Concentration – The Role of Memory and Focus in Athletic Training and Competition

“90 Percent of the game is half mental” – Yogi Berra

Dubious claims to Yogi Berra aside, the above quote doesn’t even make sense.  However, I think what Yogi was trying to say, the mental game is key, the last athletic tool to be unlocked, and at the elite level, probably the most important.

WHY SHOULD I CARE:

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“When you are an elite athlete, one of the best in the world, the physical differences between you and your peers are very, very small.” says Scott Grafton, a researcher at the University of California, Santa Barbara and a Dana Foundation grantee, who studies action representation, or how the brain organizes movement into a goal-oriented action. “So what really determines success? The way athletes are approaching their sport at the cognitive level.”

From Erica Saint Clair of breakingmuscle.com

“Our minds are one of the least discussed factors in success and failure. We think more of what training plan to follow, what to do on our rest days, and what to eat than we do about how best to utilize the most powerful tool in our arsenal.

When it comes to personal records and maximal effort, our minds shy away because they like the neat and the organized. What they don’t like is the dark place we have to go to in order to crank out our new personal records. Our minds like R&R, repeat and recycle. They don’t like hitting the redline and trying to surge past it into new ground.Picture2

You may have found yourself a great coach and a great place to train, your technique is improving, your times are getting faster, your weights are heavier – things are progressing logically, for the moment. And then you ask yourself to push just a little harder, and out of the blue, your progress has flat-lined.

You find yourself stagnating away, even though you are doing all the right things for mobility, nutrition, muscle care, and supplements. You find yourself failing at the same weight, day after day, week after miserable week.

You think that maybe you should go more often, maybe you need a one-on-one class, maybe you need a different coach. You don’t think that it is just your mind messing with you, holding you back.

But it is.

In 1984 the Russians realized that Olympic athletes who mentally rehearsed their sport experienced a positive impact on their performance. Since then the area has been widely studied. In the 1990s a researcher showed that just five minutes of mental visualization, versus five minutes of basic tasks yielded a significant difference in overall performance – and the dramatic increase in performance wasn’t limited just to experienced professionals, the researcher showed that it applied to novices as well.”

MEMORY:

In general there are three types of memory we as humans utilize.

  • Sensory memory – holds information for about 200-500 milliseconds (12 items). The shortest-term element of memory. It is the ability to retain impressions of sensory information after the original stimuli have ended. It acts as a kind of buffer for stimuli received through the five senses of sight, hearing, smell, taste and touch, which are retained accurately, but very briefly. For example, the ability to look at something and remember what it looked like with just a second of observation is an example of sensory memory.Picture3
  • Short-term memory – holds limited information temporarily (10-15 seconds, 7 items). Acts as a kind of “scratch-pad” for temporary recall of the information which is being processed at any point in time, and has been referred to as “the brain’s Post-it note”. It can be thought of as the ability to remember and process information at the same time. It holds a small amount of information (typically around 7 items or even less) in mind in an active, readily-available state for a short period of time.
  • Long-term memory – involved permanent storage of information.  Intended for storage of information over a long period of time. Despite our everyday impressions of forgetting, it seems likely that long-term memory actually decays very little over time, and can store a seemingly unlimited amount of information almost indefinitely. Indeed, there is some debate as to whether we actually ever “forget” anything at all, or whether it just becomes increasingly difficult to access or retrieve certain items from memory.

CONCENTRATION:

The ability to pay attention is vital to memory because it is the process that moves information from sensory memory to short term memory.  There are the more traditional methods of concentration, typically repeating the information out loud, and writing down the information to review and repeat at a later time.  It can take a significant amount of time to learn something for the first time – it is always faster to re-learn something.  This equates directly to muscle memory as well (more on that later) where if you have developed your body to a certain conditioning in the past, and maintained that conditioning for a significant amount of time – your body will remember that state.

It is important to distinguish memory from comprehension i.e. short-term memory to long-term memory.  This is the act of actually transforming information into useful knowledge and into differing sensory channels.

