Competing successfully in a sport requires a considerable amount of concentration. Concentration is the ability to focus on the respective task at hand (running, cadence and stride length), maintain that focus over the duration of the event with the appropriate intensity, and quickly refocus concentration when it is disrupted. These multiple elements can make concentration difficult. In an ideal race, concentration is always on target, in the here and now, with the right intensity and duration. In real life, however, there are usually no ideal races. Concentration invariably might be on the wrong cue, get disrupted by a host of internal and external distractions, have the incorrect intensity, or not be maintained.
The athlete needs to focus on internal cues (How am I doing? How much discomfort am I in? Am I running above threshold too soon?) and external cues (What is going on around me? There is a breakaway. I need to close the gap.) and frequently switch between the two in training and competition. The following example illustrates this shift between an internal and external focus.
I am on the last 2 miles of a half marathon. I am in great position, running with a group of other athletes. Two competitors are throwing in a surge. My body screams in discomfort. My thoughts are saying, ‘I cannot go any harder. I need to slow down. Let them go.’ But I have prepared for this moment. I am aware of the physical discomfort and distracting thoughts. I decide to focus on my mantra, ‘Just another run around the neighborhood’. Keep going. I then fix my eyes ahead, visualizing an elastic band connected to the runners ahead, pulling me closer and closer, step-by-step, bringing all my attention back into my running form.
There are a number of strategies available to help increase the concentration of athletes.
• Awareness – What are my distractions? What are my triggers?
• Cues – Self-talk Triggers
• Goals – Process Goals
• Formal and Informal Mindfulness Exercises
• Imagery Practice
• Relaxation Practice
• Pre-Performance Routines
Confidence is the athletes believing in themselves, their skills, and their ability to successfully master the challenges they face in the sport. Confidence plays a crucial role in achieving an ideal performance. When the athlete is confident, she can find the right balance between the demands of competition or training. Confidence has a lot to do with having a positive attitude. Confidence does not mean that there are never doubts or worries, but rather that the athletes understand how such thoughts and emotions might influence them and how they can work with them effectively. Below is an example of what might be going on in the mind of a confident athlete right before and important competition.
I am lining up for a big race. I have set clear goals that are realistic but challenging. I know I have prepared well. I have executed the training plan as designed by my coach. I believe in my abilities. I welcome the nervous energy before the race. I have a plan in my head. I am very aware of my self-talk, deliberately staying positive, motivational and technical. I am ready to attach any obstacles that might present themselves. I look at them as a challenge. My competitors do not intimidate me.
Confidence is such an important mental quality because the confident athlete is more persistent in the face of obstacles, puts forth more effort, sets more challenging goals, focuses more in competition and training, is less easily distracted and experiences more positive emotions in sports.
Regardless of the level of competition that athletes engage in, they experience the emotional pressure of competition. Competition is an emotional experience. Athletes engage in a range of emotions before, during and after competition. These can range from anxiety to elation and joy. These emotions can hinder or help the competitive effort. It is important for athletes to develop emotional composure to effectively handle that pressure and manage the emotions that come with it. Composure is about self-control. It is about being in charge of oneself, understanding that an athlete does not control what happens to him or her. Athletes therefore need to acquire the ability to manage their response to what happens to them, which puts them back in control. Below is an example that highlights the role that emotions play in competitions.
This is my fist big race of the season. I have done well in lead-up races, but this is my first time doing an Ironman event. I am nervous before the start. I see all of the athletes I have not only read about but looked up to as role models as well. I know that cycling is my weakest discipline, and I find myself preoccupied with the scenario of being dropped and lapped on the bike. I am afraid of embarrassing myself and letting down my coach.
Being able to tune into the experience of the heart beating fast or the emotions of a race allows the athlete to become aware of all the thoughts racing through his or her mind. With this awareness and subsequent shift in attention, the athlete can use mindfulness to regain composure.
Strategies for improving composure are:
• Awareness and Mindfulness
• Relaxation Techniques
• Activation Techniques
• Effective Thinking
• Competition Simulation
• Pre-performance Routines
Regardless of the competitive level of the athlete, endurance sports require considerable commitment to achieve desired success. Without commitment, an athlete does not get up in the morning to strength train or go for a run at the end of a long day at work. If commitment is not there or wanes, the athlete will not achieve the set goals and most likely will leave the sport. It is therefore important for coaches to understand commitment, their role in it, and how they facilitate or debilitate an athlete’s commitment. Commitment means that being an endurance athlete is part of the person’s identity. Engaging in multi-sports is meaningful to the athlete and provides enjoyment and satisfaction. Commitment is connected to dreams, desires and motivation. It means that the athletes understand the sacrifices needed and are willing to make them. Only when athletes are committed can they be successful at their chosen level, whether they strive for the Olympics or be the best they can in their age group. Regardless of the level, it takes commitment to train, get the appropriate rest and recovery, eat the proper nutrition, and stay away from temptations that impair performance.
It has been a long day at work. I have already done my strength training in the gym this morning. The training schedule has me doing a run in the evening. The weather has changed; it is getting cold. It is not very inviting. I have an invitation to get together with a few colleagues from work. It could be fun, but I would have to scratch my run. I know I have a big race at the end of next month. I have worked hard, and it is a chance to lower my personal best, which was one of my goals for this season. Today is a crucial training day. I know once I get started I will get into it. I will lose myself; the cold simply will not matter. I know I will feel great afterward in the shower. Plus, it helps my training partner show up. I will put on my sneakers, dress appropriately, and head out the door.
In order to sustain commitment, it is important for the coach and the athlete to know what fosters it and what undermines it. As the above example illustrates, commitment is fostered by dreams, goals and a realization of what is enjoyed about a particular activity.
USAT Level 1 Manual
Sports psychology and psychological skills training, by Peter Haberl, Ed. D., Senior Sport Psychologist, USOC
Coaching the triathlete’s mental game, by Bobby McGee, USA Triathlon Level I, B.A. Hons, Human Movement Studies, E.D.