If I could mange distractions during my sports performance, I’d be able to achieve my peak potential! Distraction and losing focus are very common experiences that athletes find challenging to manage. For example: A tennis player lost the last four games and, during the changeover, he starts having uncontrollable negative thoughts. Elizabeth is bound to shoot her best round of golf and, as she is about to tee off, she pays too much attention to the out of bounce on the right. Tom missed his first free throw and now must make the second one to tie the basketball game with one second left.
Regardless of how much we practiced, athletes are bound to feel the emotion of the game, especially when a significant achievement is on the line. Even top athletes feel the nervousness of the moment. A professional golf player will feel his knees shaking when playing in the Ryder Cup because he is representing his own country. Serena Williams succumbed to the pressure of wanting to win the Grand Slam when facing a fairly unknown rival. The wanting to win as well as the fear of losing is felt in our bones, muscles and skin. As much as we would like to control the external factors that are part of competition, it is the internal distractions that lead our minds into wandering.
When the mind is distracted, it follows scattered thoughts, negative scenarios or blank stares. The body responds by tensing up, sweating or shaking. Commonly executed shots, throws or pitches become so much more difficult to do well. Regardless of our competitive level, we are bound to experience pressure situations. In fact, it is the effects of our emotions that we feel while playing the sport that we love that makes its mastery so much more challenging, fun, and frustrating.
It is common that we find ourselves giving “orders” to our thinking brain so it avoids troubles. “Don’t double-fault now” or “don’t hit it into the water.” Unfortunately, the brain interprets such instructions by becoming even more aware of double-faulting and water. Contrary to our well intended message, the brain is channeling even more attention to either situation as they are both perceived as threats. On the other hand, if we said, “serve well,” or “hit it over the water,” the thinking brain is unable to consistently control all the multiple body parts necessary to always meet such an expectation.
So, how do we learn to manage distractions? Learning to master distractions rests on focusing in the present moment without judgment. Being mindful helps us to see the behaviors that create our discomfort rather than impulsively react out control. Rather than being overwhelmed by an unpleasant result or clinging on the highs that come from achieving a successful outcome, being mindful helps us to be less concerned with the final outcome and more present with the efforts that we put into achieving our goals. The experience of mindful acceptance helps us to enjoy the present moment where the critical mind is a brief episode rather than a permanent feature.
Novak Djokovic wrote, “Now, when I blow a serve or shank a backhand, I still get those flashes of self-doubt, but I know how to handle them. Mindfulness helps me process pain and emotions. It lets me focus on what’s really important. It helps me turn down the volume in my brain. Imagine how handy that is for me in the middle of a grand slam championship match.”
Mindfulness promotes resiliency. When consistently practiced for about 15 minutes on a daily basis, the right side of the brain, which is more connected with emotions, becomes less active. Meditation helps to contain emotional peaks and valleys. Whereas non-experienced meditators would emotionally quickly respond to adverse situation by losing focus and getting distracted, meditators would have a greater ability to emotionally contain such distractions. In a recent study conducted by Yale University, it was found that meditation lessens mind wandering and enhances emotional regulation.
Meditation can be practiced in many different ways. One of the most common techniques is that of paying attention to the breath. Start by choosing to either keep your eyes opened or closed. Sit in a comfortable seat where your back is straight and both feet on the ground or legs crossed. Then, pay attention to each breath by either noticing the colder air coming in and the slightly warmer air being exhaled through your nose or push your belly out with each inhale and down with each exhale. Continue to be aware of the breath, one cycle at the time. You may notice that thoughts are likely to enter the mind. Just notice and give them permission to move on. If you became distracted by the many thoughts that came in, you have just become mindful of that new experience. Rather than taking your mind to those thoughts, bring your awareness back to the breath. After 15 minutes, slowly bring back your awareness to where you are sitting, the space around you and your body.
As we gain awareness of our mind and breath, the external distractions will occupy less attention from us. We cannot avoid being distracted from everything around us, but we can gain the ability to bring our attention back to our present moment experience. Present focus is what really matters to any athletes.
Alex Diaz, PhD
Sports Mental Edge