How to Develop Mental Focus Control
Develop a “focus practice” to improve your performance on and off the trail.
My Story: Rabbit Trails
I first learned about the power of my thoughts while jogging on my favorite wooded trail. One moment, I’d be moving along at a steady clip, running smoothly and getting the job done. Then, the next moment, I found myself moving at a snail’s pace, unsteady, head down and in deep thought. Sometimes my thoughts were about the past and some painful mishap. I’d find myself replaying the tape of this past event, as if I could somehow change the plot. Most often, though, the thoughts were about the future, and “what if” questions about things that will never happen. I call these fear-based, emotionally charged, anxiety producing thoughts “Rabbit Trails.”
I became frustrated with the unevenness of my workouts and the way that my habitual thoughts affected how I felt and performed. In looking for a way to get beyond this roadblock, I started to backtrack. When I found myself way down the path of a rabbit trail, I would follow that trail right back to the initial thought that started the whole sequence. Wow! It was an enormous eye-opener for me. I soon realized I’d start on one thought like an ex-boyfriend, and I’d travel from thought to thought, scene to scene, like a rabbit hopping from point to point in a zig-zag. I was able to mentally peg the precise moment and section of the actual trail where the first thought had arisen—and I saw how these thoughts changed my performance. Wearing a heart rate monitor I also noticed that my heart rate would rise an average of 5 beats per minute. To top it off, I’d create a downer mood for myself that could last for hours.
I learned to track my thoughts back to what I call “trigger thoughts.” These are thoughts that do not serve me or my well-being. Over time, I learned to keep my thoughts clean, clear and focused on the task at hand. I’d remind myself, “This is not the time and if I need to think about that, it’ll be there waiting for me when I get back.” Instead, I learned to fully integrate with the terrain and the environment around me, feeling happy, powerful and fully focused on the present moment.
Outdoor Mental Focus Exercise – The Maglite® Technique
Dr. Jim Taylor, a San Francisco-based sports psychologist who has worked with world-class and professional athletes, uses this technique with his athletes. Dr. Taylor says, “A mistake many athletes make is that they equate focusing with thinking.” It’s important to make the distinction between focus and thoughts. This mental focus technique alternates between peripheral vision and pinpoint visual focus. It’s ideal for cardio and trail work. As you’re walking or running, continuously switch between your peripheral vision, or “broad focus” to “take in the whole picture,” and your pinpoint or “narrow focus” to zero-in on the center of your immediate view. Peripheral vision allows your mind to read the broad picture, and narrow focus allows you to hone in on your target area, for accuracy. This practice keeps your mind engaged constantly with its moment-to-moment surroundings, broad and narrow. It also challenges your mental flexibility and concentration as you re-set your focus attention.