Practicing non-judgment in athletic training has been one of the more liberating experiences I’ve had. It opens me up to more information, a more complex and nuanced understanding of my body and performance, and it allows me to form the kind of emotional association I want to have with the challenges I seek.
What is mindfulness?
“Mindfulness is characterized by dispassionate, nonevaluative and sustained, moment-to-moment awareness of perceptible mental states and processes.” (Grossman et al., 2004)
Mindfulness is a mode of intentional openness to the wide variety of information touching the nervous system.
“Simply put, mindfulness is moment-to-moment awareness… It is a systematic approach to developing new kinds of control and wisdom in our lives, based on our inner capacities for relaxation, paying attention, awareness, and insight.” (Kabat-Zinn, 2009)
What is mindfulness in training?
In the context of training I would add to that definition an awareness of sensory information, of the body, its internal state and changes, its position, its movement, in comparison to what is intended or needed in that activity.
Mindfulness in training is the act of observing what my body is sensing and how it is performing, but with a delayed or dampened emotional reaction to what is being observed so that a full range of information can keep flowing in. To do this, there must be a certain ‘attitude’ about what is being observed in order to refrain from triggering an emotional reaction and restriction on observation. Non-judgment – refraining from judgment – is one of the key attitudes that makes this possible.
What is judgment? What is non-judgment? What do these do for me?
“When we begin practicing paying attention to the activity of our own mind, it is common to discover and to be surprised by the fact that we are constantly generating judgments about our experience. Almost everything we see is labeled and categorized by the mind. We react to everything we experience in terms of what we think its value is to us. Some things, people, and events are judged as “good” because they make us feel good for some reason. Others are equally quickly condemned as “bad” because they make us feel bad. The rest is categorized as “neutral” because we don’t think it has much relevance. Neutral things, people, and events are almost completely tuned out of our consciousness.” (Kabat-Zinn, 2009)
Judging triggers a filter in the mind which then limits what we can notice and the options we see for action. That filtering is a useful survival mechanism that got our species this far in its evolution, but it is also causing us a lot of problems in trying to go even higher in performance and cooperation with others. (Automatic judgment is not so useful for dealing with complex social systems – and that is a understatement.)
For each training activity, I have an intention for my body to experience or perform a certain way. That intention could be about maintaining a certain speed or intensity, and it always involves some quality within the body or with the body’s interaction with the environment (e.g. water in the case of swimming, land in the case of running). Mindfulness allows me to keep monitoring a wide range of information that could be relevant to my intentions.
In the mindfully untrained state I would notice or feel something in my body or performance and automatically judge that as pleasant/unpleasant, good/bad, right/wrong. But underneath each of those judgments are pure information about the state of my body or performance: softer/harder, higher/lower, warmer/colder, closer/farther, etc. The judgment I make about that information triggers a deeper (positive or negative) emotional response which in turn affects what my mind will pay attention to after that. This emotional response limits my attention which limits my response options.
“This habit of categorizing and judging our experience locks us into mechanical reactions that we are not even aware of and that often have no objective basis at all. These judgments tend to dominate our minds, making it difficult for us to ever find any peace within ourselves.” (Kabat-Zinn, 2009)
In the mindfully trained state, there is space between stimulus and emotional and physical response. I notice many things about my body or my performance yet I have no or little judgment about it – it is just information, and possibly important information that will become useful to me later one. By staying open to information without regard to its goodness/badness, pleasantness/unpleasantness, rightness/wrongness, I have the opportunity to learn a great deal more about what is going on in my body and in the performance. I have the opportunity to gain wisdom.
In their development of the concept of Spiral Dynamics, Beck and Cowan explain that as awareness broadens and sensitivity to detail increases, and from this we experience an increase in psychological space (we can handle more complexity in our environment), an increase in conceptual space (we gain greater perspective), we notice more alternatives in response (more choices), and we access a greater degree of freedom for beneficial action (Beck and Cowan, 2006, p.62).
Non-Judgment Is A Learnable Skill
Kabat-Zinn instructs us to “intentionally assume the stance of an impartial witness by reminding yourself to just observe it. When you find the mind judging, you don’t have to stop if from doing that. All that is required is to be aware of it happening. No need to judge the judging and make matters even more complicated for yourself.” The act of just observing the sensations increases clarity of those sensations. The act of just observing your own tendency to judge these sensations gradually lowers the power and prevalence of that tendency.
