October 24, 2011

The Winning Mind, Part I

Developing Focus and High Level Concentration Skills

In today’s world it doesn’t matter what your competitive arena, the levels of performance are increasing. Never before have so many records been surpassed. New technologies and equipment design, along with expert coaching invite the athlete to hit the ball further, harder and with increased accuracy.

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In the Olympics we observed world class runners & swimmers, mastering their sport, completing moves which just a decade ago would have never been considered possible.

This leaves us with the question of not only what makes a winner, but how does one win consistently? More and more the difference between winning and losing rests with psychological factors, or the mind game.

If you listen closely to sports commentators, you will hear many comments in this regard as they review athletic performance. “She has lost her focus.” “That fall is going to cost her concentration.” “He lost the match in the first set, when he lost his service game. He never came back.”

Certain athletes manage stress and pressure better than others, and many championships are lost in the mind, long before the final score has been recorded. For the weekend athlete, the same holds true with actual performance running behind skill and potential, sometimes as much as 90%.

In other words, you may be capable of playing 90% better than you actually do, and the reason is all in the way you manage your mindbody connection.

In reality one needs to develop two types of sports training programs, one for technique development in the chosen sport, and the other in psychological skill building.

When these are employed together on a consistent basis, the athlete is able to access a focused mind state much more frequently. This is sometimes addressed as playing in “the zone.” Keep in mind that in the business world there is also a “zone” !

For many athletes, getting to this physiological/psychological state is a bit of a mystery. A consistent winner knows how to access this state at will. The following tools are the training tools for high level performance.

The First Order of Business:
Developing Focus and High Level Concentration Skills

The above set of tools are learned, and practiced daily in and out of sports practice. While they don`t take a lot of time, commitment to the process is absolutely a necessity. Just like a football player would not consider learning new plays in the middle of a game, neither should the athlete consider learning to manage the mindbody connection in a stressful situation.

All skills are built away from the playing field, be it a golf course, tennis court, skating arena,or in the middle of the English Channel. However, they are practiced along with technique development, and certainly when new techniques are being presented by the coaching staff.

When the body is experiencing stress reaction, the muscle tension is greatly increased. Most of us are completely oblivious to this tension, unless we begin to experience “screamers.” Some popular ones are neck and back tension, headache, gastro-intestinal symptoms, tightness in the chest, and shallow breathing.

These symptoms are often the triggers, causing an athlete to “choke.” This is occurrence is similar to a “panic attack” in someone who is not playing sports. As the individual becomes keenly away of inner body sensations, and continues to focus in their direction, the body literally increases the amount of tension in all areas. For the athlete, the building of excess body tension interferes with all aspects of the game.

The chemicals and hormones that are actively produced under these circumstances, not only affect the working of small and large muscle groups of the body, but also impair the ability to concentrate, retrieve necessary information from the subconscious mind needed to assess the situation, and adapt needed skills to meet it.

Body Scanning, or mental biofeedback allows the brain to be retrained to release stress build-up at low levels. The participant instructs the mind to focus on small muscle groups, and observe them for sensations.

Sensations are messages from the muscle groups, alerting one to the amount of tension being held captive there. Once the sensations are located, the mind is instructed through imagery to open the area, thereby releasing the stored tension.

As the mind is directed to continue the scanning process, it re-learns the difference between stress and no apparent stress.

When someone begins this practice of mental biofeedback, it is interesting to note that many areas which store tension appear to be tension-free. The reason for this is the inability of the person to focus well on the small muscle group.

As the practice continues, one becomes a much better detective at spotting muscle tension. This is a very important point, because one cannot release what is not observed.

Body scanning is also a valuable tool for increasing focus and flexibility. Training the mind to scan the body in a very relaxed state, transfers to the skill of being able to focus, release, and move onto another area of focus.

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As one begins to practice body scanning, their is an acute awareness of the inability to focus, and often times to be willing to leave an area of focus and move on to the next. This lack of flexibility is noticed when a player cannot release and move on to the next point, or play.

It takes about thirty days to retrain the mind in this way, and even after that time it is good practice to continue body scanning several times a week, and if the athlete is preparing for competition these exercises should be practiced at least daily, with the same commitment as the practical aspects of the sport.

When working to improve focus and concentration, one works closely with the body sensations. Fractionation, or periodization is the process of bringing these tools into the daily life, and practicing in small increments during the day.

As this is a new skill, it is often necessary to set up little reminders. I suggest using something simple like a small note tacked in strategic places, by the phone, desk, refrigerator, car radio or other frequented area. Many times during the day one observes the body sensations by doing a quick body scan. This takes less than a minute.

As the tension areas are observed, and opened using the mind, the stress chemicals are released, and the mind-body is left to function at a higher level. As the mind gets used to this practice, it will literally take over.

One begins to notice that there is less stress build up during the day, and this translates into many advantages, not the least being a more focused mind state, and better sleep.

Elizabeth Bohorquez, RN, SRN, CPH is a Clinical Medical Hypnotist, President& Program Designer for Sarasota Medical & Sports Hypnosis Institute located in Sarasota, FL & online at www.hypnosis-audio.com and www.sugar-addiction.com. She specializes in the management of stress& related disorders with her original programs of Interactive Self-Hypnosis & high level nutrition as applied to mind function.



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