Directions for teachers: Ask students to read the online Science News article “How mindfulness-based training can give elite athletes a mental edge,” which explores new research into psychological tools to improve mental health, and answer the following questions. Questions are broken up by article section. Ask students to answer the questions in the order they appear. A version of the article, “Mental gymnastics,” appears in the January 29, 2022 issue of Science News.

1. During the 2021 Summer Olympics, why did U.S. gymnast Simone Biles withdraw from most of the events for which she qualified? How did people react to her decision?

Biles withdrew from the competition because of a mental block that put her at risk for making mistakes that could lead to severe injury or even death. Many people were shocked by her decision, and Biles faced a mix of criticism and praise.

2. Create a definition of “stigma” based on your understanding of the article. What effects does the stigma around mental health have on elite athletes?

Stigma is a set of negative, flawed beliefs that a society or group of people have about something. Stigma often causes shame. Stigma around mental health prevents athletes from talking about and seeking help for common problems such as anxiety, depression and eating disorders.

3. What psychological tools are scientists investigating that may improve athletes’ mental health? How can athletes benefit from better mental health?

Scientists are investigating mindfulness training and acceptance and commitment therapy, or ACT. Research suggests that improving mental health can improve athletic performance and lead to a richer life outside of sports.

Team tests

4. What did mindfulness training teach the players on the women’s lacrosse team at Marymount University in Virginia? How did the training appear to affect players’ mental health?

Used over several seasons, mindfulness training combined with other activities such as yoga and throwing and catching exercises taught players how to let go of mistakes and focus on the present. Players reported a drop in anxiety.

5. Did the training appear to improve the team’s overall performance? Make sure to cite evidence from the article in your answer.

The training seems to have improved the team’s performance. Before training, the team had four wins and 15 losses. The season after training, the team won more games than it lost and qualified for a championship game. The second season after training, the team won the championship.

6. Why do researchers think that mindfulness training did not improve the mental health of Miami Hurricanes football players? What did the training improve? Make sure to cite evidence from the article in your answer.

Mindfulness training probably didn’t improve the players’ mental health because of the exhausting physical stress from preseason football training. However, mindfulness training did help players maintain focus better than those who didn’t have the training.

7. How are attention and mental health related, according to neuroscientist Amishi Jha?

Attention helps people regulate emotions and connect with others. Protecting the ability to pay attention can protect mental health, Jha says.

Learned discipline

8. Psychologist Tommy Minkler likens mindfulness training to push-ups for the brain. Explain the analogy based on your understanding of the article and state why Minkler’s statement is considered an analogy.

Mindfulness training takes time and practice to see a benefit, like how you have to do push-ups again and again over time to build strength. Minkler’s statement is an analogy because it compares two things that are alike in some way.

9. What is one limitation in interpreting the findings of mindfulness research?

Mindfulness researchers tend to overstate positive findings.

10. How might mindfulness training backfire for some athletes? What can be done for these athletes?

Some techniques of mindfulness training such as focused breathing can bring up memories of past trauma, causing athletes distress. For athletes who have such reactions, working with a clinical psychologist is important.
No judgments

11. What is the goal of ACT? How does it work?

ACT teaches athletes to separate their competitor identity from their personal one by acknowledging negative thoughts as independent from how talented they are. By accepting the negative thoughts rather than trying to combat them, athletes can bring focus back to the present competition.

12. What have studies of athletes that get a combination of mindfulness training and ACT shown?

Athletes that combined mindfulness and ACT were less likely to be overcome by negative emotions and were better able to cope with change than players trained with traditional sports psychology tools such as relaxation, visualization and positive self-talk.

13. How do mindfulness training and ACT benefit student-athletes off the field, according to some researchers?

Student-athletes had improved focus on class assignments and improved communication with family and friends.