All athletes who struggle share one common mental mistake: They are unable to consistently keep their focus of concentration in the “NOW” of their performance experience. Athletes blocked by fears, haunted by repetitive problems or tormented by runaway nerves are so distracted by their negative thinking, doubts and/or inability to perform the way that they used to that they are disconnected from the moment-by-moment flow of the action.
Instead of focusing in the NOW on what he/she is doing in the moment, the athlete is stuck in the past, obsessing over a mistake or failure, too far ahead of him/herself, worrying about the future and a dreaded outcome or “time-traveling back and forth between the two! As a consequence, the athlete is not fully present in the present and so misses all of the important performance and timing cues that are so necessary to doing one’s best.
So instead of seeing the action, feeling what the body needs to do and then just reacting, the struggling athlete over- thinks. He/she questions what to do next, mistrusts their instincts and tries to “coach” him/herself through the action. His/her concentration is focused completely “upstairs” on thoughts. What this means is painfully simple for the individual: His/her performance is completely and unrecognizably horrid!
Athletes who have been physically and/or emotionally traumatized, suffered scary falls, injuries or painfully embarrassing failures or mistakes have problems staying in the NOW. Their worries and the unconscious body memory of past painful experiences keep them from relaxing and attending to the moment by moment flow of the game which is so necessary for optimal performance.
One antidote to this is mastering the skill of staying present, in the NOW, in your body before and during your performance. This skill begins and ends with awareness. That is, the only way for you to really stay in the now is to be exquisitely aware whenever you mentally leave the now! It’s this self-awareness that you have drifted off to thoughts that then enables you to re-correct your focus before it’s too late.
Being in the now doesn’t mean that you say things to yourself like, “Stay in the now!” “C’mon, you’ve drifted, you have to get back to the now!” If those things are going through your head, then you are THINKING, NOT being! Being in the now means that you keep your focus on what you are doing, without thoughts, while you are doing it! You see the ball as it comes to you. You feel the stride that you’re taking right now and notice how relaxed your arm swing is. You feel the stretch in your arm as you feel how much water you’re pulling on this stroke. You focus on feeling your first skill of the floor routine as you go to do it. You feel yourself running down the runway with the pole as you do so. You feel “soft hands” as you stand over that 5 foot putt, etc.
While all of this may sound so simple, it is far from it! Learning to stay present in the present without being sidetracked and hijacked by your thoughts takes a lot of practice.
Exercise: One very simple exercise that you can do at home to sharpen this skill involves sitting comfortably in a chair and turning your focus inside to your breathing. Without altering your breath in any way, notice your inhale and then your exhale. You do this by simply focusing on the physical sensations of the breathing. Where does your breath start? Feel it! Feel your feet on the floor, the back of the chair supporting your back and just follow your breath in and out for 5 minutes. As you do this, thoughts, images and even emotions will intrude. Be aware of them, don’t fight them and simply return your focus back to the body sensation of your breathing.