Sunday, June 30, 2013

Your secret weapon: a focused mind

As a triathlete I am well-versed in the tendency to research and seek out the latest, cutting edge (and often over-the-top!) technology in sports equipment: a $1200 wetsuit with 'Yamamoto Nano SCS coating neoprene panels', $4000 sunnies made from "pure carbon fibre that takes machinery a continuous 24 hours to carve out", $500 cycling shoes that are "lightweight, high-performing, and gold lining with a rainbow pattern", and a fancy aero helmet with "unique dual internal and external ventilation system" worth $499.95. You get the idea. Constantly searching for free speed while crippling your wallet (which is why quite a few of these items are not hanging up in my closet).

"Yes your honour [insert partner's name here], I plead guilty to these charges".

Here's the kicker: what if I said one of your greatest pieces of sports equipment will cost you nothing? It's true. The greatest tool that any athlete has is sitting right between your ears: your mind.

Sure, talent and physical ability play an enormous role. Running shoes and a bike are also fairly critical for triathletes. But at the end of the day it is your mind that can make or break you. By understanding the power of this hidden piece of sports equipment you'll be able to use it to improve your performance and get the advantage over your competition. 


The first 'Mental Weapon' to add to your sports kit: The Art of Focus

Mastering the mental game 101 - the ability to focus is one of the most important skills you can develop as an athlete. Consider Happy Gilmore. He lost the plot initially when taunted by a crazed fan and got into a brawl with Bob Barker (and lost). But through some help from a one-handed man named Chubbs, Happy was able to win the tournament (and the girl) by learning how to refocus despite the TV tower collapsing and blocking his putt.

While this may seem like an odd place to reference a 90's Adam Sandler comedy, it highlights a key point: focus is a skill like any other that can be learned and improved through practice. Even Happy could do it.

Focus is the ability to direct your full attention to the task at hand while tuning out the distractions. The task at hand might be body posture and 'running tall', while distractions can be internal (the voice in you head on a constant loop telling you that you'll never catch the guy in front) or external (a sign for McDonald's latest Rocklea Road thickshake). 

It's important to remember that your focus is also linked to your arousal level and physical state. For example, if you're focused on thoughts about not gaining on the person in front of you, you might get anxious and frustrated. These thoughts can lead to muscle tension which will prevent you from running smoothly and efficiently (thus running slower). 

Step 1: focusing on the present moment

Research (and personal experience) has shown that great sporting performance comes from focusing on the here and now, not thinking about what happened last time you raced or worrying about what might happen. Why waste energy thinking about stuff that doesn't matter? Here are some tips for zeroing in on now:
  • Find an object - your mobile phone, shoes, a leaf, anything really - and give it your full attention. Notice the colours, shapes, outline, texture, smell. Observe it like a curious scientist that has never seem this object before. See if you can stay focused for one full minute. If you notice your mind wandering, acknowledge the thought that caught your attention and then let it go by bringing your attention back to the object. 
  • Practice staying in the moment each day during training. Focus on the immediate execution of a skill - the catch in your swim stroke, relaxed shoulders while running. 
  • Centre yourself - pay attention to your breathing and muscle tension. Yoga is a great way to practice this as you are encouraged to be more in the moment.

Step 2: focus on what matters 

Why focus on parts of your day that you have no control over? For example, you can't change the weather or how many people are watching you, nor can you do anything about how much someone else has trained or how fit they look (you could try sneaking some weight gain formula into their bircher museli I guess).

Instead, focus on factors that are relevant and have a direct impact on how well you perform. Focus on your practice goals, rest, diet and mental preparation. Cultivate a healthy attitude and improve your understanding of the game or sport. Focus on planning your training periodisation effectively and getting the right treatments between sessions to aid recovery. All of these are factors within your control that can improve your skills and ability to perform well. 
 
Also, focus on the process rather than the outcome. When Pete Jacobs won the Hawaii Ironman triathlon in 2012 he reflected afterwards that being in the lead on the bike allowed him to focus on his own space, form and technique. Compared to previous years where he has been in the 'pace line' and had to divide his attention between maintaining the 12 metre draft distance between him and the rider in front, wondering if he can catch the guys in front and somewhere in there putting some focus on the process keeping efficient cycling form. 


Step 3 - know the focus points of your sport

Every sport has its own unique focal points - the stroke in swimming, pedal stroke and body position in cycling, high hips and relaxed shoulders when running. The more aware you are of your sports unique focal points, the easier it will be for you to zero your attention in on that key spot while letting go of distractions. 


Step 4 - relax

A guaranteed road block to engaging your focused mind is stress and worry. If your mind is caught up with worries about life, it will be difficult to switch them off when you are focusing on the million dollar putt. The more stressed you are the more tense your muscles will be. Not the ideal recipe for success on the sporting field. 

Find things that help you relax and keep a list. You can then use the list as a quick reference guide if you notice the tension in your body, racing thoughts or overwhelming emotions. This could include listening to music, reading, talking with friends and having a laugh, getting a massage or watching a movie. It can also include more specific strategies such as progressive muscle relaxation, meditation and breathing exercises. 

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Try to incorporate these ideas into your weekly training regime and see what happens to your sports performance. If nothing else you will be able to really savour that piece of chocolate by focusing on the smell, flavour and texture. Plus you may spend less money on useless equipment (my Finis Hydro Hip is doing a great job of collecting dust).

More 'Mental Weapons' to add to your sporting equipment collection coming soon. 

Safe training and above all else - remember to have fun!



Scott

1 comment:

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