As the saying goes, “Get your head in the game.” Easy to say, but with so many everyday worries crowding your mind, how do you cultivate the ability to concentrate on one thing without distraction, so you can perform at your maximum potential? Mental focus is such an important skill for athletes that many professionals now have a sports psychologist on their coaching team.
While you may not be training to run a record-breaking mile or win a tennis Grand Slam, mind-focusing techniques can help you excel on your own playing fields, from the office to your local running club. Take a closer look at these mind-over-matter strategies and discover how mental fitness can help improve your physical performance.
Goal setting is an integral part of improving athletic performance—when you know where you’re going, you can create a plan to get there. Not just any goals will do, though. Broad, vague goals—“I want to run faster” or “I want to hit a harder backhand”—tend to be elusive, and may do more to de-motivate you than empower you to achieve them. So what kind of goals should you set for best results?
Renowned exercise scientist Larry Leith distinguishes between three kinds of athletic goals:
- Outcome goals relate to the end result (winning and losing): “I want to come in first.”
- Performance goals are set in relationship to your own previous performances: “I want to run a mile in under 7 minutes, 15 seconds.”
- Process goals focus on improving small tasks that ultimately add up to improved performance: “I want to swing my racket with strict form.”
Goals that incorporate all three approaches tend to work best—you want to have overarching “dream” goals, but also performance and process goals that you can work on accomplishing at every practice. Once you have goals in place, you’re sure to notice a difference in your training: it most likely feels richer, more focused, more engaging. You may find yourself getting more out of each training session, and looking forward to the next one. Seeing your progress is one of the greatest motivators.
For goals to be effective, make them challenging but realistic, and write them down so you can track them and change them as you progress. Says sports psychologist Gary Mack in Mind Gym (Contemporary Books, 2001): “Goals are dreams with timelines. …Seek progress rather than perfection.”
Breathe—it helps focus your mind.
Anxiety can be an athlete’s toughest opponent. Jangling nerves disrupt the mind-body synergy, and when the mind and body are out of sync, a previously focused player may find herself distracted, feeling less confident, and paying more attention to the negative self-talk in her head than what she needs to do for the next play.
The best way to combat anxiety is to focus on your breathing. Oxygen helps calm the nervous system and allows your brain to think more clearly. Triggering this relaxation response is a skill you can cultivate—all you have to do is incorporate breathing techniques and meditation into your training regimen. Here are two techniques to try:
1. Three-Part Breath. Upper-chest breathing—what many of us do when we’re under stress—heightens the stimulation of the sympathetic nervous system, which can result in elevated blood pressure and tense muscles. To improve your breathing technique, practice three-part breathing:
- Imagine your lungs have three parts: a lower, middle and upper section. As you inhale, first fill the lower third, expanding your abdomen.
- Next, fill the middle third, expanding your ribs.
- Lastly, fill the top third, imagining the breath rising up to your collarbones. Exhale a long, smooth, slow breath and repeat.
2. Sit quietly for 10-15 minutes every day. Find a peaceful, comfortable space in your home, and sit comfortably, either in a chair or on a cushion on the floor. Close your eyes, breathe softly and watch your thoughts come and go. Don’t linger or analyze things—just watch the thoughts float by like clouds in the sky. You can also repeat a mantra as you sit—a phrase or a word mentally repeated over and over gives your mind something to focus on without stimulating too much thought.
Think positive thoughts for positive results.
Thoughts have an impact on outcome. Are you thinking that you’re going to get slower as you run up that hill? You probably will. If instead you think to yourself, “Today I’m going to run this hill 15 seconds faster than the last time I ran it,” you might find that your pace doesn’t change or that you actually do run it a little faster.
Your best coach is that voice in your head—and it should be an inspiring motivator, with nothing but positive feedback. When self-talk is negative, it can lead to negative emotions, and next thing you know, small performance errors escalate into bigger ones. Listen to yourself carefully (we all talk to ourselves in our heads) and notice when your self-talk is negative. Start by turning negative statements into positive ones: “I always run so slow on hills” becomes “I always feel good when I run hills.” Then begin to cast your internal dialogue in a completely positive light, coaching yourself from an optimistic point of view. Some general tips:
- When you experience a setback, see it as temporary, not permanent.
