#164: How Mindfulness Can Make Your Athlete Perform Better w/ Behavior Specialist Nellie Springston

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Have you ever wondered what sets elite athletes apart from the rest?

Is it superior physical abilities, rigorous training routines, or something more? In today’s blog, we’re diving into the world of mindfulness and its incredible impact on an athlete’s performance.

I recently had the pleasure of interviewing Nellie Springston, a remarkable individual with a wealth of knowledge. Nellie is the founder of Calma, a school counselor, and a behavior specialist, and she’s here to shed light on the power of mindfulness and how it can be your athlete’s secret weapon to success.

Unlocking the Potential with Mindfulness

Melissa, a parent in our community, recently shared her story about her daughter’s struggles in gymnastics. Her daughter had been grappling with performance anxiety and perfectionism, hindering her progress for months. However, after just one day of working on our elite mental game program, Melissa noticed a remarkable change. Her daughter realized she wasn’t alone in facing these challenges and began to change her thought process. The elite mental game program, designed to help athletes and their parents, had started making a positive impact in just 24 hours.

This story is a testament to the potential of mindfulness in sports. Many athletes, especially gymnasts, often have the physical skills but grapple with confidence issues, mental blocks, and anxiety. These challenges can be overcome with the right tools, and that’s precisely where mindfulness comes into play.

Meet Nellie Springston: A Multifaceted Expert

In this podcast episode, I had the privilege of chatting with Nellie Springston. Nellie wears multiple hats – she’s the founder of Calma, a program dedicated to creating calm classrooms for educators, a school counselor, and a private practice behavior specialist. 

Her work revolves around using mindfulness to empower children and teenagers to overcome anxiety and thrive. With a background like that, Nellie is an expert when it comes to understanding the needs and challenges that young individuals face.

The Birth of Calma: A Response to Trauma

Nellie’s journey into the world of mindfulness began during her time as a behavior interventionist at an inner-city charter school in San Antonio, Texas. She encountered students who had experienced significant trauma, which often manifested in disruptive behaviors. These students would act out and struggle to control their emotions, remorseful after the fact. Nellie recognized the need to help these children regulate themselves emotionally, and she saw mindfulness as the answer.

Her initial experiments with mindfulness in the classroom had profound effects. By simply incorporating a few minutes of breathing exercises into the students’ routines, she noticed a remarkable change in their behavior. The chaos of their day would melt away as they embraced moments of calm. It became clear that self-regulation, a skill often lacking in kids who’ve experienced trauma, was essential.

As she continued her work, Nellie identified five core modules essential for teaching mindfulness and self-regulation. These modules formed the foundation of Calma (Calm and Loving Minds Achieve), the program that has since made its way into school districts, helping both educators and students create more harmonious and productive classrooms.

The Five Modules of Calma

  • Module 1: Body Scan for Metacognition

The first module involves a body scan for metacognition, which is basically about “thinking about thinking.” When our thoughts drift to the past or the future, we’re not fully in the present moment, which impacts our ability to absorb the information being taught in the classroom. This module guides students through a body scan meditation to bring their mind to where their body is, fostering the skill of staying present.

  • Module 2: Self-Regulation through Mindful Breathing

Module two focuses on self-regulation through mindful breathing. It’s about calming the amygdala when students experience heightened emotions like anger or anxiety. By practicing mindful breathing, they learn to manage these emotional responses effectively.

  • Module 3: Understanding Neuroplasticity

In the third module, students explore the concept of neuroplasticity, which emphasizes that “what we feed the brain grows in the brain.” If we constantly expose our brains to distractions and overstimulation, that’s what it becomes wired for. Through mindful listening activities and meditation, students develop the ability to focus on the present moment, rewiring their brains for presence and focus.

  • Module 4: Gratitude as a Stress-Reliever

The fourth module delves into gratitude. Gratitude is not just about acknowledging opportunities and others but also serves as a counter to the fight, flight, or freeze response in the brain. By practicing gratitude consistently, students can rewire their brains to be more optimistic and notice the positive aspects of their environment.

  • Module 5: Developing Empathy

The fifth and final module is about empathy. It’s about teaching children to pause and take the perspective of another person. This skill is crucial for building positive relationships and fostering better communication.

The Impact of Calma: Real-Life Success Stories

Calma has made a significant impact on various school districts and even won awards. One school, St. Aloysius Catholic School in Louisville, saw remarkable results after implementing Calma. They won the Blue Ribbon Award for National Education in 2014 and won it again in 2019 after implementing the program. Calma allowed them to focus on the whole child, addressing their social and emotional needs in today’s increasingly distracted and anxious world.

