Posted 1 month ago

Developing a focused mindset

Accomplishing any big goal that you’ve set for yourself takes a lot of consistent effort; it requires you to pour a lot of energy into something that might be months or years in the future. That is, it takes razor-sharp focus.

However, the importance of focus for goal attainment isn’t only relevant in the long-term context. In fact, although it’s less spoken about in the fitness and bodybuilding world, being able to focus on the present moment and on the task at hand is as important as having a long-term vision to think about.

Being able to apply focus to our training is one of the biggest drivers of elite performance in the gym: it will ensure your reps are accurate, that you move efficiently, and that your form is on point. In short, focus and performance – and as a result, progress – are intrinsically linked.

Interestingly, despite our brains being able to focus, we’re not inherently good at it. In fact, our minds are pretty terrible at concentrating on one single thing without random thought intrusions! For example, in the context of training, we’ve all had that moment on a set, when we suddenly realise that we’re thinking about our food shop and have lost track of our reps. A different and worse-case scenario example would be that moment of distraction on an exercise which leads to inaccurate positioning for a rep, which leads to an injury.

The good news is that focus, like any other mental skill, is something that you can train, develop, work on, and improve over time. And yes, as a physique athlete, you should be wanting to develop better focus – it will help you train harder, place better intent on the muscles you’re training, pay attention to time under tension, and basically give it bigger beanz than just “going through the motions”.

So, what can we do to develop better focus and train this mental skill for performance?

Use all forms of attention
Focus can be pictured as existing across two dimensions: the dimension of width (broad to narrow), and the dimension of direction (internal or external). With this in mind, we can picture focus being drawn into four quadrants. Research has shown that performers/athletes tend to have a preference for some aspects over others, and different environments and/or emotional states can lead to one style being dominant over another. However, developing our capacity to focus and use each different style can provide benefits for performance. Here are some examples of what this might look like for you in practice. I’ll use the example of performing a leg extension:

  • Broad and internal: your focus is on the gym floor, you’re taking information in about the people around you, but your inner voice is pretty loud as you move through the reps
  • Broad and external: your focus is on the gym floor, but your mind is also a bit more distracted, you’re maybe thinking about the numbers on your logbook but not quite as dialled into the move, perhaps also thinking about what move comes next
  • Narrow and internal: all you can think about and see are your quads, and your inner voice is fully focused on your quads lengthening and shortening
  • Narrow and external: all you can think about and see are your quads, but you’re maybe thinking more about counting reps than about nailing the move

As you can see, from a bodybuilding perspective, we’d ideally want to cultivate our minds to be as narrow and internally focused when lifting but can allow it to drift when we rest. However, broad and external focus is what we’d all want to aim for when doing our cardio, so we’re not dialled in on how hard it is! So, as you can see, each form of attention has its place. Next time you train, pay attention to where you think you’re at, so you can move into the next step.

Practice paying attention
This may sound like I’m stating the obvious but here’s the thing: you can’t expect to be good at something if you only practice it in the moments when you need it most! So, if you find that your mind wanders when you’re training and you want your focus to become more “narrow and internal”, practice that narrow and internal focus in random moments through the day.

For example, you may choose to intently pay attention to how your big toe feels in your sock when you’re sitting down to take a shit. Or you could pay attention to the sensation of the shower water hitting your right palm. It sounds a bit hippie, I know, but it has been demonstrated time and time again in studies that practicing “attention focus” in random moments across the day makes this attentional pattern more accessible and easier to us when we need it most i.e., when we’re training hard.

Find what helps with training
If we think back to the narrow/broad and internal/external forms of attention, we might find that different patterns of these help us most when training.

For example, an external focus of attention in the shape of a mirror might help us develop a narrow focus and think about our movement patterns a bit better. Others might find mirrors quite distracting and even distressing, so this would not work well for them. Similarly, if we consider the types of cues we use for training, some people find internal cues easier than external cues: for an RDL, you might find it easier to nail your form by thinking about stretching your hamstrings all the way, whereas someone else might achieve the same position by thinking about closing a car’s door with their bum. The first cue is internal, whereas the second is external, but as you can see, they could work for different people. A different example might be to think about your whole body moving when you’re squatting (broad), as opposed to just thinking about knee flexion (narrow).

So, you can start to see how attention and focus aren’t as “simple” as just “thinking harder about the exercise”. Focus is a mental skill that we’re not organically very good at, but that can be trained with enough patience and perseverance. You can practice observing different attentional styles by taking yourself through all four quadrants – the key to using focus to improve your performance is to find the attentional style that works best for you. I’d always recommend noting this down in your logbook, so you can remember for next time what helped you for what exercise!

Clara Swedlund MSc MBPsS

References:

Bühlmayer, L., Birrer, D., Röthlin, P., Faude, O., & Donath, L. (2017). Effects of mindfulness practice on performance-relevant parameters and performance outcomes in sports: A meta-analytical review. Sports medicine47(11), 2309-2321.

Howland, J.M. (2007). Mental skills training for coaches to help athletes focus their attention, manage arousal, and improve performance in sport. Journal of Education, 187(1), 49-66.

Röthlin, P., Birrer, D., Horvath, S., & Grosse Holtforth, M. (2016). Psychological skills training and a mindfulness-based intervention to enhance functional athletic performance: design of a randomized controlled trial using ambulatory assessment. BMC psychology4(1), 1-11.