In a Peanuts cartoon strip, Lucy apologizes to Charlie Brown for missing an easy fly ball in the cartoon's first frame. In the next frame she says "I thought I had it, but suddenly I thought of all the others I've missed..." She points out her own problem in the last frame: "The past got in my eyes!" Worrying about a past mistake, a bad race or effort will usually get you into another one just like it.
How many of us have done what Lucy did? Worry about some aspect of our performance that didn't go the way we wanted and by so doing either recreated the problem or simply didn't do as well as we could because we we're too in our heads or in the past? How many of us beat ourselves down about the past? That's an overdeveloped skill for most of us.
So many times I've heard athletes say that they don't fit in with other athletes because they haven't done as much, gone as hard, don't look right, don't have the right equipment or that they've struggled to do well in the past... As we've talked about before, these beat downs may be some kind of attempt at control, but it doesn't help us. Ghosts of the past harm our efforts by bringing past mistakes into the present, by distracting us, by keeping us from performing our best and by even convincing us that we won't be able to get to the goal we're going after.
Rather than beating yourself down over the past, compassionately lift yourself up. Use your mindfulness skills to stay in the present, let the past flow by. By doing this you can grow and unleash your best performance.
I was talking with an athlete this morning who twice had IT band problems near mile 7 in the marathon causing him to DNF. This past fall, he said, he was determined to finish and had done lots of work to prevent injury. But, as he approached the 7 mile mark, he became more and more afraid he'd get re-injured and so started walking as he got near that point. Mile 7 had become like a magical limit he couldn't pass.
Ultimately, he went on to finish the race without injury, starting to run again after he had walked for about a half hour. Afterwards, he felt sure that he could have done better, felt he could have run most of it, and been just fine. The past got in his eyes, his fears held him back from doing his best.
We all have moments when we didn't perform our best, when things didn't go our way. But the mindfulness skills we've been developing provide powerful ways to bring our best performance to the moment, wiping away the past. These skills anchor us in the present moment and enable us to do our best even if the past tries to distract us.
Look at your past with compassion, with a warm understanding and acceptance, and let the past be just past. Now you can focus on the present moment. Anchor to your breathing and say, "I am in this moment", "I am ready to do this ride/swim/run", "I can let the past flow away", "the past is just the past". By doing this you can set yourself free, you can develop a bubble of concentration within the present moment.
To develop this concentration bubble, I use a visualization exercise with athletes I work with. No matter what distractions may be present, we can just focus on the process of our best success. This visualization exercise can work for all of us.
First, settle into a comfortable place and begin with two or three minutes of deep breathing, just letting your mind clear and letting thoughts drift through.
Then bring a clear picture into your mind of just how you want to perform and the skills involved in that action. Maybe its riding a perfect line in a criterion race, having perfect hand entry and kick while swimming, or maybe its finding that perfect balance of pedal force, cadence and breathing while going through a long VO2 Max block on the bike. Whatever it is, see it happening cleanly and clearly.
Next focus on the actual performance of the scene in your visualization. See yourself riding well, smoothly gliding through the water or powerfully pushing the pedals through the block. Bring positive emotions into your scene. Connect the visual images with feelings like excitement, joy, strength, confidence, fun...whatever you feel that would help your performance.
Then, fadeout your focus, kind of pulling the camera back, so that you can see yourself making the move, the stroke, the ride that turns the previous images into reality. Stay with this last scene for several minutes. Keep doing the deep breathing throughout.
Practice this goal visualization daily, for several minutes each time. If you notice your mind drift, that's okay, just come back to your scene, maybe saying to yourself "thinking" or "come back", and reengage the scene. With practice this scene will become stronger and stronger and the actual performance will be strengthened.
Another mindfulness technique for concentration is to pick an object related to your activity or goal. This could be your bike, your swim goggles, or your shoes. Whatever it is, actually pick up the object or lay your hands on it; study it; contemplate it; notice how it feels, its color, all that you can about it. If your thoughts begin to wander away, just come back to the object. Just notice for two or three minutes per time. With practice, it will be easier and easier to focus your mind and to have greater awareness of where your concentration goes. And the object itself comes to be a reminder to come back to your present effort.
Again, this exercise is a way of staying in the present moment. Whether that moment is a training or racing moment, if your mind starts to wander so will your performance. So now, by using visualization practices like these, we can stay in the present moment. We can use our scene or object to anchor to the present and not let the past cloud our eyes, distracting us from our best.
Dave Marks, LCPC 847-299-3400