“Strength does not come from physical capacity. It comes from an indomitable will.” – Mahatma Gandhi

What is it about elite athletes that makes them stand out from the rest? It requires more than raw physical ability or athletic background to have that special something that defines this group. Many sports fans, aspiring athletes, and scientists have wondered about what makes elite athletes so… elite. Recent research on understanding the mind of the elite athlete has elucidated some particularly noteworthy findings.

Elite Athletes are…

  • Better at anticipating the actions of their opponents and the subsequent consequences of those actions
  • Quicker and more accurate at remembering and recalling important play formations within their own sport
  • Faster and more efficient at visually searching a scene for sport-specific information
  • Better predictors of outcomes within their own sport than expert viewers, such as journalists or coaches

How might the unique experience of elite athletes provide meaningful information to the rest of us? Personally, I feel safe in saying that I won’t be transforming into an elite athlete anytime soon. However, there are qualities inherent within the mindset of these athletes that I am certain would benefit my personal performance. This is about developing a particular mindset that is focused on relevant informational cues, attuned to the present moment, and actively engaged with the task at hand.

Now that the NBA is approaching its championship round, notice the way players get into the zone, loosen up, and heighten their focus during the warmups. Then comes the national anthem, the players standing in a line with their eyes downcast… this is an example of a moment rife with mindfulness. A colleague of mine described this as a “routine moment of organized mindfulness” in the NBA playoffs. The players engage in about 90 seconds of mindful awareness while the melodic sounds emulate from the singer. For the players (and perhaps some of the fans), adrenaline is pumping through their veins and their focus on the present moment reaches its apex.

NBA players and other elite athletes might not use the word mindfulness, but their demonstrated attunement with their bodies and heightened awareness of the present moment is an elegant example of mindfulness in motion. We can all benefit from cultivating greater levels of mindfulness to increase concentration, productivity, and awareness within the present moment. In order words, it’s high time that we learned some tips from the mindsets of elite athletes to enhance personal performance.

Mindfulness Exercise: B-A-S-I-C

A recent article in Mindful magazine, “Cycling after Armstrong,” provided an easy to remember mindfulness exercise designed to facilitate increased attention during physical activities. The goal behind regularly integrating this mindfulness exercise into physical activities is to become more self-aware, as opposed to “checking out.” This mindfulness focusing acronym is easy to remember: B-A-S-I-C.


When engaging in any physical activity, from folding the laundry to training for a marathon, pause to notice the position of your body in space. Observe the movements of your shoulders, arms, hands, legs, and feet. Notice any areas of tension or relaxation. Simply pause to connect with your body and notice what it’s doing with an open-minded, curious, and nonjudgmental attitude.

Arousal Level

Notice how energized you feel as you engage in the physical activity. Does your level of energy change based on the intensity of the activity or your mood? Observe your level of physical arousal without judgment… notice if you feel invigorated, tranquil, nervous, or bored. Try not to label your state of arousal as good or bad, simply notice how you’re feeling in an attentive and open manner.


What messages are you telling yourself as you perform the activity? For instance, do you notice thoughts such as “I can’t do this,” or “feeling good” flicker through your conscious awareness? We all experience mental chatter that can be motivating, discouraging, or neutral. The idea is to increase self-awareness of the mental chatter and notice how it impacts your performance. When you begin to notice common themes, such as self-defeating thoughts followed by physical exhaustion, you can choose whether or not you’d like to replace that demotivating self-talk with positive affirmations.


What images tend to go through your mind when engaged in physical activity? Notice the images or scenes passing through your mind. Do the images seem relevant to the physical activity in a way that is motivating and inspiring? Try consciously focusing on visual scenes in your mind that bring your awareness toward successful outcomes. For instance, these “purposeful daydreams” might involve imagining yourself crossing the finish line or pushing yourself up a steep mountainside. Picture yourself doing it.


Notice the quality of your concentration and focus. Does it seem to be narrow, focused, and highly attuned to details? Observe the process of consciously shifting your concentration back and forth between detail-oriented and broad. How does your performance change at different times during the physical activity when you choose to focus on the details vs. the big picture? The idea is not to label either type of concentration as inherently good or bad, but to notice what type of focus is most effective for you at different moments.

Whether you identify as an athlete or not, ask yourself how you can personally benefit from applying the mindful mindset of many elite athletes to your daily life. The day is rich with opportunities to increase mindful attunement with your body and create more positive, productive outcomes. Your physical well-being is one aspect of “you” that has a significant effect on your emotional and mental state. Attending to your physical health and performance through a simple mindfulness exercise can have far-reaching implications for your overall well-being and vitality.

If you believe you could benefit from increasing self-awareness of your bodily state and performance, give the mindfulness exercise B-A-S-I-C a try. As with any new behavior, remember that it takes practice for this mindfulness exercise to become second nature… a habit. The beauty of practicing mindfulness is that the underlying nature of mindfulness is nonjudgmental, accepting, and open to experience. If you think to yourself “I’m not doing it right” and you notice the thought, you are being mindful.

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Hudson, K. (2013). Cycling after Armstrong. Mindful. Retrieved from http://www.mindful.org/in-your-life/sports-and-recreation/focus-on-cycling

Voss, W. V. (2010). Understanding the Mind of the Elite Athlete. Scientific American. Retrieved from http://www.scientificamerican.com/article.cfm?id=understanding-elite-athlete

Featured image: Michael Jordan, Blue Dunk, Lisle, IL, 1987 by Cliff / CC BY 2.0

About Laura K. Schenck, Ph.D., LPC

I am a Licensed Professional Counselor (LPC) with a Ph.D. in Counseling Psychology from the University of Northern Colorado. Some of my academic interests include: Dialectical Behavior Therapy, mindfulness, stress reduction, work/life balance, mood disorders, identity development, supervision & training, and self-care.

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