How to Build Champions in the Classroom by Optimizing the Mind-Body Connection

Nadine Levitt

We know that athletes who are successful at any level focus on optimizing both their body and their mind. They focus on caring for their bodies with a balanced and nourishing diet, proper hydration, and good sleep hygiene. They develop their athletic skills and care for their bodies with precise exercise routines that include stretching, recovery and targeted conditioning. 

All these physical optimizations are vital for any successful athlete, but the ones who truly stand out as the very best place an equal emphasis on caring for their mental health and mind-body connection. They are purposeful about tapping into the power of belief to calm nerves and visualize success. 

This deeply important mind-body connection is well understood in the world of sport, but it has yet to be fully adopted by the world of education. By applying these same tactics and core beliefs in the classroom, we can build a whole new generation of Classroom Champions. 

So, what can we learn from elite athletes, and what specific strategies can we begin to incorporate to encourage a strong mind-body connection in all our students? 


3 Ways Elite Athletes Train Their Minds

Awareness: First, athletes understand how emotions and their mental state can impact their performance. They have trained themselves to continually check in with their mindset. Are there outside distractions vying for attention? How’s their current stress level? If it seems to be heightened, why? 

Elite athletes know that a disordered, distracted mind will lead to disordered, distracted athletic performance. 

The same is true in the classroom. 

Are you and your students fully aware of how important your emotions and mental state are? As educators, we need to be continually talking to our students about this, using specific examples and providing them with specific language to help them process and express their thoughts. 

We need to tell them, explicitly, that of course the big fight you had with your best friend this morning is going to keep you from doing your best on the math test. That your choice to stay up late last night playing video games means you will probably struggle to understand today’s lesson a bit more than usual.

We help them recognize that their score on the math test is not proof that they are “bad at math.” Instead, when we help them see how outside factors affect their whole selves, they become more likely to view the poor performance as a growth opportunity rather than an irrefutable, unchangeable fact about themselves 

Then, we give them the tools that, with practice over time, will help them calm their nerves, refocus their attention and reframe their thinking the next time stress affects them. 

Regular reflection: Successful athletes regularly record, review and reflect on their performance. They view videos of their competitions and their practices, identifying what went well and what could have been better. 

Often, this review and reflection is completed with a trusted advisor, like a coach, trainer or teammate. The athlete invites others to offer feedback because he or she knows that we can often be blinded to our own weaknesses. The outside perspective helps them avoid blind spots and identify opportunities for improvement.

How often do you record and “review the tapes” with your students in the classroom? Do you allot time for meaningful reflection, or do you wrap up one unit and race ahead to the next one? The act of recording can be a fabulous tool for self-awareness and, because the experience of doing something is so different from watching yourself do something, the learning tends to be far deeper than simply doing things alone.

When you regularly create space for reflection in the classroom, you are encouraging your students to take ownership of their academic performance and empowering them to take charge of their learning. You are, in essence, helping them develop a growth mindset. The growth mindset says that you aren’t there…yet. In contrast, the fixed mindset disempowers a student by telling them they’ll never get there. 

In her book Mindset: The New Psychology of Success, Carol Dweck explains, “In the fixed mindset, everything is about the outcome. If you fail—or if you’re not the best—it’s all been wasted. The growth mindset allows people to value what they’re doing regardless of the outcome. They’re tackling problems, charting new courses, working on important issues. Maybe they haven’t found the cure for cancer, but the search was deeply meaningful.”

As such, a fixed mindset would say:

I’m just bad at math.

I can’t do it.

A growth mindset says: 

I had trouble with the math questions using fractions. How can I get more practice with those?

I didn’t do my best on that because I let myself be distracted. 

It is only with reflection that we can look for the reasons behind challenges, and what we need to solve to improve our skills.

Practice, practice, practice! Professional athletes understand the power of practice. They realize that most of the time, a new activity, skill or technique won’t come naturally at first. They know that practice and repetition is key to mastering something new. 

The same is true when it comes to nurturing a positive mind-body connection. Athletes practice breathing techniques to calm nerves; they adopt coping mechanisms to stay calm under pressure; they develop rituals to center their thoughts and focus appropriately. And they do these things over and over again, until eventually it becomes second nature. They can access these tools, even when standing on the free throw line in front of 20,000 screaming spectators.

When we help our students practice positive mind-body connection strategies over and over again, we are teaching them to be resilient, empowered and self-reflective — all traits that true champions possess. 


Specific Techniques You Can Use to Strengthen Mind-Body Connection in Your Classroom

Firstly, remember that each person is unique, and we all process stress in a different way. There are many common stressors in the classroom: fear of failure, time pressure, distractions, and emotions like anxiety or overwhelm that can paralyze a person. Some students will find a ticking countdown timer terribly stressful, while others may find it motivating. 

When you intentionally build in a variety of strategies for coping with stress to your daily classroom routine, you can empower your students to recognize and handle stress triggers when they appear. 

Here are some specific strategies you can encourage students to try in the classrooms, to cope with common stressors: 

  • Stop what you’re doing and take several deep breaths. Mindful breathing is a highly effective way to refocus attention and reset. 
  • Change your environment. Get up and take a walk, get a drink of water or stretch.
  • Listen to music, either to calm you down or amp you up.
  • Pause, scan your body, and notice if you need to refuel any part of your body or mind. Are you hungry? Thirsty? Dwelling on a negative thought?
  • Get back to solid ground. When stuck, return to where you last felt confident and build back up from there.
  • Regularly use language that promotes emotional intelligence. When your students can identify and acknowledge their feelings, this prevents them from being overtaken by challenging emotions. 
  • Practice the power of belief! No one can succeed unless you believe that you can and will succeed. And when you couple this with a growth mindset you get rocket-fuel for learning! So encourage students to come up with their own daily affirmations or mantras that demonstrate a growth mindset, and create posters that they can hang at home so that they are visually reminded to feed their self-belief. 
  • Encourage collaboration whenever possible, stressing the importance of teamwork and a strong support network.

About the author

As a globally renowned authority who has been in every facet of K-12 education for over a decade and has overseen over 400 classrooms, Nadine Levitt has seen first-hand how optimizing the mind-body connection makes for a deeper learning experience. She educates teachers nation-wide on how to utilize pro-sports tactics and best practices in the classroom. These interactive activities provide practical strategies on how to overcome common stressors to the mind-body connection. 

To learn more about fostering healthy mind-body connections in the classroom, check out the innovative work being done by Nadine Levitt and her team at WurrlyEDU, a unique platform harnessing the power of music to change lives.

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