Managing Anxiety in Sports Using Grounding and Reframing Techniques

Performance anxiety is a prevalent challenge for athletes. It can strike whether you’re on the field, in extracurricular activities, or even during a test in the classroom. The root of this anxiety is the feeling that we’re not prepared for what’s coming our way. It’s important to remember that anxiety exists in the future, not in the present moment. Right now, are you okay? We are having a conversation, and you’re in my office – you’re just fine.

So, first things first, let’s do some deep breathing and grounding, as you mentioned. Grounding helps us become present in the moment.

  • Separating from Anxious Thoughts

Next, we must distance ourselves from those anxious thoughts. Start by writing down your anxious thoughts. Then, we use a process I call “ANTs,” which stands for Automatic Negative Thoughts. The idea is to question the validity of these thoughts. Do you know for sure that your anxious thought is true? What evidence supports it? Does everyone else share this perspective? Could there be an alternative viewpoint? Who could you be if you let go of this thought?

  •  The Turnaround Technique

Inspired by therapists and psychologists, here’s a valuable technique – the Turnaround. This approach involves identifying the opposite of your anxious thought and creating a plan based on that alternative perspective. When we’re calm, we can engage our prefrontal cortex, which is crucial for clear thinking and effective execution of your game plan.

Anxiety can interfere with an athlete’s ability to perform at their best. By grounding ourselves, separating from anxious thoughts, and utilizing the Turnaround technique, we can regain control over our emotions and behaviors. This is how we set the stage for success on the field. Remember, your thoughts fuel your emotions, which, in turn, influence your behavior. By challenging these thoughts, you can break the cycle and perform at your peak.

Mindfulness, Empathy, And Being Present in The Moment

So, what can we do in those high-pressure moments when anxiety strikes? Let’s explore some practical techniques to handle it on the spot.

  • Bringing Yourself Back to the Present

When you’re on the field, about to head into a game, or even in the classroom before a test, anxiety can hit you like a ton of bricks. It’s often fueled by thoughts of the past or the future. But, the key is to be in the present. 

One way to achieve this is by grounding yourself. Find one thing to focus on, like a color in the crowd. Engage your senses – smell, touch, sight – to bring yourself into the here and now. And don’t forget to take a long, slow, deep breath. This sends a signal to your brain and body that you’re okay in this moment, overriding the anxious thoughts that might be racing through your mind.

  • Achieving the Flow State

Have you ever heard of being “in the flow”? It’s that state where you’re fully present in the moment, and your performance is at its peak. You’ve already put in the practice, so now it’s about not letting anxious thoughts take control. By practicing these skills, you can harness the power of the flow state. Just remember, with tests or sports, you’ve done the preparation. It’s just a matter of managing those anxious thoughts to let your knowledge and skills flow effortlessly.

  • Empathy as a Superpower

Now, let’s talk about empathy. It’s not just a great skill for building relationships; it can also help you stay in the present moment. Empathy means pausing and trying to see things from another person’s perspective. 

When you encounter negative energy or criticism from others, don’t absorb it. Instead, put on a shield. Try to understand what might be going on in their world. Maybe your teacher is in a bad mood because they’re stressed, or a teammate is acting out because they’re feeling the pressure. By practicing empathy, you can prevent negativity from affecting you and keep your focus on the game or the task at hand.

In a team setting, where competition for spots and differing personalities can lead to drama, empathy becomes a superpower. It helps you avoid taking on the emotions and energy of others, which can be a game-changer. It’s essential for fostering understanding and cohesion among teammates with diverse perspectives and strategies.

Remember, anxiety is a common adversary in sports, but with these techniques, you can keep it in check. Ground yourself in the present, aim for the flow state, and practice empathy to maintain a positive mindset. So, the next time you’re in the heat of the moment, embrace these strategies, and you’ll be better equipped to perform at your best. You’ve got this!

Nonviolent Communication and Conflict Resolution

Have you heard of NVC, or nonviolent communication? If not, that’s okay. NVC is a structured way of talking through conflicts and misunderstandings. It’s a simple yet effective method that can help you express yourself and understand others better. So, let’s break it down and see how NVC works.

The Structure of NVC

NVC consists of four simple steps: observation, feeling, need, and request.

  • Observation

Start by describing what you observed. This is all about providing a clear context for the issue. For example, you might say, “I observed this happen; you took my spot.”

  • Feeling

Next, express how the situation made you feel. Use words like “angry,” “embarrassed,” or any emotion that fits the situation. For instance, you could say, “That makes me feel angry or embarrassed.”

  • Need

Identify your underlying need. What is it that you value and require in this situation? Your need could be fairness, respect, or something else entirely. So, you might continue with, “because I have a need for fairness.”

  • Request

Finally, ask for a specific action or behavior that would help address your need and resolve the conflict. Be polite and open to negotiation. For example, you could say, “Would you be willing to consider this or that, maybe not giving me the spot, but considering my feelings here?”