Non-judgment is a skills and it has to be practiced a lot to become reliably present. It definitely does not come naturally. It is a wonderful asset once an initial investment in this skill is made, and you gain momentum for developing it further.
Non-judgment opens up space to keep taking in more information about the situation. It allows me the opportunity to consider more options for action, to choose that which takes me where I want to go in the bigger picture despite the immediate pleasant/unpleasantness of the moment. It allows me to create a higher, more positive association with the activity that is not hindered by these short-sighted automatic judgments.
Example of Non-judgment in Swimming
Swimming in cool/cold water is a situation where non-judgment serves me well. Plunging in to water that is colder than what my body is comfortably adapted to triggers a kaleidoscope of intense sensations, changing by the minute. The untrained mind is automatically appraising the intense sensations as warning sirens and screaming inside the novice’s head to get out right away – and this is a good safety mechanism for those who are not prepared for cold water. For those who are experienced (and responsibly choosing the appropriate level of challenge for themselves) the same kaleidoscope of intense sensations are flooding through the nervous system, but I am not having the same emotional reaction. I am not disstressed physically or mentally, I am not suffering as I was when untrained in this – as a matter of fact, I am genuinely enjoying it, despite the intensity of sensation.
I am still observing and evaluating what I notice but I am using neutral labels that describe the sensations in terms of temperature, pressure, sound, taste, smell, texture and movement. It might be chilling or burning. Tight or loose. Abrasive or smooth. Thick or thin. Tingly or numb. Zippy or sluggish. Quiet or bubbly. Tense or relaxed. The practice of using neutral descriptors like this increases my awareness and memory of those fine, moment to moment details. I am cataloging the pattern and nuances of the experience and becoming a more informed and potentially wiser cool water swimmer. I have certain sensation markers in mind that indicate when I am nearing my pre-decided get-out point, and I can more dispassionately agree that those sensations are emerging and follow my safety plan.
By going into a challenging environment like this and practicing non-judgment with the sensations I experience, I set up the opportunity to form the kind of emotional association I want to have with it, and create incentive for doing more of it. If I did not try to intervene with mindfulness then I would be automatically judging all those sensations as my untrained human brain is programmed to – I would associated cold water swimming with great discomfort and misery which would create more resistance inside for doing it.
The Expanded Benefits of Non-Judgment
The bonus is that practicing non-judgment in my athletic activities makes this skill available in other scenarios. When I am performing other tasks, when I meet people, when I encounter other potentially value-charged events, I am quicker to notice that a judgment wants to come up and feel the ability to refrain from picking it up or back away from it, which allows me to remain more open to what the activity, person or event may offer in the moments to come. A seemingly attractive or unattractive person or event could, with more time to take in information, reveal itself to not be the opposite. There may be more interesting or valuable observations and experiences ahead, and my attitude regarding what is happening right now will dictate what kind of information my mind will be open to in those moments to come.
This is an example of how mindful practice in a fairly benign area of athletics can build skill that transfers over to more consequential areas of life. More practice can only embed it deeper into our habits and even into our personality.
With this particular attitude, I imagine you and I would both like to encounter more non-judgmental people and become people like this for others. So let’s get back to training!
Beck, D., & Cowan, C.C. (2006). Spiral dynamics : mastering values, leadership, and change : exploring the new science of memetics. Oxford: Blackwell.
Grossman, P., Niemann, L., Schmidt, S., & Walach, H. (2004). Mindfulness-based stress reduction and health benefits: A meta-analysis. Journal of Psychosomatic Research, 57(1), 35–43.
Kabat-Zinn, J. (2009). Full catastrophe living: using the wisdom of your body and mind to face stress, pain, and illness. Rev. and updated edition, Bantam Books trade paperback edition. New York: Bantam Books.
View the whole series on the Attitudes of Mindfulness for Swimming:
- Benefits of Non-Judgment in Your Training
- How Much Does It Matter What Others Think?
- Should The Expert Swimmer Become A Beginner Again?
- Do You Have Enough Patience For Swimming?
- Why Do We Need Trust In Swimming?
- Do Your Intentions For Swimming Matter?
- What Role Does Self-Compassion Have In Your Higher Performance?
- Is It Time To Get A New (Inner) Coach?
- How Can You Improve By Not Trying To?
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