Picture5MUSCLE MEMORY:

Our muscle/brain connection is an important aspect of concentration, memory, and focus.  The more efficiently we can make these connections – the easier it will be to recall techniques and strategies for success.  Muscle memory is a type of “procedural memory” which guides the processes of how we perform and most frequently resides below the level of conscious awareness. When needed, procedural memories are automatically retrieved and utilized for the execution of the integrated procedures involved in both cognitive and motor skills. It is a type of long-term memory.

The neuroanatomy of memory is widespread throughout the brain; however, the pathways important to motor memory (consolidating a specific motor task into memory through repetition) are separate from the medial temporal lobe pathways associated with declarative memory (long-term memory that can be consciously recalled such as facts and verbal knowledge). As with declarative memory, motor memory is theorized to have two stages: a short-term memory encoding stage, which is fragile and susceptible to damage, and a long-term memory consolidation stage, which is more stable.

Muscle memory consolidation involves the continuous evolution of neural processes after practicing a task has stopped. The exact mechanism of motor memory consolidation within the brain is controversial. However, most theories assume that there is a general redistribution of information across the brain from encoding to consolidation. Hebb’s rule states that “synaptic connectivity changes as a function of repetitive firing.” In this case, that would mean that the high amount of stimulation coming from practicing a movement would cause the repetition of firing in certain motor networks, presumably leading to an increase in the efficiency of exciting these motor networks over time.

I could go on and on about this – and in a future post (like the next one) I will.  But l digress….

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NEURAL DARWINISM: See my previous blog post here for a more detailed look – Neural Darwinism: 31 Billion Ways to Get Faster in Triathlon.  A brief look on how the brain develops both declarative and motor memories – and how to use that knowledge to gain a competitive advantage, in sports and beyond.

CONCENTRATION:

Concentration consists of four components: Width, Direction, Intensity, and Duration.  From Jacques Dallaire’s book Performance Thinking:

“The width of attention can vary from a broad perspective, where you process a large amount of information coming from various sources to a narrow one, where only a limited amount of information is allowed to capture your attention. There are instances where a broad focus of attention is appropriate while at other times, you need to shift your focus of attention to only a few thoughts… When you’ve mastered the ability to shift from broad to narrow concentration and back again, and the capacity to maintain the correct focus based on the demands of the activity, you’ll be able to avoid irrelevant thoughts since they can negatively affect both your decision-making and your reactions.

The second component has to do with the direction of your focus. There are occasions whenPicture7
an internal focus of attention is necessary… you selectively filter external events. At other times, an external focus of concentration may be more appropriate since you must continue to focus on the changing events that are occurring around you in real time.

Concentration can also vary in terms of its intensity – from being weak to being intense. Finally, concentration can vary in terms of its duration. Here, concentration varies from brief to sustained periods of time. It’s important to understand that these components of concentration are mutually exclusive in that it’s not possible to concentrate both broadly and narrowly at the same time, nor can you concentrate internally and externally at the same time. Likewise, the more intense your concentration is, the shorter will be the length of time you can maintain focus at that intensity before mental fatigue sets in.

Under relaxed conditions we possess greater mental flexibility – we are better at shifting amongst these four different components of attention. But under conditions of pressure or when we allow emotional stress to increase, we tend to rely on our own particular concentration bias. This may become a disadvantage if your bias is inappropriate for the particular demands of the situation at that time.”

Components of concentration are mutually exclusive in that it’s not possible to concentrate Picture8both broadly and narrowly at the same time, nor can you concentrate internally and externally at the same time. Likewise, the more intense your concentration is, the shorter will be the length of time you can maintain focus at that intensity before mental fatigue sets in.

 

 

PRE-PERFORMANCE ROUTINES AND ATTENTIONAL CUES/TRIGGERS:

Pre-performance routines help athletes block out irrelevant internal and external distractions by giving them something to focus on, assisting athletes to relax by providing a sense of familiarity which helps remind them this is just another shot, serve, race, etc., and finally, providing athletes with a consistent approach to their sport which, in turn, helps maximize the potential for consistent performance.