NVC offers a structured and compassionate way to communicate. It helps you express your feelings, needs, and requests, creating a platform for understanding and resolution. Instead of using accusatory statements, NVC shifts the focus to shared human emotions and needs. It’s an effective tool to prevent conflicts from escalating and promote understanding between parties.

Imagine you have a disagreement with someone. Instead of diving into an argument, you can pause and use the NVC framework. Start by describing what you observed, then express your feelings and needs, and finally, make a polite request for how to move forward.

By using this method, you create an environment that encourages dialogue, empathy, and mutual understanding. It’s a valuable tool not only in personal relationships but also in professional settings and even in parenting.

Team Conflict Resolution Using Restorative Circles

So, what exactly are Restorative Circles, and how can they benefit your team? Nellie shared insights about how Restorative Circles have been instrumental in resolving conflicts within their team:

  • Introduction of Restorative Circles

The team started their season by implementing Restorative Circles, a framework that emphasizes open communication and trust-building. They use weekly gatherings in a circle format to encourage team members to share their thoughts and experiences.

  • Handling Conflicts

Restorative Circles provide a structured approach for addressing conflicts when they arise. This includes guidelines on who speaks, how to express thoughts, and how to communicate respectfully. The team is well-prepared to handle conflicts effectively.

  • Real-Life Conflict Resolution

Nellie shared a specific conflict involving team leaders. This conflict was more profound than a difference in preferences; it involved personal feelings and relationships. Through the Restorative Circle practice, the team created a safe space for everyone to express themselves, leading to a resolution that preserved team unity and allowed everyone to voice their concerns.

  • Mindfulness and Grounding

Emotions can run high during conflicts, and mindfulness and grounding techniques are crucial. Team members were encouraged to use these techniques to stay focused and respectful, even in emotionally charged discussions.

The implementation of Restorative Circles has significantly improved the team’s conflict resolution process. It has created an environment where everyone’s voice is heard, conflicts are addressed systematically, and individuals can manage their emotions effectively – it’s a truly valuable tool for building a strong, harmonious team.

The Bottom Line

Mindfulness is a powerful tool for athletes and individuals, as highlighted in our interview with behavior specialist Nellie Springston. It helps manage anxiety, unlock potential, and create a harmonious environment.

Nellie’s journey from behavior interventionist to the founder of the Calma program illustrates the impact of mindfulness in trauma and emotional regulation. Calma’s five modules provide a comprehensive approach to mindfulness education.

For athletes, managing performance anxiety is crucial. Grounding, reframing, and empathy techniques can help athletes stay present and perform at their best. Nonviolent communication (NVC) and Restorative Circles are effective conflict resolution tools. They promote understanding and resolution, enhancing personal and professional relationships. By integrating mindfulness, empathy, and effective communication, individuals can excel in sports and life, fostering success, confidence, and unity.

If you’re interested in learning more about the power of mindfulness and its practical applications, be sure to check out the full podcast episode. Let mindfulness be your secret weapon for success!

Come hang out with Nellie on social @‌calma.kids and learn more about working with her at: 

🌐 calmakids.org

🌐 calmacoach.com

🌐 calmacat.com

📧 nelliespringston@gmail.com 

Episode Highlights: 

[00:00] Mindfulness for athletes with a mental performance coach and school counselor. An introduction to Natalie Nellie Springston, founder of Calm and Loving Minds Achieve, a school program that teaches mindfulness to empower children and teens to overcome anxiety and thrive.

[03:13] Creating a program to help students regulate their emotions and improve learning. Nellie shares her passion for helping educators create calm classrooms through an online training program and children’s book.

[08:10] Mental training for athletes using mindfulness and gratitude. Nellie discusses the concept of neuroplasticity and how it relates to mindfulness practice, emphasizing the importance of focusing on the present moment and building the brain’s ability to be present. She also highlights the social element of the program, including gratitude and empathy, and how these practices can serve as a counter to the fight flight or freeze response in the brain.

[10:46] Using mindfulness in schools to improve focus and well-being.

[16:56] Managing anxiety in sports using grounding and reframing techniques. Nellie discusses using grounding and breathing meditation to separate from anxious thoughts and question their validity, as taught by Byron Katie.

[19:39] Mindfulness, empathy, and being present in the moment. Nellie discusses the importance of being present in the moment to perform at one’s best, using breathing techniques and grounding exercises to manage anxiety.

[25:22] Nonviolent communication and conflict resolution. Nellie discusses the importance of nonviolent communication (NVC) in resolving conflicts, emphasizing the structure of observation, feeling, need, and request.

[28:06] Team conflict resolution using restorative circles. Nellie shares her expertise on mindfulness and grounding techniques for children in high-charged conversations.

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