Trust, confidence, and being in the present moment express the sensation that we experience when we are 100% focused on a task without entertaining mechanical or distracting thoughts in our minds. When we are totally focused, we achieve our goals, become productive, and feel proud for having moved forward. If being totally focused is so positive, what prevents us from being in that positive mindset for longer time?
It appears that, for some people, staying focused seems to come more naturally while for others it requires a greater amount of conscientious effort. Even for those fortunate individuals, their genetic “focused” gene pool barely counts enough to completely do away from acquiring new experiences and conscientiously putting effort to promote being in the present moment. By far, experiences and effort much more so than genes are the primary learned source of knowledge that lead to achieve a greater level of emotional regulation in stressful experiences, which in turn, promote focus and enhances results.
The neuroscience behind focusing
Two individuals having a pleasant social interaction not only leads to fun and laughter, but also, unbeknown to them, promotes self-regulation of emotions at a non-verbal language. While having a good time, their respective nervous systems are simultaneously “talking” with one another synchronizing emotions. The nervous system from person A is reading the smiley face from person B, which causes a calmer demeanor and, in turn, responds with another smile. The nervous system from person B reads A’s positive verbal and non-verbal cues, which promotes being in the present moment. The human ability to expand on the capacity to be in the present moment is experience dependent, not genetic dependent. Hence, the quality in the human interaction between athlete and coach has a powerful effect on the ability to enhance peak performance.
The learning pyramid
Picking up a game requires a skill development process. How to properly hold a racquet, hit drive shots, lobs, and serves need technical instructions. Eventually, those skills become a second thought and the athlete moves to the second phase of needing to learn the strategies of the game. Reading the breaks of a golf green increases the chances of making putts. Learning how to talk with a soccer teammate helps to create passing opportunities to score. The third phase is physical development. Athletes require physical stamina, flexibility, and strength to sustain the demands of each sport. However, when the pressure is on, it is the mind that will take over and become pivotal in helping athletes to remain focused and achieve the best possible results. At that moment, the pyramid flips upside down and, unless athletes either learned or were taught to regulate emotions, it means they are less likely to use mental skills to promote a focused state of mind which was not practiced. Based on research, the main factor leading to peak performance in Olympic athletes is the coach-athlete relationship over optimal training environment. When looking at coaches’ behavioral traits that promote peak performance, a 2005 survey found looking at the athlete as a whole person rather than primarily focusing on strategies and skills made the significant difference.
The inside out of peak performance
Achieving peak performance requires teaching athletes how to trust in themselves. When the pressure is on, athletes pay less attention on their skills and more on their emotional regulation. Coaches can promote trust by positively supporting the learning process. When a mistake is made, coaches need to provide a corrective instruction in a positive and encouraging demeanor. Even when the athlete knows the drill and still makes a mistake, motivating rather than using a punishing tone of voice promotes focus rather than fear of making the same mistake again. When making positive progress, applaud the effort more so than the innate talent. Also, coaches should not take progress for granted. They need to keep encouraging and reinforcing mental focus. Help athletes to express the skill they are using that enhances focus as it will be easier to recall their own words rather than the coach’s. Maybe it is a positive cue that crosses their mind or maintaining awareness to a relaxed breathing is what is helping them to remain focused. Whatever works better for them, the easier will it be remembered and used when it really counts.
The more they “own” their sense of being able to regulate their emotions, the more likely they will tap on such an internal source of knowledge. Once the athlete takes ownership of their own ability to promote mental focus, the higher the likelihood that they will achieve their best results. When the game in on the line and the athlete feels most pressure, it matters most the athlete’s inner knowledge and language than the coaches’. Having a sense of confidence and trust come from within. Once it is learned, it is stored in the athletes’ implicit memory for life.
Alex Diaz, PhD
Sports Mental Edge