The title The Mindful Athlete is misleading; the book is not simply written for athletes wanting to improve their “game” and/or increase self-awareness; it is an exploration of the mind, an exploration of how we all — athletes and regular Joe Blows — get in our own way physically and psychologically. The typical mind traps of being human are simply heightened in athletes; athletes not only need to react with immediacy under great stress, but they do it while on display; I think of athletes as existing within a petri dish that is meant to explore the relationship of stress, activity, the brain, and the body. If you’re interested in understanding how to up your “game” in life and in athletics — how to become more mindful of your actions and thoughts — then this book will be intriguing.
The concept that stuck with me from The Mindful Athlete is “right effort.” In fact, other than maybe “growth mindset” and “compassion,” right effort is probably the concept that most underpins my entire fitness philosophy. Mumford did not teach me the components of the concept, but I appreciate that he put a name — “right effort” — to a core way of being and thinking that I have always taught my clients and tried to embody myself; he gave me a title to succinctly encapsulate what I already believed.
What is right effort?
Right effort or right action is effort that is purposeful and productive. Right action is not romanticizing your discomforts and unhappy thoughts; it is not giving in to — or worse, feeding — anxious ever-turning thoughts. In Kathleen speak, it is not giving in to brain propaganda. Right effort is productive effort. Right effort is owning your choices. Being aware. Being mindful. Responding to a situation vs reacting. Right effort results in productive growth.
The key is to embrace that growing as an athlete — like growing as a human — inherently takes effort. “Adulting” is hard. Growth takes effort. The thing is, there are two types of “hard”: unproductive busy work, often fanned by damaging, shame-filled self-talk; and productive, forward-moving, growth-oriented effort. This second type gets you closer to a goal; it is a “full hard” — full of joy, self-awareness, and right effort or right action. Living even in a “stuck” state takes effort; spinning your wheels in anxiety and useless thought is often MORE exhausting than doing something. No matter what, you can’t jump over the effort piece — but you can jump over the useless effort. Why spin your wheels to get nowhere?
When it comes to health, too many of us fall into the self-perpetuating trap of the first type of “hard”; we spin our wheels, yet go nowhere (except up frustration creek) fast. We feel like we are constantly working — because we’re constantly engaging in damaging self-talk and unproductive non-actions — yet we stay fairly “stuck.”
If you feel like you are constantly worrying about your health, yet never achieving your goals, you are probably using “busy effort” not “right effort.”
I think of right action versus useless action as analogous to treading water versus swimming in the lake; I can work furiously to tread water or I can glide powerfully forward and gloriously get to the other side. Furiously treading water may feel productive — and the positive is it keeps you from dying — but it doesn’t get you to your end goal. You survive; you don’t thrive. Treading water is the equivalent of “busy work” — it is not “right effort.” To quote Stephen R. Covey in The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, “being busy is different than being productive”; don’t confuse stressing about your health and criticizing other people’s health choices (treading water — unproductive busy brain work) with taking positive steps to change your health (swimming forward — right effort).
Basically, you can’t skip the “hard” piece of life — the question is simply which type of hard do you want to live? There is no quick health fix. Anyone who says they have found one is either trying to sell you a product or fooling themselves. The journey is not linear. It ebbs and flows. You will fall. Make your goal to trend positive and to learn. I fall daily, but my falls this month are smaller in scale than 10 years ago, or even two years ago. I course-correct faster. Plus, I aim to learn from every deviation. In many ways I wish a few medium, non-destructive slips on you, because when you slip or fall in the muck, you have the opportunity to get up and learn from that fall.
Main take-away: keep going. Don’t give-up. No matter what, you can’t jump over all effort, but you can jump over the useless effort. Why spin your wheels to get nowhere? Exert effort — right effort!
Intrigued by right effort? Pick up the book for more gems!