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Mental Health Awareness Week

How mindfulness can ease pressure of lockdown

22 May 2020
Southampton - mindfulness

Southampton club psychologists explain the benefits of using psychological techniques to help your wellbeing

The psychological pressures of life in lockdown have proved challenging to many and for some, even more so.

Southampton club psychologists Amy Spencer and Dr Greg Clarke understand how important it is to look after your own wellbeing, especially during these difficult times.

In Mental Health Awareness Week, Amy, a sport and exercise scientist specialising in psychology, and Greg, a clinical psychologist specialising in performance, share their expertise on mindfulness and explain how it can benefit everyone.

What is mindfulness?

Amy: For me it is just paying attention to the present without any judgement, being in the present moment. It is training ourselves to be able to choose where we place our attention. Players in a sporting environment are constantly getting feedback, whether that is from players, coaches or other members of staff, the way the brain is wired we are going to think negatively so it is about focusing your judgement in the here and now without criticism.

Greg: We react to things in an automatic way and what mindfulness does is let us be aware of our responses. By being aware of these we can then adjust our response. [With] feedback from managers and coaches there is a tendency for us to perceive that as a negative criticism and therefore we don't take on board and tend to justify our actions. What mindfulness does is allows us to be receptive with openness.

What does your work at Southampton involve?

Amy: It is not just performance, we also look at wellbeing performance. It is about utilising those positive skills, building a rapport and not to just perform for 90 minutes on a pitch, it is trying to create a well-rounded individual. We support them off the field as well. We are very fortunate at the club that all staff engage in the psychology and it is very much embedded into the whole system.

Greg: Essentially you won’t be able to perform at that elite level if everything else is not in a good place. We are working on the person within the performer. Wellbeing allows consistency. There are various examples over the years where you see players having a dip in form and you subsequently find out stuff has been happening outside of football. While it's important to stress we do teach techniques, what we are talking about is an approach to life because you can't really switch it on or switch it off.

How does mindfulness help?

Greg: You learn how to step back from yourself and the situation to allow a more objective response, it allows you to deal with pressure more effectively, and particularly at the top level of sport, that pressure becomes greater and greater.

When you need to stay on target, if you can maintain focus for 95 minutes and know exactly what your role is, what the team strategy is, the chances are you will deliver. We like excitement so we survey that emotion quite closely, if you look at the top of any sport, the top athletes don't get too excited, the best teams don't celebrate too greatly in the moment. 

The skill of stepping back sounds one of the simplest things to do but it is one of the most complex.

Amy: We give an example of a team taking the lead in the 90th minute and on many occasions the opposition will go and score again because potentially your emotions are so positive and so focused on that, you have not come back to the game in hand.

How can it be applied to everyday life?

Amy: Even brushing your teeth! How many people fully pay attention when they brush their teeth? When I speak with the players they are walking around their house, they are thinking about what they're going to do for training, where they're going to go, what they need to eat, who they need to pick up, and that's all while you're brushing your teeth.

How many people fully pay attention and count the thoughts the amount of thoughts that come into their head within those two minutes? It's just a nice little thing that we can get to do with the players, especially some of the younger players. Just be aware of how many thoughts are coming into your head at this moment in time. And where is your focus? Is your focus on the thoughts or is your focus on brushing your teeth?

Greg: The people who struggle are those whose brain is constantly on and when I ask people, when do you relax? They say they might sit down and watch the telly in the evening. For me that's not relaxing, that's stimulating, that's your brain getting even more food to keep thinking.

We're conditioned to do that, we are thinking beings, we are encouraged to judge, evaluate, criticise, but we're not taught how to not do that. It's so important because otherwise you burn out.

How valuable is mindfulness during the pandemic?

Greg: I'm sure when people were going through the war it probably felt like the end of the world was going to come, but actually if you can develop wisdom in the moment, that's the bit for me. It's sitting with the worries and not overthinking and just being OK with it.

Amy: The players laugh when I say this, but it's being comfortable with the uncomfortable. It's being able to deal with uncomfortable feelings and still be able to go out and perform. Whether that's at work, jobs, or out on the pitch. It's being comfortable enough to go out when and deal with uncomfortable situations.

See: Top tips for learning to use mindfulness

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