Mental Toughness Pt. 1:  Focus

How many times have you heard a coach tell a player to focus? Yea, that’s perhaps the most over used term in sport, but there’s a reason it’s so frequently encouraged. It’s that important.

I recently embarked on a Mental Toughness course as part of my personal training continuing ed through the National Academy of Sports Medicine. As promised, I will share what I learn and explain it in terms of an endurance athlete. There’s a lot to unpack with this topic, so for first, let’s look at focus as it relates to mental toughness.

What does it truly mean when you “stay focused”?

Sometimes it’s obvious, such as “keep your eye on the ball”. To an endurance athlete, focus can be a more abstract subject to tackle.

The course explains that these areas of focus are critical to mental toughness:

  • The ability to focus on your own performance when issues arise

  • The ability to maintain focus after both success and failure

  • The ability to recover from unexpected, uncontrollable or unusual events

  • Ability to ignore distractions

  • Ability to focus on your own performance rather than your competitor’s performance

How would you rate yourself on those aspects of focus?

Next, we think about concentration, which is the ability to maintain focus over time. Did you know that we only maintain a unique thought for an average of 5 seconds? And that we are bombarded with over 4,000 original thoughts per day! That can make concentration extremely difficult.

For many sports, concentration is only required in short doses, but for the endurance athlete, concentration can often be required for hours.

The mentally tough marathoner, triathlete, cyclist or distance swimmer has mastered the ability to focus on only the important aspects of their performance and to maintain their focus over time, shifting that focus when necessary. They have figured out how to disregard those obtrusive thoughts and maintain concentration.

TIP #1: Find balance in your training

Think of two different runners. Runner A is acutely aware of their heart rate zones, breathing patterns, muscle tension and form. This athlete practices associative strategies of focus. Runner B runs with friends, no watch, listens to music, and zones out to enjoy the scenery. This person uses dissociative strategies of focus.

Researchers have found that both of these training strategies are important for different reasons.

An associative strategy of focus teaches awareness of how our body feels and performs. When needed, this allows us to push through physical discomfort as you have developed strong body awareness and and have prepared for the discomfort. This strategy is associated with higher levels of performance.

Disassociation is important because it can decrease the drudgery of exercise and make it more fun.

The mentally tough athlete practices a balance between disassociation and association in their training.

All social training (disassociative) can make race day really lonely! Plus, it’s important to experience hell in training (associative) so we know on race day that we can get through it! Conversely, too much hyper focus on your own performance and metrics can lead to stress fatigue over time.

TIP #2: Be Present

Negative self-talk is the downfall of many strong athletes. Negative chatter tends to swarm around two irrelevant areas of thought – the past and the future.

Have you ever been 10 minutes into a workout when your mind wanders to your poor nutrition habits recently (or some other irrelevant negative factor that you cannot fix that moment)? You then ruminate on how you will never become the machine you dream to be because you can’t perfect your nutrition. “What was I thinking eating that whole bag of trail mix?” (true story!) Next thing you know, your workout is far from the intensity it needs to be or maybe you even quit because you’re discouraged. This is negative talk focused on the past.

Future negative thoughts might sound like, “I’ll never be able to go that far!” Or, how will I ever be strong enough to do this?” “What if so-and-so performs better than me?”

Both are distractions from the objectives of your workout. Instead focus on the moment you are in. Stay present with workout using either the associative or dissociative strategies mentioned above.

TIP #3 Positive Self Talk

Self-talk comes in three flavors:

  • Negative, critical self-defeating talk, which we already discussed and will not do!

  • Motivational

  • Instructional

Motivational self-talk sounds like, “you got this” “Almost there” “Trust your training”. Yes, those short simple phrases help get us through. In particular, they are important for increasing motivation for extended efforts. Mantras are perfect motivational self-talk tools. Do you have one? Mine is “It’s in there”.

Instructional self-talk might sound like, “elbow up”, “quick turnover” or “relax your shoulders”. These are those little tidbits of form info you’ve picked up over the years that you relate to the technical aspects of our sport.

The NASM course offers these 6 tips for your self-talk

  • Keep your phrases short and specific

  • Use the first person and present tense

  • Construct positive phrases

  • Say your phrases with meaning and attention

  • Speak kindly to yourself

  • Repeat phrases often

Tip #4 Create a Routine

You wake up, get a drink of water, pour the coffee, use the restroom, turn on the TV, check email. This is an example of a mundane routine, but its our habit and we don’t even have to think about doing it. We all have routines, and establishing routines for the important parts of our workouts can help us keep our focus as well. You don’t have to be distracted wondering if there’s enough air in your tires if checking your tires is always part of your pre-ride routine. Routines help us to feel in control.

Think about a golfer, they have a mental and physical routine they follow every time they step up to hit the ball. Having a routine such as this has been proven to improve physical performance and focus.

A short routine can help us through challenging but expected situations. For example, an athlete prone to panic attacks in open water might establish this routine; when I feel a sense of panic in the open water, I switch to a side stroke and take three deep breaths, remind myself that I am okay, and return to my freestyle stroke.

What are some pre-performance routines you can establish to improve focus? Do you have any expected pitfalls that you can make a routine to tackle? Here’s a tip, keep your routines short and include positive self-talk as part of your routine.

Tip #5 Make a Plan

This tip wasn’t part of the course, but it is something that we have taught our athletes and clients for years and I do think it’s essential for focus. One of the single most critical factors in reducing injuries and having a successful training season is consistency. And the absolute best way to be consistent is to follow a plan that fits your life and your fitness goals.

Following your plan, checking off those boxes every day and seeing yourself progressively grow stronger is a huge confidence booster, particularly when race day rolls around. Ben often tells our Iron distance athletes on race day, “you’ve done this hundreds of times in training. Race day is just executing the plan that we have been practicing for months.”

Allow your plan to be fluid, and make sure it progressively challenges you over time. Your plan can be detailed or simple, whatever suits your personality best. Having your plan in place will ensure that you wake up each morning knowing what you need to accomplish that day in order to get you to your goal 6 months down the road. Eliminating uncertainty and being prepared will definitely boost your mental toughness and help you maintain focus in the present.

There you have it, lesson one on focus, unpacked. Next, up is Confidence. Check back in as I will continue to share what I am learning about Mental Toughness.

Content References: National Academy of Sports Medicine (2014) Mental Toughness, Concentration and Attentional Focus

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