Bits & Pieces: Running Coach Dan Pfaff’s Mindfulness

Dan Pfaff has mentored 49 Olympians (nine medalists), 150 All Americans, and blah blah. You get the point, Dan has huge coaching credentials. Lately, he helped Boston Marathon winner Meb Keflezighi recover from a serious stress fracture.

Dan’s thoughts are always enlightening. I’ll come back to some of them shortly. But first, I’m reading an interesting book, The Happiness Advantage, by Shawn Achor. I’m tickled by how Achor’s research on happiness backs up Dan Pfaff’s belief that positive attitudes play a major role in sports success.

dan-pfaffThe big message of The Happiness Advantage is that America has gotten it wrong when it comes to the relationship between success and happiness.

In school and at work, the popular idea is that we’ll be happy after we succeed. But Achor’s research shows it’s the other way round.

Based on years of studying business leaders and the most successful Harvard students, Achor found that happiness doesn’t suddenly show up after people succeed. On the other hand, people who are already happy are much more likely to be successful. Happiness, it seems, is a major predictor of success.

Achor’s findings mirror Dan Pfaff’s beliefs about why some athletes succeed while others of equal talent don’t quite get to the highest level.

“If you look at a field event final or a sprint final [at the Olympics] the differences in seasonal best performances aren’t that broad, but only a few rise to the top. So to me that says their mental resilience skills are what matter.”

Pfaff is fascinated by mindfulness, an approach to life with roots in Theravada Buddhism. Mindfulness essentially involves paying single-pointed attention to the present moment, and observing the world with calm detachment. Dan Pfaff:

“If therapists and coaches are being interrupted for phone calls and texting, then they are not mindful. For example, I really get upset when I see coaches or support staff just constantly checking their phone or taking calls in the middle of sessions. I think it’s hugely disrespectful and it’s destroying the aura of mindfulness that you’d want as a high priority in a performance culture….”

“I think the literature is pretty high on rewarding and applauding efforts, not just results. So staying with our theme of high performance, you’re going to get more mileage and better results if you’re process-driven.”

Research shows that we’re happiest when we engage in the work – the process – rather than continually dwelling on the future rewards. Children who do art projects for the sheer joy of the process produce more creative works than kids who are offered a monetary reward.

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