Harlequins delivering mindfulness sessions to support with wellbeing

Friday, 27th March 2020 @ 17:25

With routines out of sync and uncertainty across the globe, the Club is utilising mindfulness during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Whilst Harlequins’ players are keeping themselves active from home with the latest strength and conditioning programmes, supporters are following workouts designed by the Club’s athletes and coaches on social media and joining in on The Harlequins Foundation's daily workouts streamed live on Instagram, Harlequins is embracing the practice of mindfulness.

The Club is delivering mindfulness sessions to players, their partners and soon to the online community to support with mental health and wellbeing.

Defined as ‘a mental state achieved by focusing one's awareness on the present moment, while calmly acknowledging and accepting one's feelings, thoughts, and bodily sensations’, mindfulness is a concept that Harlequins players have been practicing throughout the season, and are the first Club in the league to employ a specialist, with Mindfulness Coach Luke Doherty joining last July.

The Club’s Head of Medical Services, Mike Lancaster came across mindfulness within professional sport during his time with the GWS Giants in Australia’s AFL before joining Quins early last season and has introduced it to Harlequins.

Mindfulness has its roots in both Hinduism and Buddhism, and has extended itself to yoga, and more modern, non-religious meditation in more recent times. And while meditation has risen in popularity within mindfulness practices that have risen to such popularity within Eastern culture, Doherty’s practice at Harlequins takes a slightly different approach.

Describing the benefits, Lancaster said: “Fit body, fit mind are implicitly linked, and are both are areas you have to work at to maintain. Mindfulness allows the individual to focus their mind on the present instead of allowing previous or future experiences to cloud their thoughts. Luke provides different strategies of mindfulness which may involve breathing control or relaxation techniques, It’s about maintaining control in any environment through self-awareness of body and mind.

“It’s not just about helping with performance anxiety or pressure – whether that be a big game, a first appearance, against a superstar opponent or if Eddie Jones is watching in the crowd – it’s all about controlling the controllables, being in the moment, and not worrying about external stimulus when it comes to taking to the field. On a day to day level, it can be about being prepared for a meeting; we may all have anxiety if we’ve had a bad day at work and know we’re going to be reviewed on it.

“In Aussie Rules, the relative pressure for young athletes and the associated mental health has led to a focus on strategies to help. The kids are drafted in when they’re 18, and once the draft night is done, they’re flown all over the country away from their family and to their new clubs. So, there’s a lot of pressure. There can be a number dropout of programmes due to the pressure and the focus for clubs is to look after them to ensure this doesn’t happen. It’s a big push not only from the players’ association over there, but the individual clubs too. The Giants had a big push on mindfulness and meditation for both players and staff, and that was where I first came across it. It’s very individual in how you use it and there’s no right or wrong, it has to be right for each individual.”

During the regular Gallagher Premiership season, some of the Club’s players will practice mindfulness before a Monday morning meeting or after a game on the weekend, while others prefer to spend their days’ twenty minute mindfulness practice before the working day starts.

Mindfulness Coach Luke Doherty’s influence has been to ensure that, in an intense vocation where pressure can arrive from all angles, they remain in the moment, unimpeded by fruitless mental anchors. Lancaster added: “When we’re talking within the current environment of the Coronavirus pandemic and the imposed self-isolation, is that it’s not only to do with the performance pressures, it’s more to do with personal stresses away from the Club.

“Whether that be isolation related anxiety, financial, parental or partner, exams - whatever it may be, to have a simple tool that allows an individual to be in the moment without judgement is of vital importance. The habit of mindfulness gives each of us the grounding required to focus on things we can control. Especially right now when we’ve all lost our usual routine, creating a new routine is vital when we’re taken out of our normal habits by social isolation. We need to create our new structure.

“We mustn’t spend all of our time on our phones or in front of a screen, but we do need to spend that bit of time on our self; whether that be through mindfulness, planning your exercises, your education or when you’re getting outside. Mindfulness helps you to get structure and to get a bit of sanity when all around is in a state of flux.”

Despite the lack of face-to-face contact with Luke during the current lockdown, players are booking in for one-to-one video calls on Zoom, or joining set group sessions, split between forwards and backs.

Harlequins fly half Marcus Smith states that the mindfulness support has been of huge benefit to him, and is more important now than it has ever been. “It’s played a big part in my career, especially over the past two years where I have had things going on, on and off the pitch. Whilst we only have one session a week, I am able to take it home with me and practice in my own time. It helps me to feel ready to take on the next challenge and I feel mindfulness helps me out with that.

“We are all experiencing different challenges now, so it’s vital for us to still be able to chat to Luke and have these sessions. As well as the work the Club is doing supporting us in keeping physically fit, we are receiving the right support to stay mentally fit and healthy.”

Video sessions for players’ wives and girlfriends have been introduced and the Club wants to go a step further and launch video sessions for the wider community to benefit from online.

In conjunction with our welfare partner, Charles Stanley Wealth Managers, the Club will be looking to deliver online sessions and tips on its digital platforms with Luke, to allow the Club’s supporters and community to receive similar benefits of the players and their partners are experiencing during this challenging time.

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