In this ever-distracted world of ours, this week my tip is for you to cultivate the skill of focus. I’m going to talk about how this skill specifically helps you as athletes, but it’s honestly also a skill that serves us well in our everyday lives as well. (This crossover theme is one you are all familiar with by now if you’ve read anything I’ve written; so many of the lessons we learn in sport translate over to our “normal” lives. :) )
For us humans, the median length of time during which thought content remains on target is approximately five seconds. On average, people engage in about 4,000 distinct thoughts over the course of a 16-hour waking day.
Even if you’re like me and The Maths are not your strong suit, understanding those facts can show you that maintaining concentration over a period of time is not an easy task. Add in all of the distractions that are present in our everyday lives (phones, computers, messaging services, televisions, crying kids, to-do lists, a persistent boss, a pot boiling on the stove...I could go on and on :) ) and you have a recipe for Unfocused Soup.
While soup is ordinarily delicious, Unfocused Soup is not the best soup. So, it’s important to find a new recipe for Focused Soup. However, this skill of focus is not one that comes naturally for most of us.
As athletes, it takes very real, intentional work to focus on our task at hand, whether it’s a workout or a race. (And that’s especially true if the workout or race is a challenging one!!) We have to do our best to put our other, non-workout thoughts on a “shelf” and let them rest there while we are executing a workout-related or recovery-related task.
However, it’s important to note that we are not ignoring or suppressing our other thoughts by doing it; rather, we are organizing our thoughts and acknowledging the truth that we cannot multitask or do all the things at once. So, we are optimizing our ability to accomplish the things that are important to us by executing them one at a time. In other words: we are focusing on one thing at a time.
Why is the skill of focus such an important one to cultivate as athletes? The majority of us are not professional athletes. So, this means that we are balancing our training time with work time, family time, friends time, household management, etc. And while there certainly are situations where there will be spillover from each of these different silos of our lives, we will truly be the best versions of ourselves overall if we are focusing on the arena that we are currently in.
So, if we are playing with our kids, it’s important that we be fully present (read: focused) on our kids for the duration that we are with them. If we are at work, being able to immerse ourselves in our work will make us more efficient with the time that we do have to spend at work. If we’re doing a workout, we will get the most out of the work (physically AND mentally) if we work on quieting our minds enough to focus on the specifics of the execution of that workout.
Distractions make us less productive, less efficient, and they don’t allow us to fully enjoy or get the full benefits out of what we are doing. As athletes, the workouts (and supportive activities, such as recovery, nutrition, and sleep) that we are doing are usually being completed as part of a larger training plan to help us achieve the goals that we have set for ourselves. Cultivating the skill of focus in workouts not only helps us to achieve the goals for that day, but our overall BIG DREAM goals that we’ve set.
So HOW do we cultivate the skill of focus?
Setting ourselves up for success is, in my experience, at least half the battle. This means that we set out to set up a reduced-distraction environment. “Focus Mode” and “Do Not Disturb Mode” are excellent tools for our electronic devices. When it comes to electronic devices, removing the device from the environment entirely is honestly the best way to cultivate focus, but for many of us, that is challenging to do (for some people, it might feel impossible). In situations where removing electronics is not an option, the aforementioned modes are great keys to success. Maybe this feels harsh to read, but we don’t need to know who posted what on Facebook or what the latest headline is when we’re in the middle of a workout. All of that information will still be there, ready for us to consume when we have accomplished the task we are currently immersed in.
In addition to cultivating a reduced-distraction environment, organization and pre-planning are useful when it comes to workouts. Thinking through elements like the location of the workout, the gear that will be needed, the hydration/nutrition that will be used, and reading through the workout in advance (and by advance, I mean more than five minutes before you’re planning to start the workout :) ) can all help us be able to be able to focus on the workout itself once we are doing it.
This takes work. But like almost everything else in life, the hard work is worth the rewards on the other side. Cultivating the skill of focus in workouts can help us achieve our sport-specific goals in the timelines that we’ve set for ourselves, feel more energized by the fitness activity we are doing, and then to bring this skill over into other areas of our lives by allowing us to rest easy about our workouts and then focus on these other life arenas once the time for the workout has passed.
Be intentional about cultivating the skill of focus in both your workout lives and personal lives, and see if it doesn’t help you feel better overall. :)
Coach Laura Henry
Laura Henry is a Syracuse, NY-based coach who is a USA Triathlon Level II Long Course and Level II Paratriathlon Certified Coach, USA Cycling Level 2 Certified Coach, VFS Certified Bike Fitter, and has successfully completed NASM's Certified Personal Trainer course. Coach Laura is passionate about helping athletes of all ability levels reach their goals and has coached many athletes to success.