Many people feel having someone to teach psychological skills to an athlete means that the athlete is unstable, or has “mental problems” or is “totally mad.” There is a feeling among coaches and even some athletes is that psychologists are people who provide help to those who are disturbed or maladjusted. They would never consider that a “normal” athlete has the need of positive cognitive assistance of someone trained in psychology and specifically sport psychology. Further, many coaches want only tough minded athletes and they do not want what they think are “head cases.” Coaches have eliminated athletes who had all the necessary physical assets because they did not appear to be able to perform with any degree of consistency or because they “choked” under pressure. They have never stopped to ask if certain skills could be taught to these athletes which would enable them to use their physical abilities even more effectively.
Formenti's team studied the effects of altitude training in patients with a rare genetic disorder, called Chuvash polycythemia or CP, and a group of equally fit people without CP. In people without the disorder, the body's reaction to high altitudes starts with a protein called hypoxia-inducible factor (HIF), which triggers a series of physiological changes. But in those with the disorder, a person's level of HIF remains elevated even when they are at sea level. This condition offered the researchers an opportunity to study the metabolic effects of permanently being in the "high-altitude" state.
"When people in the military have a gym they will work out in the gym. When they are on the side of a mountain they will make do with what they have and do push-ups to stay in shape,” Jha says. “Mindfulness training may offer something similar for the mind. It's low-tech and easy to implement." In her own life, Jha looks for any and all existing opportunities to practice mindfulness, such as her 15-minute trip to and from work each day.
Likewise, Michael Taft advocates deliberate mental breaks during "all the in-between moments" in an average day—a subway ride, lunch, a walk to the bodega. He stresses, though, that there's a big difference between admiring the idea of more downtime and committing to it in practice. "Getting out into nature on the weekends, meditating, putting away our computers now and then—a lot of it is stuff we already know we should probably do," he says. "But we have to be a lot more diligent about it. Because it really does matter."