Did you know that sports psychology is now a big part of the story at the Rio Olympic Games? I'm working on-site with my Olympic athletes, who are competing this week at the Olympics in Brazil, in swimming, gymnastics, track and field, tennis, as well as soccer, basketball, volleyball, and equestrian events.
Being their sports psychologist and performance coach, I'm working behind the scenes, with mental rehearsal strategies and specific types of imagery to help each athlete build on their strengths so they can be focused, confident, and relaxed to do their best under the extreme pressure in Brazil.
So I'd like to let you in on some of my best techniques, so you can bring out your inner Olympian within your own life. I'd like to give you the tools for that champion mindset that we are seeing at the Rio Olympics so you can use this on a daily basis. Here's how you can apply these same mental training methods to improve your health, fitness and your life.
Do you Really Concentrate with a Present-Centered Focus?
In the Olympics, and in life, successful concentration depends upon having a present-centered focus where you are totally connected to the task at hand while excluding irrelevant environmental cues and internal distractions. Yet the mind often focuses on the mistakes of the past, thinking about the "what ifs" -- what might have been and what should have occurred.
Learning from Your Mistakes -- Tuning Out Distractions
Now, in order to learn from your mistakes, you must correct them as they are taking place, and that means paying attention to why the last mile was run much slower or why your swimming stroke was deteriorating. Tactical adjustments require observing the results of your past actions.
However, in order to be effective, analyses about what just happened should be quick and objective, not influenced by emotion. The important thing is to dissociate the emotional content from the objective fact of what is occurring in the present moment. You may not be able to entirely tune out the distractions, but as long as you don't let them affect your feelings, the diversion need not detract from your focus.
Being Grounded in the Present
Just as the past is not a healthy target to dwell upon, pondering the future can be just as damaging. Thinking too far ahead can keep you from fully experiencing the present. Future events cannot be controlled; you simply allow them to unfold as you remain grounded in the present.
In my interview with Olympic decathlon champion Dan O'Brien he said, "I remember one track meet in Europe when everything was going perfectly. I was about to do my final attempt on the high jump. As the audience started clapping, I thought, if I make this jump, I can win this thing. That was a big mistake. As soon as I focused on getting that medal, I just fell apart."
Focusing Too Much on the Outcome
The possibility of meeting your goal can be a strong incentive, especially if you feel you are getting close to your destination. However when you focus too intently on the outcome, you can easily lose sight of what you need to do to get there.
The pressure of performance can be overwhelming when your focus is primarily on the end result. However, focusing only on the event itself will allow you to fully connect to what is happening in the present moment.
TOOLS FOR FOCUSING ON THE PRESENT
Using Process Goals
In addition to your time orientation, the object of your focus is also critical for doing well in training and competing. Attending to process goals is far more effective than thinking about the outcome. A process focus is where you concentrate on the specific task you are doing. So your focus, for instance, is on your technique, your breathing, your pace, or your mental attitude. A process focus keeps your attention directed toward what needs to be done right now.
If you lose your focus your aim is to regain your attention as quickly as possible. When distracting thoughts interrupt your flow, you want to re-tune your brain into the correct psychological channel. Awareness of inattention is the first step. The sooner you notice the lapse in attention, the quicker you can turn it around.
The second step is selecting another point in which to direct your mind. You can return your attention to the same focus you had before you were interrupted, or go to something else of importance at that moment.
When you're doing a triathlon, for example, the right focus depends on what is happening at that moment (e.g. finishing the swim, making a quick transition to the bike). So concentration becomes dynamic and changes according to particular challenges of your event.
Knowing what to focus on is a skill that you can develop with time and experience. As you encounter a variety of scenarios, you can store your responses in memory, and improve your ability to take action. You'll learn to return your focus to what's relevant more quickly.
Changing Your Focus
Athletes also need to be flexible in their range of focus -- being able to switch gears whenever necessary. For instance, during the start of a marathon you need to have a wide focus, and attend to what is happening all around you.
You want to be aware of others so you don't get run over by the people behind you. By the middle of the race, you are more attuned to proper pacing, your breathing, and your running form. In the final miles of the race, you switch to a more narrow focus, where you are putting all or your energies into putting one foot in front of the other and getting yourself to the finish line.
Successful athletes need to prepare for their events in advance. They have practiced every scenario in their mind a 100 times before it occurs. The more your plan is rehearsed ahead of time in training, the more automatic it will become, and the less thought will be required during the actual performance. You will be able to react appropriately to what is happening each moment.
Once you have a game plan in place, you can keep your mind on what is relevant, and follow the plan when it really counts.
Exercise for a Present-Centered Focus
Whenever you want to concentrate on something, find a way to become more attracted to it. The next time you are out training, if you want to go faster, think of a song that has an upbeat cadence and synchronize your movement to that rhythm. If you want to focus on your breathing, imagine that your lungs are expanding, filling every cell in your body with clean, healthy oxygen. When attending to your form, watch your shadow on the road, and get feedback from your "shadow coach."
Focusing Like Olympians - What you'll Gain
Just like I'm teaching Olympians in Rio, whether you are a top athlete, an age-group competitor, or a weekend warrior, as you learn the art of this focused state of consciousness, you can become completely absorbed in your event, to the exclusion of all other outside influences.
You may experience an unusual sense of stepping into a heightened state of awareness. You can be totally tuned in to the present moment, as the everyday world seems to recede into the background. You feel more self-assured, and more fully integrated. Your mind, body, and spirit are completely engaged in your experience. These are the times when you feel most energetic and fully alive, and can perform your absolute best.
JoAnn Dahlkoetter, Ph.D., Olympic keynote speaker and leading sports psychologist, is the founder of Performing Edge Coaching International Association, offering coach certification training, and the editorial director of www.DrJoAnn.com as well as No. 1 bestselling author of Your Performing Edge.