02. Experts Corner

My Mindfulness Journey

February 24, 2021

My name is Erin McLeod and I’ve been a professional soccer goalkeeper since 2001, having competed in four FIFA World Cups. One of my proudest moments was being accepted into the Canadian Olympic Hall of Fame after achieving a bronze medal in the London 2012 games – something I could only have dreamed of as a kid. A hugely transformative change in my career was when I discovered how the practice of mindfulness could unlock my inner potential, taking me on an incredible journey inside and outside of the game. Now one of my life’s goals is to help others discover how practicing mindfulness can be so beneficial, which I’d like to share with you here.

The Challenges of Goalkeeping

As a goalkeeper you’re constantly absorbing and processing a lot of information on the field. You have to determine what's important versus what's not. You also have to continually make good decisions under pressure while not being over-stimulated, so it’s really important to pay attention to the smallest details while staying present and focused as much as possible. This is especially true under high stress conditions, when you know it’s all on the line and your whole team is depending on you.

I’ve been a perfectionist my whole career, but with that comes the fear of making mistakes, which can be a huge distraction in game-winning and game-losing situations. I think of it as having a limited amount of precious attention and focus available. How you direct your attention is crucial, because you need as close as you can get to 100% focus on each moment of a game to perform your best.

Research suggests that most people direct only 10% of thought processes into the present moment, so when it comes to personal growth, you can only imagine how much more we can learn when we become more efficient with our minds. For me, this is where practicing mindfulness came in, and it had a huge impact in my personal career.

Focusing on the Mental Side of the Game

I started really focusing on the mental side of the game leading up to the 2012 Olympics. This was when an amazing sports psychologist called Dr. Ceri Evans, who works with the New Zealand All Blacks, joined the Canadian National Women’s Soccer as the mental performance coach. With a central focus on mindfulness, his motto was ''presence comes from being present in the moment''.

I had always been a nervous goalkeeper. Dr. Evans’ mentoring helped me realize that most of my performance anxiety stemmed from being worried about making future mistakes, or dwelling on past ones.  The work we did was subtle at first, in moments of stress he told me to bring my awareness to my breath, not change anything, but just to notice it.  Mostly it was about bringing awareness to things I was doing in the moment.

He asked me to notice the tone of my voice, and be aware that my self-communication of when danger was coming, or when things were calm, were the same.  I started noticing how many words I was using that were fluff, non-purposeful or misdirected. He also encouraged expanding my vision as much as possible. I can say that the techniques really started to change my state of being and I saw how that translated to better performance on the pitch.

The Mind Training Approach

Most people think of mindfulness as practicing a certain way of thinking, but it can also be thought of as a training process, leveraging our brain’s neuroplasticity to tap into our underlying learning potential.

I started training with NeuroTracker not too long after the Olympics, and have been using it almost religiously ever since.  The timing couldn’t have been better because as I was already well into my mindfulness journey, trying to build on my present-moment focus. Off-the-bat I found that with NeuroTracker that I couldn’t let my mind go anywhere, because the feedback would show my results dropping immediately. This helped constantly reinforce in my mind just how crucial being aware of actually being aware, really is.

As a person who believes in constantly striving to simply be the best that you can be, one thing I really responded to was how NeuroTracker constantly challenges you to compete against yourself. The continual feedback at every step of training and the objective results show you where you are at, compared to where you want to be. For me this became an art of practicing getting in the zone and moving towards staying in the zone all day long. I think it's a great way to just continually challenge yourself in way that it's going to help develop your brain and your overall wellness.

I also discovered how pairing a biofeedback technology called Heart Math worked wonderfully for me with NeuroTracker. This basically measures subtle changes in rhythm and heart rate variability, which provides a kind of neurofeedback of what it is going on in your brain, because the science shows that heart and mind are closely coupled. It works great for practicing meditation, but then I learned that my NeuroTracker scores were better when I'd done meditation with Heart Math beforehand.

On the one hand, the scores showed me the real benefits I was getting from that, and on the other hand I was getting more out of my NeuroTracker sessions. I’ve been doing it the same way every single day ever since and really notice the difference it’s had on my game. In high pressure situations I feel much more aware in the heat of the action. It’s like I’ve developed ‘spidey senses’ for whatever is going on around me so I'm able to pick up the all the important cues that I need to read the game.

The Mindful Project Journey

I was lucky enough to meet Dr. Rachel Lindvall when I was competing in the Europe. As a veteran women’s soccer coach and an expert in mindfulness, we immediately connected. Her research opened my eyes to just how powerful the science and research is that backs these subtle mindfulness practices.  What blew me away most was when I read the studies revealing how your relationship with stress directly impacts your body on a physiological level, and how your mind is literally capable reversing the effects with the right focus.

I also remember showing Dr. Lindvall the NeuroTracker program and Heart Math in her hotel room in France when her and her husband were visiting me to see a game.  From there we decided to setup The Mindful Project, with the goal of bringing both the science-based methods and technologies of mindfulness training to people.  We focused on athletes and students (often the same) because of what we knew about the challenges of performance anxiety and fixed mindsets that these people face.

The Mindful Project - our team and goals

Studies show that we start learning to become afraid of making mistakes as early as three and a half years old, so as well as our high-performance programs we have a dedicated youth program. With adults we focus a lot on unlearning in order to get into the space of a growth mindset, but with youngsters we can focus more on developing an identity of self-worth from the outset, which we believe is incredibly important as human beings.

The Mindfulness Journey

For a long time in my life and soccer career, I took making mistakes personally and was extremely hard on myself, which shows slowed down my development. Anxiety also worked against me, rather than for me. The impact mindfulness had on my game was tremendous. I realized that being self-compassionate not only feels good, it helps you learn faster. I also became much more aware of my relationship with myself (my self-talk) and discovered how to open my fixed mindset.  All I had to do was believe that nerves were simply helping me prepare for a game to the best of my abilities, priming my brain and muscle functions to be optimal.  This started a long journey, that I’m still on, exploring mindfulness in high performance.

The path taken with Dr. Lindvall’s has been incredible so far. With research dedicated to the impact of mindfulness on athletes, and my own life experiences, one of the ultimate goals with our project is joy.  So often in my career I have been the one getting in my own way.  As I get older and work harder on my mindfulness practice, the fulfillment I experience because I am in the moment more often in the game, and in life, is something I hope all of our clients can experience.

Now I’m as passionate about mindfulness as I am about soccer. What has been so powerful on my own journey and with so many of our clients and our NCAA athletes, is that we are realizing so many of the negative thought patterns or mental habits we have created that work against us, can be unlearned.  Our brains are incredibly malleable, and I now know that it’s not a matter of what we can learn, but how we can learn.

If you want to find out more about the research on the benefits of mindfulness for managing stress and anxiety, then check out Dr. Lindvall's Experts Corner blog.

Mindfulness – Modern Medicine for Stress

Lastly, here is an interview I did with the NeuroTracker team on my experiences training mental performance.

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