THE KEY TO MAINTAINING INTENTIONAL FOCUS
by B.E.S.T. Sports Psychology Consultant Colleen Sager
“The time is now, the place is here” – Dan Millman
Take a moment to think about your last peak performance either during training or a race. What thoughts are going through your head? Were you thinking about a past or future race? Probably not. Chances are you weren’t thinking about how high your heart rate was either. You were most likely concentrating on one thing and one thing only; moving your body toward the finish line. During a state of peak performance, an athletes mind is focused on what they need from their body. There is no difference between what they are thinking and how they are moving. A focused state of mind requires deliberate mental effort and intention.
The ability to focus on the right cue in athletics can be the difference between standing on the podium at the end of the day, or simply crossing the finish line. Sounds simple enough, however, being able to focus on the correct cue for an extended amount of time, is almost impossible. Don’t fret; here are a few ways in which you can improve your focus and concentration and ultimately, your performance. Today I am going to talk about two important factors when trying to improve concentration: (1) focusing on relevant environmental cues, and (2) maintaining attentional focus overtime.
Before we get into the nitty-gritty of how you can focus on relevant cues, let’s first identify some distractions. There are both internal and external distractions. Examples of internal distractions would be: hunger, soreness, thirst, fatigue, boredom, and of course, the thoughts in your head. External distractions include: weather, competitors, and crowd noise. Take a few moments now and write down what distracted you during your last race or training. Understanding when you are being distracted and by what, is important to help you know when it’s time to re-focus.
Focusing on relevant cues can sometimes be hard for athletes who pay attention to their computers or heart rate monitors more than their environmental cues. Instead of looking at your gadgets constantly, take a moment to think about your race, and your race plan. Don’t pay attention to your competitors, or your last performance, be in the moment taking in your environment and what that means for your race. Narrow your focus to one or two external cues that help you perform at your best. For example, as a triathlete, when you are in the water sighting is a great way to narrow your focus, while keeping you on course and swimming the straightest line. When sighting, you are focused on getting to the object keeping you on course, narrowing your focus on that particular object.
Below is a homework assignment I have for you to work on to help you focus on relevant cues. All you need is a pen and an alarm set for 1 minute.
The figure below is a grid containing only double-digit numbers. The goal of this exercise is to find and cross out as many sequential numbers as possible (e.g., 10,11,12) within one minute. If and when this becomes too easy for you, try finding a different set of numbers (e.g., variables of 3) with music or your television on in the background. Whenever this exercise seems to be too easy, add another distractor to the exercise, forcing you to focus more intently.
Depending on what race you are involved in, you could be on the course for hours at a time. By no means are you expected to concentrate totally during the entirety of the race. In fact, it is sometimes good to let your mind think of nothing, and allow your body to go through the motions. The key to maintaining intentional focus over time, is knowing when you are being distracted and need to focus on either your internal or external cues. How do you do this? By practicing to maintain your focus.
Find a quiet place where you won’t be distracted for at least five minutes. Take with you an object that you can hold in your hand and can focus on for the next five minutes. Set your timer to see how long you can focus on this object. Hold the object in your hand taking in its color, texture and smell. Once you have an idea of what this item feels like, set it down and focus your attention on examining it in great detail. When your thoughts start to wonder, bring your mind back to this object. See if you can focus on the object for five minutes. Once you can focus on the object for five minutes without your mind wandering, add a distraction such as music or television in the background.
Practice both of these homework assignments at least twice a week remembering to add distractions as the exercises get too easy. Practice being focused on relevant cues while training. Without practice you can’t expect to focus on relevant cues or maintain your focus during race day. Being ready for race day includes training your mind, not just your body.
“What do I mean by concentration? I mean focusing totally on the business at hand and commanding your body to do exactly what you want it to do.” – Arnold Palmer