Blake Becker, a professional triathlete, was recently part of a podcast we produced. He spoke about many things but one area, in particular, relates to athletes of all sports……the idea of where an athlete should put their focus or attention, especially when anxiety or worry is building.
Focus on the Wrong Places
In sports, the mind and our focus can run wild and we often have to make choices about how to manage it best. In his podcast, Blake talked about the fork in the road is between following worry and anxiety thoughts or following process
thoughts. We all know what worry thoughts are but just in case, they sound something like this: What IF I miss this putt, what IF I miss the free throw, what If the coach does not like me…..or, I failed last time what happens if I do it again?
Process thoughts are more about being in the moment and putting your focus on something you can do at that moment. Process thoughts might include: quick feet, good arm movement, checking my Garmin to make sure I am on track…..
If you compare these two you might notice there is a TIME element. Anxiety thoughts typically involve worrying about something that could happen in the future or recalling something bad in the past. Process thoughts are more about NOW, or being in the moment.
Lou Holtz said it best: “What’s Important Now (WIN)?”
Many athletes, without knowing it, actually have a choice to follow worry thoughts or not. It seems almost impossible that there is a choice at times. But part of the key to building a stronger mind is aware of what your mind is saying and knowing you can choose to believe it.
Mental Tools for Better Focus
Learning more about process thoughts and using these as tools can change your game immensely. As Blake Becker notes, learning this skill changed his mental game and impacted his triathlon racing significantly in the positive direction.
Process thoughts are interrelated to the idea of four quadrants of attention that are often discussed in sports psychology. Credit should go to Robert Nideffer and his Theory of Attentional and Personal Style for this idea. These four areas describe where athletes are putting their focus at any one time while training or competing. All have value. Sometimes we use all of them or purposely choose one area so we can give our attention to something different than a worry though. See the table below:
External Broad focus typically includes putting your attention outside yourself and taking in your surroundings:
- A golfer might focus on the clouds or the trees rather than worry thoughts.
External Narrow focus means choosing only one item to focus on outside of yourself:
- Running race: A runner might focus on the shoes of a runner in front of them.
The internal Broad focus is choosing to have your attention be more within but involving a number of choices:
- A triathlete will ask questions like how is my nutrition, is my stomach full or upset, what do my big muscles feel like?
Narrow Focus is Choosing one item to focus on.
- A triathlete swimming focuses on a buoy in the water or a mantra you repeat, saying the words ‘breath easy’ over and over.
For a triathlete, the focus can be in any of these quadrants. For example, if training is getting long or you are reaching a tired point, you might choose to focus external broad and take in your surroundings so this becomes the focus rather than the fatigue. If this does not feel like a good focus, then you can switch to focusing on the muscles that are doing all the work and putting energy into this area. This can add a sense of fuel to tired areas of your body.
If the endurance athlete decides to move his focus internal would be best, there are at first numerous areas a mind can attend to, such as a positive emotion, motivating self-talk like (I can do this, just keep going) or the feeling of confidence. And for others, they settle on more of an internal narrow focus and instead might zero in on a breath or a word as a way to manage a worried mind. All these mental tools help with focus. These four areas are sometimes described as a process focus, similar to what Blake Becker discussed in his podcast. These four areas of attention are about being more in the moment rather than projecting how you might feel in one hour or after the swim or worrying about heat.