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Distraction – What do thoughts got to do with it? Got to do with it, got to do with it

Updated: Jan 28, 2021

After you get done humming the title of this blog to the tune of Tina Turner’s What’s Love got to do with it, turn your attention to the topic of distraction (no pun intended).

When discussing this topic with teams I often ask them to tell me sources of distraction. Almost without fail athletes will name a host of external distractions ranging from officials calls, cheering/booing fans, parents being in the crowd, weather patterns, social media, text messages, coaches non-verbal reactions, and the list goes on. What is often forgotten is the greatest source of distraction – our own thoughts. According to studies our minds wander an estimated 45-50% of the time we are awake. This is problematic when it comes to athletic performance because as noted in a recent article by Rooks et al. (2017) “the margins of victory may be determined by one’s success at maintaining sustained attention.”

Extending upon the above sentiment, I would add that elite performance emerges not from having the “right” or “positive” thoughts but rather by being able to maintain present moment attention. Keep in mind, that both positive and negative thoughts can take us away from the moment. How many times have we seen a wide receiver drop a sure touchdown pass with an open field ahead of him. Sure he could have been thinking “hope I don’t miss this” but also possible he thought “I can’t believe how wide open I am, I am going to take this to the house.” What is lost? The sustained focused attention necessary to actually catch the ball.

Now in situations like the above you may hear coaches yell “focus.” This of course is meaningless unless you are able to actually train an athlete’s ability to focus. Given the positive guy that I am, I often begin this discussion by focusing on ways athletes are not training themselves to be more focused. Fact is, in any given moment we are either practicing mindfulness or mindlessness, and in our society there is a whole lot of mindlessness going on. For example, a recent study noted that on average, young adults check their phones every 11 minutes and dedicates more than five hours (30 percent of the day) using it. This is basically the opposite of training focus. More generally, ask yourself how often do you eat without tasting? Have a conversation without actually listening? I could go on, but you get the point.

Ultimately, if you are an athlete wanting to train your focus you need to be more thoughtful and intentional about what you are doing moment by moment by moment. There are two primary ways to build the mindfulness muscle - formal meditation and informal meditation.

Formal meditation involves setting aside a period of time during the day to engage in some form of meditation activity (e.g. meditation of breath, walking meditation, body scan). Don't have time? Well remember the old zen saying "You should sit in meditation for 20 minutes a day, unless you're too busy; then you should sit for an hour."

Informal meditation involves intentionally being present with whatever you are doing moment by moment by moment whether it be eating, communicating, showering, exercising, driving, etc. This doesn't require carving out any specific amount of time but rather committing to be present during the course of your day to day activities.

Ask yourself at the end of the day (or maybe every hour) how present was I today? Begin each day with the intention to be present which means not jumping on your phone to check messages, email, social media the moment you wake up. Develop a daily meditation practice. Integrate informal meditation into your day. Stop and look around every once in a while. You may thank me for it and your mind will too.

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