A sports science study finds mindfulness can improve athletes’ safety. 

Elite athletes are known for their stamina and determination, but like anyone, they often struggle with maintaining good mental health.

A new study explores the realities of elite sports and stress, finding that dispositional mindfulness - a keen awareness and attention to thoughts and feelings in the present moment - can significantly reduce and protect athletes from stress.

Working with a group of high-performing football athletes, researchers investigated relationships between mindfulness, executive functioning, and psychological distress, finding that athletes who demonstrated greater mindfulness had lower levels of stress.

This relationship was observed at two timepoints: immediately after the initial COVID-19-related shutdown of sport in South Australia and approximately six months later, at the end of the athletes' competitive season.

As the study was conducted during COVID-19, it provided unique insight about the mental skills and resources that shape how athletes respond to significant stress.

Lead researcher and UniSA PhD candidate Ed O’Connor says the findings could help to develop targeted health interventions to combat stress.

“When you’re an elite athlete, staying top of your game also means keeping your stress levels in check, but time and time again we hear about athletes struggling with psychological stress,” O’Connor says.

“Athletes have concerning rates of mental health issues - including depression and anxiety - with the pandemic only adding to their mental health burden.

“Our research explored this with elite footballers, finding that athletes who were able to stay present and calm in the moment reported far lower levels of stress.

“If mindfulness can equip athletes to better cope with unexpected change and uncertainty it could be a very beneficial intervention to minimise potential stress.”