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Success in running requires mental toughness, and that requires focus.
As a runner, how would you rate your mental toughness? In Part 1 of this series, we talked about the profile of mental toughness and outlined seven key traits that define the champion’s mentality: resilience, focus, strength, preparation, vision, openness, and trust.
In Part 2, we discussed my top five tips for building mental toughness into your running: your performing edge mindset, outlook, mental imagery, focus, and power words.
Today in Part 3, let’s go into more depth with one key element of mental toughness: focus.
How to Improve Your Focus
Success in your toughness training requires total concentration, whether you are a novice or at the highest levels of performance. If your mind begins to wander, you can easily become distracted and lose your edge. It is not only your performance that declines, but the quality of your experience as well. You cannot take pleasure in an activity when you are not fully present.
Complete and undivided attention is difficult to come by. As a runner, you can easily become sidetracked by a myriad of external factors or the mind’s thought processes. Focusing is a challenge when there are numerous tasks to attend to (preparation for your event, work responsibilities, family demands, children’s needs, etc).
You may have input from several different sources at once — your coach, your training group, your sports medicine doctor and so forth. The challenge is to integrate all of this information, separate the important issues from the nonessential ones, and make important decisions about your training. Knowing how to focus and being able to maintain concentration throughout the day are critical skills for athletes at any level.
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The Right Focus for Mental Toughness
So what is the correct focus for runners who want to be mentally tough? This depends, of course, on the particular demands of each situation. There is no single right way to focus your attention. However, there is one vital principle: successful concentration depends upon a present-centered focus where you are totally connected to the task at hand.
A present-centered focus is one in which all your attention is directed to what is occurring at the present time. So, for instance, in a race, your focus may be on the competitor in front of you, on how your body is feeling, or on the decisions you are making based on this information.
Concentration is the learned skill of fully attending to the task at hand and excluding irrelevant external cues and internal distractions. Internal factors for athletes include self-doubt, fears, expectations, and fatigue.
External distractions may involve heavy traffic getting to a competition, a rival competitor showing up unexpectedly, or equipment problems. You need to be able concentrate in spite of these disruptions. The true test comes when the amount of time you need to stay focused extends beyond your current abilities.
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Exercise: Assess Your Mental Toughness Focusing Ability
Practice this exercise before beginning your training each day. Find a comfortable, quiet place where you will not be interrupted and take note of the time on your watch. Close your eyes and narrow your focus to one point or one topic (your breathing, or your running form, for example). Feel each inhalation and exhalation. Continue this exercise for as long as you can sustain this focus. Once your mind begins to wander, open your eyes and notice the time on your watch. How much time passed since you started this task? Ten seconds? One minute?
The longer you can focus on one point or on one target, the more successful you can be at focusing in mentally tough situations with your running. Practice this focusing exercise each day with your running and you’ll find you are running faster and with more enjoyment.
About The Author:
Dr. JoAnn Dahlkoetter, best-selling author of Your Performing Edge and creator of drjoann.com, is a Stanford-trained performance consultant, sports psychologist to Olympic gold medalists and CEOs, winner of the San Francisco Marathon and a second-place finisher in the World Championship Hawaii Ironman Triathlon. She is an internationally recognized keynote speaker, columnist, and TV expert commentator.