Cues/Triggers consist of usually no more than 1-2 cues to be used and their purpose should generally be helping athletes focus in the present moment, ready to instinctually react.

MENTAL TOUGHNESS:

Mental toughness consists of 7 components – as listed below:

  • Resilience – bounce back from adversity, pain, or disappointing performance
  • Focus – ability to focus in the face of distractions
  • Strength – ability to handle an unforeseen turn of events
  • Preparation – ability to anticipate situations ahead of time and feel prepared with a plan of action
  • Vision – ability to keep moving forward with your objective
  • Openness – ability to learn and be open to possibilities
  • Trust – ability to have faith in oneself

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HOW TO IMPROVE FOCUS AND CONCENTRATION:

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.

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?

Body scanning – Start with a form check. If your shoulders are tight, shake out your arms and get back to running efficiently. Keep your breathing controlled. And how is your stride? These are important because they make the physical act of running more effective, but focusing on these tangibles will also keep your mind engaged. As the pain starts to really kick in, these are constants you can turn to as distractions; counting steps is better than counting how many miles are left to get through.

Competition – Assess how you’re feeling, gauge those around you, and then make a plan. If you’re struggling, settle into a pack or behind someone and let them pull you along. Letting others do the work allows you to regroup; as you feel stronger, surge, look ahead to the next racer, and reel him or her in.

Mantras and mental affirmation – The pain of racing is unavoidable, but it’s painful for everyone so the battle comes down to who can mentally push through that pain the best. Part of blocking out that pain is remaining confident in yourself. Mantras work well; keep them short, even in tune with your stride. Smooth and Strong.

There’s always a time in a race when self-doubt creeps into your brain and you might consider a ‘good enough’ performance. A line that has always worked for me is, ‘It’s time to make a decision. What are you going to do?’ After months of training, simply asking yourself what you’re going to do is a clever way of re-framing the decision.

Most runners are unwilling to run a sub-par race when they consider all of the hard work they’ve done!

Course distractions – Not all races will have challenging terrain, but if you’re on a winding, hilly course then this is something that needs your attention, always run the tangents, or direct lines in between turns, to ensure you’re not racing longer than the distance of the race … maintain the same effort on the uphills, which will be slightly slower, and focus on quick turnover and staying in control on the downhills.

This is an effective racing strategy and it also keeps the brain alert and present. The mind games of racing often include using the mile markers (or half-mile, maybe even laps) as benchmarks during the race; don’t worry about making it all the way to the end, but rather, just get your body through to the next mile and worry about the next as it comes. The mind has a slippery way of trying to cope with the pain of racing by simply checking out.

Ultimately, recognizing race pain and fatigue as a normal part of racing helps you realize that while it hurts, it’s just temporary and it won’t leave any lasting damage, after all, it’s just running! You’ll be much happier if you welcome the fatigue as a sign that you’re running toward your potential as a runner.

Wrapping things up –

  • Focus intervals – in swimming, biking, and running.
  • Systems check – stay in touch with physical sensations you’ll experience during a race. What does intensity feel like? What is your limit?
  • Find your way back – cues/triggers
  • Avoid distractions – it can take 25 minutes to return to original task
  • Meditation and Mindfulness

VISUALIZATION:Picture10

Many elite athletes routinely use visualization techniques as part of training and competition. There are many stories of athletes who have used these techniques to cultivate not only a competitive edge, but also to create renewed mental awareness, a heightened sense of well-being and confidence. All of these factors have been shown to contribute to an athlete’s sports success.

