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Laser-like focus is a hallmark of champions in sport, and a strong mental focus in the late stages of a race gives a competitor a winning edge. Mental focus, like fitness, can be trained. Here are five tips to train your attention and improve your focus:
1. Use self-talk.
The internal monologue set in motion during races has a powerful influence on performance. A recent study published in Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise showed that positive self-talk increased time to exhaustion. The signals our bodies use to determine when we’ve had enough are complicated—they are not just governed by our muscles but also determined subjectively by our brains. Pick a mantra such as “feeling good” or “smooth and strong,” and repeat it at regular intervals during a workout or competition to help tap into that last bit of energy needed for a PR.
2. Do “five more.”
Daniel Goleman, author of Focus: The Hidden Driver of Excellence, argues that a test of an athlete’s ability to concentrate will predict the following season’s performance. Athletes must build mental circuitry much the way they lift weights in the gym to get strong. Work through frustration, build mental stamina and stretch your limits by asking yourself to do “five more.” This can be five more minutes of concentrated effort at the end of hard workout, five more reps, five more math problems, or five more minutes on a challenging task. The goal is to train your attention and enhance your power of concentration.
3. Find open awareness.
Another kind of focus achieved through meditation is referred to as open awareness. The brain circuitry for managing attention and open awareness is the same circuitry we use for managing distressing emotions. Bringing your mind back to a state of open awareness as other thoughts intrude trains your brain to ignore negative cues and setbacks that can occur while racing. Start with five minutes of meditation a day and build from there.
4. Fuel right.
Sugar and caffeine in regular doses keep the brain fueled and able to focus. In fact, caffeine may be the only legal and effective performance-enhancing supplement in endurance sports. Caffeine acts a stimulant, resulting in feelings of alertness and pleasure. It also decreases the brain’s perception of physical exhaustion. Make sure that while stretching your limits of mental focus you keep the brain sharp and properly fueled.
5. Embrace the fight.
The best competitors love the fight as much as they love the finish. Focus on how tough you are when faced with a challenge. Visualize how you will handle any setback and embrace the opportunity to fight the good fight, knowing that the difficult stretches make the accomplishment all the more satisfying.
Work through frustration, build mental stamina and stretch your limits by asking yourself to do “five more.”