I would sincerely like to thank all the staff and members of the Aberdeen Snowsports Centre who took part in the coaching sessions. You all had so much enthusiasm, interest, humour and an open approach, for which I am very grateful, thank you. Also, I want to acknowledge the help I received from Ski School Director, Beth Woodhall, who was always positive about the project and very helpful in making the sessions happen, thank you.

Thinking and Feeling – A Holistic Approach

Anyone who has tried to master a sport will have realised it’s not only the technical endeavour which improves performance; the body, mind and emotions all play vital roles in achieving sporting excellence. The attitudes one holds towards the sport and towards learning also significantly impact what one achieves and how satisfying the process becomes.  These are views I have held over my coaching career and last year I had the opportunity to investigate more closely, conducting a research project which contributed to an MSc degree in Mindfulness Studies at Aberdeen University.  With the assistance of staff at Aberdeen Snowsport Centre, and in particular Snowsport School Manager Beth Woodhall, and a number of Aberdeen Snowsport Club members, we were able to arrange two series of 12 hour coaching sessions, during which I explored the use of mindful coaching approaches with the intention of making the learning for the skiers a mindful learning experience.  I was seeking to gain an insight into the skiers learning experience and used a semi-structured, extended response questionnaire to gather the views of the skiers at the end of the coaching sessions.

You may ask ‘why’ look into an alternative approach to coaching and learning? The impetus for the study comes from my own coaching experience where I recognise the broad range of learning styles and how performance can be improved with little attention paid to the technical component.  Instead, the learner’s endeavours can focus upon what their mind, emotions and physical body is feeling and being, and through this, information can be gained which enables the learner to modify, positively, their own performance. Additionally, my holistic views of life motivate me to carry a holistic approach over into my coaching practice, where I have often felt restricted when attending only to the skiers technical and physical ‘doing’.

Another impetus for the study is the notion that sports participants are likely to be assisted in their sporting performances when they possess the faculty of self-awareness of their physical body, their emotional dispositions and their mind states.  In sports, these are known as kinaesthetic awareness, emotional control and focussing or attention control (Syer & Connolly 1984). Gaining an understanding of how participants experience mindful learning, and their preferences about them, could be valuable in informing future coaching practice.  If the coach understands what the learner is feeling and experiencing in his learning journey the effective coach will modify his coaching behaviour to best maintain the learner’s safety, motivation and enjoyment and to optimise the learning opportunities consistent with the approach he has chosen.   

The alpine-skiing environment is open and changeable, taking place in outdoor mountain situations, which are exposed to weather and temperature variations that influence the terrain and snow condition.  Skiing occurs in curvilinear-motion, presenting a multitude of forces which the skier can be aware of, embrace and manipulate to facilitate his / her performance.  Skiing skills are complex with gross and minor motor skills being required, and thus the sport presents many opportunities for similar outcomes being achieved through a variety of inputs.  Such is this nature of alpine skiing that the sport presents many opportunities for exploring self-awareness of body / emotions and the present moment performance.

Underpinning the nature of mindful learning is its potential to make novel distinctions, leading to a greater sensitivity to one’s environment, openness to new information, flexible structuring of perception and broader perspectives in problem solving (Langer, 2000).  When one emerges from the pre-occupation with the technical components of sports and takes a holistic perspective to developing skiing performance the scope of possibilities for a broad variety of learning experiences becomes apparent.

A broad summary of the study’s findings revealed the learning experiences of the skiers showed a reliance on intrinsic feedback, self-awareness raising practice, post-practice reflecting and sharing information with peers.  The learning process was perceived to be sociable, meaningful and enjoyable, and the learning outcome was a greater sense of self awareness of current performance as it was happening, and a subsequent increase in ability to modify performance, also as it was happening.

Mindful Learning

Underpinning mindful learning is a range of ‘attitudes’ which frame the learner’s perception of how they approach developing their performance.  The ‘attitudinal foundation’ put forward by Kabat-Zinn (1991) are helpful in encouraging students to move towards mindful perspectives on their own learning, and these include:

  • Curiosity – Become curious about your experience; how you feel physically and emotionally, and what present moment sensations you are experiencing.
  • Acceptance – Acceptance doesn’t mean resignation. Mindfulness is about accepting how you feel right now, rather than denying it. Acceptance first, change comes later.
  • Kindness – Bring a sense of warm and caring compassion to your moment to moment experience. Be aware of your moment to moment experience with your heart as well as your head.
  • Letting go – You don’t need to try and hold on to pleasant experiences and push away unpleasant experiences. Have a sense of a light touch to your experience.
  • Non–judging – Observe whatever you are experiencing as it is, rather than classifying it into good or bad, like or dislike.
  • Non–striving – Allow yourself to experience whatever your experience is rather than creating a goal for some other experience and then striving to attain that different experience.  Notice any ‘competitive’ instincts arising and how one reacts to them.
  • Patience – Change takes time. Foster your capacity to be patient.
  • Trust – Have confidence in what you recognise as your own experience, after all you are the expert in this field.
  • Beginner’s mind – Nurture your sense of being a beginner rather than an expert.  In the beginner's mind there are many possibilities, in the expert's mind there are few. Move into letting go of what we think we know and instead pay attention to what is.

