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Learn To Focus Like Michael Phelps On Race Day

This story is adapted from The Brave Athlete by Dr. Simon Marshall and Lesley Paterson. Their cutting-edge brain training guide solves the 13 most common mental conundrums athletes face in their everyday training and in races. With The Brave Athlete, you can solve these problems to become mentally strong and make your brain your most powerful asset.

The Importance of Finding Focus

Some of the athletes we’ve coached have no trouble staying focused. They plan and execute as if it’s a military operation. However, some athletes just get bored and stop training. Others always seem to be surrounded by drama on race day (a mechanical problem, forgotten kit, lost license or something else), and their crisis somehow becomes your crisis. It can get to the point at which other ath­letes don’t want to share a ride or go to races with this person because they know there will inevitably be something that threatens to derail their own plans. For other athletes, there is a specific issue that they never seem to get right, like pacing or race nutrition. All of these things are mental mistakes caused by poor attentional control. Assuming you show up physically prepared, mental errors are the biggest cause of bad races, and they are self-inflicted.

Let’s clarify that when we use the terms concentration or focus we don’t actu­ally mean that. Psychologists prefer the term attention because it more accurately describes what’s going on in the brain. Attention is a much broader concept that refers to the brain’s job of selecting what is and isn’t relevant in any given situ­ation and allocating brain resources and processes accordingly. The subtle and important distinction being made here is that the brain’s challenge is not just to stay locked in on something (i.e., concentration or focus), but to sift, organize and select what to pay attention to, when and for how long and, critically, how to switch attention quickly and effortlessly while also stopping stuff that’s irrel­evant from grabbing your attention.

Consider how this plays out in competition. To avoid a drafting penalty, triathletes are required to:

  1. Know the rules about the draft zone,
  2. Control their pace and position relative to others so draft zones don’t overlap,
  3. Know where the drafting referees are, and
  4. Make on-the-fly tactical decisions that comply with the rules but also result in a physical or psychological advantage over others in the “group.”

That’s a lot to pay attention to!

The Brave Athlete devotes an entire chapter to improving attention, focus and concentration so you can keep your eyes on the prize in your daily training and during races. The chapter explores a simple mental model for concentration mojo, shows how stress affects how you attend to the task at hand and presents easy-to-learn techniques that reduce mental errors and silly mistakes when the heat is on. (The book covers a whole lot more, too. Take a look at the chapter previews.)

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