5 Strategies to Sharpen Concentration and Perform Your Best as an Outdoor Athlete
Whether you’re glade skiing, rock climbing, or navigating a busy freeway, the ability to sharpen and maintain concentration is essential for effective risk management and peak performance.
Concentration is a mental skill developed through disciplined practice—you just can’t turn it on when you ski or climb. Developing the ability to concentrate deeply takes a long-term commitment to consciously gather and sustain focus every time you encounter a demanding situation. In fact, improving concentration requires a comprehensive effort to reduce distractions and properly direct focus in all important aspects of your life. With consistent practice, you will eventually come to wield laser-like focus like a Jedi Master, no matter the challenges you face in the mountains, classroom, or boardroom!
Here are five techniques you can use to enhance and maintain concentration in any difficult situation.
1. Deal with Potential Distractions Beforehand
The first and most obvious step to improving concentration is to preemptively deal with possible distractions before entering the metaphorical arena. In the mountains, distraction can lead to disastrous consequence—knowing the territory you’re entering and getting deep inside the moment is essential.
Same goes in trying to marshal focus at work, school, or elsewhere. Silence your cell phone and nix any distracting background noise; predetermine that you won’t check e-mail or deviate for any reason from the task at hand until a certain point in time; and since your eyes often lead your focus, go somewhere that shelters your eyes from environmental distractions or other movements.
An interesting research finding is that listening to classical Baroque-style music helps deepen concentration and improve focus, especially when faced with a large amount of information to process. The rhythms and timing common to Baroque music, such as Bach, have been shown to affect brain waves in a way that enhances creative thinking, problem-solving, concentration, and learning.
What about other styles of music—do they have the same positive effects on concentration? Perhaps not. While listening to rock music, rap, and pop songs with lyrics can help change your mental state and arousal level, such engaging music tends to make concentration difficult, especially in complex situations. For example, I’m sure that you can sing along with a song on the radio (or talk on the phone) when driving in steady traffic on a familiar road. In trying to navigate chaotic traffic in an unknown city, however, I bet you have found it necessary to turn off the radio (and cease a conversation) in order to concentrate completely on figuring the next turn and staying alive. The same is almost certainly true in skiing, climbing, and performing any complex task. The bottom line: Engaging music, conversation, and intermittent background noise will degrade concentration, whether you recognize it or not.
2. Use Rituals to Narrow Focus
Use of preparatory rituals is a powerful technique for narrowing focus prior to performing any stressful or potentially dangerous activity. Like a pilot going through his pre-flight checklist, executing a precise sequence of pre-performance checks and procedures helps direct the conscious mind to things that matter. For example, performing a specific physical warm-up, double-checking your gear, and studying the challenge at hand—and potential risks—will lock your thoughts onto task-relevant matters, thus decreasing the chance your thoughts will stray toward external distractions or internal, nonproductive thoughts.
In this same way, you can develop rituals to help focus your mental state in a wide range of life activities. Given the complexity of the world we live in and the ease of getting distracted, using rituals that deflect distractions and narrow focus will not only improve your concentration in all you do but also elevate your mental state in a way that increases the effectiveness of your actions. It should be no surprise, then, that peak performers in sport, business, and elsewhere habitually employ well-refined rituals to narrow focus and shelter their eyes and ears from irrelevant cues and potential distractions.
3. Use Self-Talk to Direct the Conscious Mind
Negative self-talk is a common concentration killer and dire enemy of peak performance. Conversely, directing positive self-talk will fortify focus and increase self-efficacy. Examples of beneficial self-talk include simple instructions such as relax, stay in the moment, and keep breathing, as well as encouraging statements like I can do this, I love adversity, stay with it. Filling your conscious mind with positive statements like these makes it difficult for outside distractions or negative thoughts to enter your stream of consciousness.
An important distinction in directing effective self-talk is that you never state the effect or outcome that you don’t want to happen. Saying to yourself, for example, don’t feel nervous, don’t fall, or don’t feel scared brings the unwanted outcome into your conscious mind and thus makes it more likely that you will experience the very state or outcome you hope to avoid. This is often called the pink-elephant effect, since if you say to yourself, don’t think of a pink elephant, you will instantly see a pink elephant in your mind’s eye! Such reverse polarity self-talk might be viewed as a form of self-sabotage, and it’s actually a common bad habit of internal dialogue for many people. So make it your goal to replace the inner critic with a tireless cheerleader, and you’ll elevate both performance and quality of experience.
4. Keep Your Eyes on Task-Relevant Targets
Whether concentration narrows or divests in a given moment often depends on where your eyes are pointing and what you choose to focus your vision on. Suppose you are rock climbing and glance down to the ground below—in shifting your eyes downward, you open the door to visually engaging some distraction on the ground or perhaps even pondering the exposure of your current perch. In doing so, you sever task-relevant focus on the move at hand, in addition to blocking out important proprioception of body tension, movement, and your center of gravity. The ultimate impact of lost focus is an increased likelihood that you’ll tighten up and “choke” in the heat of the moment.
The best climbers avoid this cascade of distractions by locking their vision onto task-relevant targets as they climb; they only allow their vision to stray while resting at a good stance or ledge. Knowing this master skill, you gain a powerful insight on how to gather and maintain focus as you climb—direct your eyes only at objects that are relevant in the moment!
Specifically, your eyes should target only the holds you are about to engage, the gear you are placing, and the rock immediately around you. Make this your modus operandi and you will discover a new level of concentration that quickly boosts your climbing performance. Same is true in skiing, trail running, or just about any other sport—you will perform best in the moment by keeping your eyes focused on the immediate challenge before you.
5. Let Go of the Outcome — Be in the Moment!
Being in the moment, detached from judgment thoughts and potential outcomes, is an immensely powerful Zen-like mental state. It’s important to recognize that your body can only be in the present, so the invaluable mind–body synchronization that gives birth to peak performance is only possible when your mind is also in the present moment. Thinking about anything in the past or future makes mind–body integration impossible and peak performance elusive.
Engaging in meditation or prayer before you compete or perform is an excellent way to quiet the mind and get in the moment. When you quiet your mind and eliminate distractions, your attention will naturally focus on the most important matter of the moment. On the rock, this single-pointed focus will shift effortlessly from hand- to foothold, or to gear placements and risk management, as needed. Similarly, in skiing, mountain biking, and running, the pinpoint focus may be the next step or turn. By staying in the moment—completely detached from outcome-oriented thoughts and distractions—you will become one with the mountain, absorbed in the mission, and bathed in the transcendence of the zone.
Eric Hörst is an international best-selling author, published researcher, renowned climbing coach, and accomplished climber of 40 years. His book Maximum Climbing: Mental Training for Peak Performance and Optimal Experience explores the cognitive domain and presents dozens of tips and techniques to enhance performance in the mountains and beyond!