On this backdrop of the nature of mindful learning, the following are some characteristics of the mindful learning experience in sports.  

  • The learner is engaged in a process which is encouraging them to inquire into their attitude about their paradigm of skiing and their attitude towards their learning.
  • The learner is assisted to maintain clear intentions which will influence performances.
  • The learner’s experience involves a great amount of practice where there is a lot of doing of the activity.
  • The learner is encouraged to ‘stop before they start’ where sessions commence with a checking in with themselves.
  • The learner is noticing what is happening as it happens, without preference, during the practice.
  • The learner is provided with practices whereby their awareness of breathing during performance is heightened.
  • The learner is raising awareness of what learning is feeling like as well as sensations related to the performance, of both the cause and effect of performance, of what they are doing and how it is achieved and how both elements feel.
  • The learner experiences a guided discovery learning experience which reveals to them how they are performing and what it feels like in body and mind.
  • The learner is encouraged, through the practice of performing, noticing, reflecting and sharing, to let go of self-criticism and to fully accept their own experience, without preferencing.
  • The learner is reflecting on their own performances and sharing with peers what they noticed in themselves. There is a threshold where learners realise there is no right or wrong answers, in fact there are no answers at all, only opportunities for learning and developing performance.
  • The learner comes to a realisation of the strengths in their performance; they feel the relationship between what they do with their body, their movements and bodily sensations, and the effect of this on their control of speed and direction.
  • The learner moves through a realisation that the coach is assisting them to discover, notice and recognise what is happening already, rather than trying to attempt any new technical move.
  • The learner is being drawn to recognise what their performance feels like inside themselves and comes, at some point, to the realisation that with this awareness they provide their own feedback and can coach themselves.

Findings

What was found from the study can be crystalized into three clear outcomes about the learning and its impact on performance, and these were:

  • raised self-awareness of what the learner was doing and feeling;
  • knowing of actual performance through kinesthetic ‘tactic knowing’, and
  • an increased ability to modify and adjust the performance at the time it is happening.

There was a cluster of perceptions around what the learning process involved, all indicating the ‘learner centered’ nature of the process:

  • collaborative;
  • reflective;
  • self-inquiring;
  • self-regulating, and
  • intrinsically aware.

Tangible evidence from the skiers included:

  • noticing one’s own performance through practice;
  • sensing and feeling the intricacies of one’s own performance;
  • feedback originating from one’s own perception and self-awareness;
  • modifying performance from information originating from the learner;
  • reflecting on one’s own performance and sharing these with peers;
  • questioning one’s own performance, and;
  • answering questions presented by the coach.

One field emerging from within the findings relate to the learning environment and the impact of the learning activity on the emotional state of the learners and the social climate which prevailed within the group, including the learner’s sense of:

  • responsibility for their own learning;
  • accountability and ownership of their own performance;
  • sociability of the learning experience;
  • non-competitiveness, absence of fear of failure, and exploration was allowed, and
  • emotional states of the learners.

For a few skiers some challenges in the learning process were identified, and the specific items which emerged included:

  • practicing in the absence of evaluative feedback from the coach;
  • relevancy of the detailed self-inquiry rather than cognitive learning;
  • the absence of an absolute model performance, and
  • devoting practice time to reflection and sharing.

Conclusions

The research question asked in this study is: ‘What are the learner’s experiences when developing sporting performance through mindful-influenced learning?’  The study has looked, primarily, at the learner’s response to mindful learning strategies as delivered through mindful-based teaching / coaching methods, and offers no hypothesis as to what form these experiences will take.  Whilst the over-arching field of this study, is therefore, the learning experiences of the sample group, it is recognised that this is achieved through the creation and delivery of mindful-based coaching methods.   

Through the study it has been concluded that the coach’s ‘embodiment’ of mindfulness plays a significant role in the capacity to deliver mindful-based methods of coaching.  Furthermore the bonding and inter-relatedness between the teaching and coaching methods, learning strategies, learning experience and learning outcomes, has been brought into focus and confirmed.

The learning experiences reported by the sample group in this study fall firmly within the ‘reflective’ and ‘constructivist’ paradigm of educational intervention.  It is clearly ‘experiential’ with an emphasis, in the learner’s view, on the process of learning, where performance outcomes are secondary. It is also recognised that through mindful learning strategies ‘learning skills’ are readily developed.

The study has shown that sporting performance can be improved through learning activity which raises self-awareness, and this process of gaining greater self-knowledge, has a positive impact in improving sporting performance.  Furthermore, the increasing of self-awareness in sporting performance forms a crucial element of the foundations for future performance improvements.  Finally the study illustrated that this type of learning can be engaging, enjoyable and practical.

Bibliography

Kabat-Zinn, J (1991) Full Catastrophe Living 2nd Edition, Dell Publishing America

Langer, E. (2000) Mindful Learning, Current Directions in Psychological Science, Volume 9, Issue 6, 220-223

Langer, E. (2000) The Construct of Mindfulness. Journal of Social Issues, Vol. 56, No.1

Syer, J. Connolly, C. (1984) Sporting Body Sporting Mind, Cambridge Press

Copyright, John Arnold 2014