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How and Why to Teach Mindfulness to Young Athletes

As a coach or parent, you may have heard that mindfulness or meditation has been shown to be a highly effective, free tool for calming nerves and decreasing stress levels. And that research doesn’t just apply to adults: Much has been reported in recent years on how important mindfulness can be to the mental health of children as well. On the playing field, visualization and other mental techniques have even been shown to improve performance.

Professor John Gabrieli, PhD, has been studying mindfulness in young children for the past few years, and his recent research at MIT led to some noteworthy results around why all schools should institute mindfulness practices that helped students focus on the present and get in touch with their feelings and thoughts. Here, he explains why it’s important to help young athletes develop a mindfulness routine and how to do it.

Understand the Importance

Mindfulness may be a lifesaver, Gabrieli says. “We've been struggling against a rising tide of anxiety and depression in adolescence,” he says. “In the last 10 years, there's been an estimated 50 percent increase in depression. We don’t know why this is happening, but we’re trying to find ways to work towards lessening that. School-based mindfulness was one of the ways we wanted to approach it. As far as interventions go, it's arguably the cheapest and easiest one to try.” Gabrieli tested mindfulness practices in a school setting, and the results were promising: Students reported greater feelings of calm and focus, and lowered levels of stress.

It’s Not All in Their Heads

For Gabrieli, the most exciting outcome of his research was the result of brain scans done on the children who began a mindfulness practice. Not only were they reporting feeling less stressed, their brains were actually changing as a result. “Children who practiced mindfulness showed changes in the brain in the areas involved in emotion and cognition,” he adds. “Often, people dismiss meditation and mindfulness as something that’s perceived versus factual, so it was important to see these brain changes that corresponded to their subjective feelings of stress."

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Athlete Health TrueSport