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Keeper Erin McLeod is keeping her mind on what matters with The Mindful Project

Keeper Erin McLeod is keeping her mind on what matters with The Mindful Project
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Going into the Beijing Olympics in 2008, the Canadian goalkeeper was afraid to play because she had put so much pressure and stress on herself. She was 25.

“I was so passionate about the sport but I was so hard on myself,” McLeod says.

It was in the lead-up to the 2012 London Olympics, where she started four of five matches and helped the team to its first bronze medal, that McLeod discovered the practice of mindfulness, the idea of being fully present in the moment and aware of her thoughts and feelings without judgment, distraction or confusion.

Mindfulness has helped McLeod manage her internal judgment and has brought her more fulfilment. Now 37, she has enjoyed her sport more and more in recent years. She knows being hard on herself doesn’t help her learn any faster. She wishes she had known that years ago.

“It would have changed a lot,” she says.

It is part of the reason why McLeod and Bethel University professor Rachel Lindvall launched The Mindful Project last fall, a program intended to help people focus more on positive thoughts while moving past negative ones. And it’s part of the reason why they’re launching a new high-performance program Tuesday geared toward high school, university and professional athletes who want to take their game to the next level.

“Fifteen and over, this is when the pressure really starts rising, universities are scouting these people,” McLeod says.

The 12-chapter curriculum combines the concept of mindfulness with personal development. Each chapter includes three content sessions. In a normal session, a small cartoon introduces a concept, like awareness. A guided relaxation is followed by an application exercise. Each chapter includes a mobility video, a technique incorporated after McLeod used it with the national team, and a mental training video, as well as a list of resources the user can check out to learn more about that chapter’s focus.

A survey of more than 100 university athletes using this program or a similar one has reported the athletes’ perceived stress was 194 per cent lower than peers not using the program and their quality of life was 206 per cent higher than those peers, McLeod says.

The program has been adopted by a professional club in Europe and by the National Women’s Soccer League’s Orlando Pride, where McLeod signed last February before going on loan to Icelandic side Ungmennafelag Stjarnan in August, after the onset of the global coronavirus pandemic.

McLeod led guided relaxations for her Orlando teammates. She initially worried about how the youngest players, some 18 and 19 years old, would respond, knowing there are some misconceptions about mindfulness and meditation and that the practices can be intimidating.

“Immediately after the sessions I had four or five of the youngest players on the team come up to me and say, ‘I struggle so much with stress and anxiety and this was so amazing. I was able to relax and just get out of my head for a minute,’” McLeod says.

McLeod hopes the program helps athletes use sport as a vehicle to learn about mindfulness, which can then be applied life in general.

“Getting to that place where you can have thoughts come in and out of your mind and you can almost just be like an observer,” she says. “Put attention and energy into the ones that are making your life better. Noticing the other ones that are there and just moving on, not giving them too much power.”

Putting energy into things athletes can’t control — like when their next game or season may be — is particularly fruitless during the COVID-19 pandemic, McLeod says. “There’s no normal right now. Finding this element of gratefulness and being present and putting energy into what you can control, I think that, for a young person especially, is pretty empowering.”

Mindfulness also helps build empathy and self awareness. When you become more aware of yourself, you become more aware of what’s around you, McLeod says, which is especially important as social justice efforts like Black Lives Matter and the transgender rights movement fight for equity. This past year has been an education for McLeod, who says you can’t control the situation you’re born into but you can learn about where others are coming from.

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“I think it’s a good time to start really understanding or putting yourself in other people’s shoes and realizing we are all really connected,” McLeod says.

The high-performance program is available online on The Mindful Project’s website and can be used by teams or individuals.

McLeod, like many athletes, is not sure what’s next but she feels she has the tools to navigate the uncertainty, “accepting that there’s going to be ebbs and flows throughout this year and there’s obviously more to come.”
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