resting in the palm of her right hand. Then, in a fluid movement, she rises to her toes and pushes the basketball above her head into an arch through the air toward the goal.
It's a miss—but she gets two shots. She repeats the process but misses again.
That was me.
I'd like to think I was an average ball player; I could be good in practice, but in games and especially at the free-throw line, I choked more often than not—thanks to my inability to calm my racing thoughts and block out the crowd.
"Mindfulness is proliferating in education, health care and criminal justice settings but not yet [sports]. We are here to change that."
Source: The True Athlete Project founder Sam Parfitt
At the free-throw line, my greatest opponent was my own mind.
But I've since learned about something that could have improved my experience—mindfulness.
The True Athlete Project founder Sam Parfitt—who is a Norfolk, England, native, a former UTC tennis player and former director of athletics at Chattanooga's St. Peter's School—understands missing the free throw.
In tennis, when there's a high floating ball coming down and all the time in the world to get in position and return it, that's often the shot that's missed, he said.
I once saw a state championship soccer game lost this way—a floating ball seemed to move almost in slow motion, but the goalie, who rarely missed a save, let it slip by.
In those situations, there's too much time to think about messing up or about what your coach on the sideline is saying and thinking—about anything besides what's happening in the very moment. That mental state doesn't lend itself to being connected to the body and best positioned to return the ball, stop it or swish it.
Parfitt's nonprofit has a range of programs, such as one that pairs local athletes with Olympic mentors, but a major part of the work his organization does involves a holistic approach that includes mindfulness practices aimed at improving performance and nurturing the well-being and mental health of athletes.
Many high-profile athletes have known the value of mindfulness and meditation for years.
And many people recognize that success in sports largely depends on the mental aspect, as opposed to the physical part, Parfitt said.
"Everyone agrees it's a massive chunk that's mental, and yet if you look at the amount of time spent developing the mental side, it's virtually nonexistent," he said.
Although individuals, and some teams, have ways to get in the game mentally, widespread mainstream attention to the mental aspect does seem to be lacking.
Parfitt said that using different terminology can help bridge that gap. Many athletes understand what it means to be "in the zone."
And that's what mindfulness and meditation can help improve.
It can help you transcend your surroundings, Parfitt said. That would have been helpful for me. Wondering whether my crush was watching or plotting the best route to get my own rebound if I missed wasn't going to help me make the shot. Getting out of my own head would have.
Meditating and practicing mindfulness is like a training gym for the mind, and being in the zone has parallels with the state that comes from mindfulness practice, he said.
"If we practice gently bringing our attention back to the present moment, back to the experience of what it is to exist right now, and the bodily sensations we experience ... we gradually develop a sense of peace about how things are and don't have to jump to every thought and emotion," he said. "It's perfect for athletes because the holy grail in sport is to be in flow, mindfully aware, in the zone."
Mindfulness and meditation create a mental awareness that can help athletes connect with their bodies on a higher level.
It can help athletes become centered before a game, and mindfulness practices train the mind not to hold on to every thought and emotion that flow through the body. The inability to let a mistake go is another crippling aspect of competing that hinders performance. Mindfulness/meditation can help athletes more easily shake off an error, like a missed free throw.
And beyond performance enhancement, The True Athlete Project also aims to use mindfulness/meditation and other tools to combat problems such as bullying, discrimination, doping, anxiety and burnout, Parfitt said.
There are organizations that focus on social issues and sports psychologists who focus on performance, but The True Athlete Project aims to put it all together, he said.
I'm thankful and blessed that my experiences playing high school sports (I was better at running track than playing basketball) were bully-free. For me, playing sports was fun, inspiring and character-building.
But that doesn't mean it was perfect, and that doesn't mean that current and future athletes and coaches can't be better.
I can only imagine the amazing experiences that athletes at all levels can have with the adoption of mindfulness and meditation.
The potential is tremendous, not only for individuals but for society as a whole.
"We develop techniques which not only improve performance, but also nurture well-being and mental health, and cultivate a more compassionate society," Parfitt said. "We have developed a very holistic approach, which reimagines sport as a training ground for compassion and reimagines the idea of an athlete to mean someone who develops mind and body to make the world a better place."
The opinions expressed in this column belong solely to the author, not Nooga.com or its employees.