Your brain is always working; you are always thinking. You do not even notice it! Right now, your brain's functions are working on allowing your eyes to focus on the writing in this article, sending those words to be interpreted, extracting meanings, and creating 'background' thoughts such as: "Hmm, I wonder what this article is going to tell me?".
All the while, you are wondering who wrote this, what it means, how it applies to sport, and whether or not you should keep reading or skip to another article.
On top of that, you are probably hearing a song on your ITunes that you don't like, so your brain is sending you a signal asking that you multi-task even further and change to a better song. Then you glance around your room for a second and realize that you forgot to take your bike off the trainer and get it ready for today's ride. You jog your memory for a second to recall when today's ride starts and if you called your neighbour yet to invite her.
After all that, you look back at the article because you decided that it was interesting and worth reading!
Noticing, focusing, sending messages to your body, extracting, creating, wondering, deciding, pondering, listening, seeing, forgetting, remembering, realizing, preparing...! All within seconds. Amazing! All that thought process. All that brain work!
However, that much processing is not always so desirable, especially when you are competing and racing!
Have you ever found yourself thinking about your job as you were doing your weekly long run? Have you noticed that you are anxious about an event coming up just as you are playing darts with your children?
You need to be fully involved in what you are doing, whenever you do something, but that does not always seem easy or possible. Rest assured! Controlling how much we think IS possible -- it can be trained.
What is Training? You would probably agree that sports training is a combination of physical, mental, and strategic practice. The physical involves all things physiological. It is the training of various skills such as agility, flexibility, balance, timing, strength, power, and speed. It is conditioning and nutritional upkeep. The mental side covers all internal and external strategies, tactics, emotional control, attentiveness and mindfulness, awareness, readiness training, distraction control, intellectual interpretation, and discipline. There are also functional and 'game' skills to learn, which require your brain as well as your body. Mental training also includes 'thinking' practice.
All of these skills need to be in place in order to achieve optimal performance. Periodically assess each aspect to ensure that you are heading in the right direction, at the right speed, toward your goals.
That is definitely a lot to 'work on' if you are an athlete. What is more is that it has to fit into your weekly schedule as well. We do not just do our sport 100% of the time. We might have careers, families, hobbies, sports, and additional employment to contend with and schedule into our week. When we need to train, we should be focused on our training. We need to be there in mind, body, and spirit. When we are doing other things, we need to refrain from being in 'training mode'. Jumping around from mode to mode requires practice. Like the example above, we often have thoughts that are not relevant to our current situation, such as thinking about your race when you are spending time with your children.
It is important to recognize that being focused on what we are doing is the key to getting all of the physical and mental elements achieving perfect synchronicity. Without focus, we are losing energy and time, and as a result, we lose speed and efficiency.
Thinking of What Does NOT Matter
Often our heads are full of useless thoughts and chatter that only deters us from the two most important things we need to actually preserve in order to attain success: focusing on the task at hand, and thinking positively.
We are prone to many 'thought-provokers' such as reservation, negative thinking, worrying, and stressing. We also float around between other 'thought-provokers' that are essentially thoughts related to our daily lives, our past, our future, our hopes, our emotions, and our reactions to external cues.
Each and all of these 'thought-provokers' interfere with where our heads should be during a race or during a practise. They prevent us from being 100% focused on our race or practice.
For every second that you are focused on your tax return or trying to remember if you locked your front door, you are stealing moments of focus from your current task.
Thinking requires various types of processing, all of which take time. Learn to reign in the thoughts and limit them only to what is relevant and helpful to your current situation. Otherwise, the time your brain takes for processing various functions will be time lost.
Therefore, two questions arise: "What IS correct thinking?" and "How do I control my thoughts?"
Correct Thinking. Correct thinking is thinking that concerns itself with the plan, the execution, and the actual 'doing' of the task you are focused on. Correct thinking while during a run does not steal focus from your run and apply it to other things that are not your run. Correct thinking is thinking that results from focusing on the task. For example, while running a long and monotonous distance, you would be turned inward assessing each body part and its function and current condition (is anything hurting, how does my arm feel, am I reaching properly). While navigating a difficult, technical bike course, you would be shifting your thoughts and focus from internal to external assessing obstacles that you see ahead of you and determining how best to overcome them.
Put yourself in control. Control creates confidence and vice versa. Find proof that you can succeed and focus on that proof. Talk to yourself in an encouraging way. Concentrate well in training and competition. Project a positive image. Stay calm and collected. Enjoy competing. Depend on yourself to perform well. Be proud of every little bit of success and accomplishment. Confidence is built upon a base of control. Do not let things that are outside of your control affect your confidence. Focus on what you can control (see "Train your weaknesses" below). Confidence comes from being in control of the situation and of yourself, rather than letting a situation control you.
Train your weaknesses. Challenging obstacles, such as a sharp turn or steep incline will never be anything other than what they are. They can never change, but YOU can. If these obstacles present a challenge, you will surely be distracted by the thought of a tough challenge ahead of you, and you will begin thinking. This is not an optimal situation.
For example, a treacherous corner on a bike course sucks. That corner will always be there. It will always be difficult. Nevertheless, it does not 'suck'; you just 'suck at taking it'. Now that you have identified a weakness, begin training it and become stronger at taking that corner. In your next ride, when you encounter that, it will no longer be an obstacle and there will be no need for thinking about it. You will just take the corner confidently and successfully with little to no thinking.
Identify your weaknesses and train them. This will help to eliminate additional 'thought-provokers' on your course.
Reframe your negative thoughts. This is a skill you must learn or teach yourself. You can practice this in your time off. Then it will become a little more automatic and will not be such an effort to apply when you are actually racing.
Take your negative thought and try to turn it into a positive one. For example, "I can't do it." becomes "Just focus on ___".
It is not usually the thought that worries us, but the way that we perceive it. If you learn to look at the thought in a positive way, you can see the opportunity presented, rather than the challenge presented. This is like putting a different 'frame' on the same picture -- it will look different from before. When you see a problem as an opportunity, you will be more enthusiastic to dig in and solve it.
Here are some examples of 'ready-made' reframed thoughts:
1. I cannot believe it is raining. I have to play in the rain.
This is a great opportunity to get accustomed to an environmental situation that could happen at any event. I had best become familiar with it and this will help me prepared for this kind of thing.
2. There is no sense in practicing. I have no natural talent.
a. Skill is built from practice
3. We will win the event only if I get a time of x.xx.
a. I am about to execute a perfect run!
4. The coach must think I'm hopeless. He never helps me.
a. The coach trusts me and does not see the need to interfere.
5. I don't want to fail.
a. I'm going to win/place/do well/be strong…
6. I'll take it easy today and go hard next workout.
a. I will go hard each and every workout so that it prepares me and makes it easier to 'go hard' the next time
7. Who cares how well I do anyway?
a. It's important to me to perform well
8. This hurts; I don't know if it is worth it.
a. I'll keep going for another (x) minutes and get to my goal
Practice these in your spare time, and then apply them to low pressure situations (like practices). Finally, when you are ready, use them in high-pressure situations. You will see that they flow much more easily and automatically, after you have practiced them.
Keeping your thoughts correct, focused, positive, and relevant allows you to spend more of your precious time on your task (training) and get more out of your training. This will spell success for you in the end!