- Keep your problems in perspective rather than allow them to overwhelm you.
- Celebrate your victories and take your defeats in stride.
With a positive attitude, you’ll feel better about yourself and your performance, and you’ll most likely perform better, too. As Gary Mack says, “Your attitude more than you aptitude determines your altitude—how high you go, how far you climb the ladder of success.”
Practice the art of letting go.
Seething, raging, brooding—athletes can exhibit a range emotions in response to a less-than-stellar performance. Reactions like these ultimately have one outcome: they break your focus and cause unnecessary tension in your body, which can hinder performance.
If you want to excel at a sport—or any discipline, for that matter—it’s essential to learn to let go of mistakes and direct your attention to the next move, the next play, the next pitch. Dwelling on an error only magnifies its importance. Instead, focus on being in the present moment. In the present, there’s no pressure—you only feel pressure when you’re worrying about the future or remembering the past, neither of which can happen when you’re completely absorbed in the moment that’s happening right now. Once you complete a play, good or bad, let it go and focus on the next one.
“Letting go” is also a good mental imagery technique to incorporate into your pre-workout ritual. Before you start moving, spend some time “unpacking” your mental baggage. One by one, let go of your problems and personal concerns so you rid yourself of all external distractions. Without those things draining your attention, you’ll be free to completely focus on your workout—and you’ll be more likely to reach a zone-like state of mind.
Picture it to achieve it.
Can we re-wire our brains to positively affect our physical performance? Apparently we can with visualization. Neuroscientist Alvaro Pascual-Leone conducted a piano-teaching experiment where two groups with no prior playing experience were taught a sequence of notes. One group then mentally practiced two hours a day for five days by sitting in front of an electric keyboard and imagining they were playing. The other group physically practiced for the same amount of time. Pascual-Leone discovered that “mental practice alone produced the same physical changes in the motor system as actually playing the piece.” (Norman Doidge, M.D. The Brain That Changes Itself, Penguin Books, 2007). The level of improvement wasn’t as great in the first group, but when the mental practitioners were then given a two-hour physical practice, their performance improved to the level of the physical practice group after that single session.
There’s no doubt that mental practice has a positive impact on learning a physical skill. You can apply this technique to your own workouts by using visualization. It’s so easy to do, takes very little time, and the results are worth the energy you invest into it. Here’s a simple guided imagery exercise you can use to prepare your mind—and body—for success:
1. Relax and breathe deeply for 10 to 15 minutes.
2. Picture what you want to accomplish. It could be hitting a tennis backhand with power and precision, performing a perfect squat with your maximum weight, swimming freestyle flawlessly down the length of the pool—just make sure your goal is specific.
3. Experience each step it takes you to get there. Take in the whole scope of the experience, from getting to the gym and putting on your shoes to the sensations you feel in your body as you execute the movement. Walk yourself through it in a very detailed way, noticing the sights, the sounds, the atmosphere.
4. Review or repeat the skills you need to improve. You may need to focus on maintaining the proper grip on your tennis racket or keeping your weight in your heels during your squat. Watch yourself do that part of the move over and over until you perfect it.
Do this exercise 15 to 20 minutes a day several times a week, and you’ll begin to notice a difference in your training.
Wise Words from a Sports Psychologist
Influential sports psychologist Gary Mack worked with a number of top athletes and sports teams during his lifetime. These “Paradoxes of Performance” are excerpted from his best-selling book Mind Gym.
Less can be more.
Athletes require rest and recovery time. Without it, they become stale, burned out, and more susceptible to injuries.
The harder you try to get into the zone the further away you get.
Train hard, then let the performance flow naturally.
Over-control gets you out of control.
You can sometimes gain control by giving up control.
Fear of failure makes failure more likely.
Fear creates tension and affects coordination and rhythm.
A step backward can be a step forward.
Sometimes you have to get worse to get better.