There are four basic steps to visualization, they include:

  • Act it out – beginning, MIDDLE, and end.
  • Positive Reinforcement – Don’t visualize doing things incorrectly. As far as your brain is concerned, after you’ve imagined yourself doing the lift over and over, you DO have a memory of doing this lift already. And you will therefore be more confident in your attempt.
  • Meditate – Set a timer for 12 minutes. Close your eyes and focus on the sounds, smells around you. Feel the temperature on your skin, feel your clothes on your skin.  Now experience the breath flowing in and out.  State to yourself “I am breathing in – I am breathing out.”Picture11
  • Breakdown visualization in steps – Days before the race visualize and practice. The morning of the race reinforce the visualization. Right before the swim, meditate and visualize.  During the race use visualization as a trigger.  After the race, visualize your successful race.

MEMORY GAMES TO HELP DEVELOP MEMORY/CONCENTRATION/FOCUS:

My favorite – the method of loci, in basic terms, it is a method of memory enhancement which uses visualization to organize and recall information. A lot of memory contest champions claim to use this technique to recall faces, digits, and lists of words. These champions’ successes have little to do with brain structure or intelligence, but more to do with using spatial memory.

this method works especially well if you’re good at visualizing. Here’s how it works:

  • Think of a place you know well, such as your own house.
  • Visualize a series of locations in the place in logical order. For example, picture the path you normally take in your house to get from the front door to the back door. Begin at the front door, go through the hall, turn into the living room, proceed through the dining room and into the kitchen, and so on. As you enter each location, move logically and consistently in the same direction, from one side of the room to the other. Each piece of furniture could serve as an additional location.
  • Place each item that you want to remember at one of the locations.
  • When you want to remember the items, simply visualize your house and go through it room by room in your mind. Each item that you associated with a specific location in your house should spring to mind as you mentally make your way through your home.  more here…

Other memory games:

  • Sitting still in a chair – sit perfectly still while relaxed. Work up to 15 minutes
  • Fix gaze on fingers – Sit in a chair with your head up and your chin out, shoulders back. Raise your right arm until it is on the level with your shoulder, pointing to your right. Look around, with head only, and fix your gaze on your fingers, and keep the arm perfectly still for one minute.
  • Fix eyes on outstretched glass – Fill a small glass full of water, and grasp it by the fingers; put the arm directly in front of you. Now fix the eyes upon the glass and try to keep the arm so steady that no movement will be noticeable. Do this first for one moment and then increase it to five.
  • Concentrate on opening and closing fists – Move your chair up to a table, placing your hands upon it, clenching the fists, keeping the back of the hand on the table, the thumb doubled over the fingers. Now fix your gaze upon the fist for a while, then gradually extend the thumb, keeping your whole attention fixed upon the act, just as if it was a matter of great importance. Then gradually extend your first finger, then your second and so on until you open the rest. Then reverse the process
  • Concentrate on your sense of smell
  • Concentrate on within
  • Concentrate on sleep – What is known as the water method is, although very simple, very effective in inducing sleep. Put a full glass of clear water on a table in your sleeping room. Sit in a chair beside the table and gaze into the glass of water and think how calm it is. Then picture yourself getting into just as calm a state. In a short time you will find the nerves becoming quiet and you will be able to go to sleep.
  •  Practice talking before a glass – Make two marks on your mirror on a level with your eyes, and think of them as two human eyes looking into yours. Your eyes will probably blink a little at first. Do not move your head, but stand erect. Concentrate all your thoughts on keeping your head perfectly still. Do not let another thought come into your mind.
  • The eastern way of concentrating – Sit in a chair with a high back in an upright position. Press one finger against the right nostril. Now take a long, deep breath, drawing the breath in gently as you count to ten; then expel the breath through the right nostril as you count to ten. Repeat this exercise with the opposite nostril. This exercise should be done at least twenty times at each sitting.
  • Controlling desires
  • When you read
  • Watch concentration – Sit in a chair and place a clock with a second hand on the table. Follow the second hand with your eyes as it goes around. Keep this up for five minutes, thinking of nothing else but the second hand, This is a very good exercise when you only have a few minutes to spare, if you are able to keep every other thought in the stream of consciousness subordinate to it.