We know that human beings function their most effectively and perform at their best in sport and any other endeavors in life when they’re in the present moment.
The present moment meaning being focused in what you’re doing right then and right there.
We know that when we focus on the future, whether that be a month from now, five years from now, or even five minutes from now, we tend to feel anxious because the future is unknown. It’s uncertain. We worry about what could happen. We worry about possible mistakes or we think about the worst case scenario.
When we focus on the past, we tend to re-live negative experiences and feel negative emotions like sadness, guilt, shame, embarrassment, and disappointment. And then that sometimes makes us think, “I don’t want that to happen again in the future.” So we get pulled right back to the anxiety about the future.
Sometimes when we get stuck, or even when we think about positive experiences in the past, we then put pressure on ourselves to make those things happen again in the future.
So ideally in order to perform at our best, we’ve got to be in the present moment.
I want to give you five of my favorite strategies for helping individuals connect with and return to the present moment when you might find yourself experiencing anxiety or other negative emotions that are impacting your performance.
Strategy 1: W.I.N. Strategy for Staying in the Present Moment
The first one I call the win strategy. As athletes, we want to win. But if we break that down, we can have it stand for “what’s important now.”
So if you were to ask yourself in any given moment what’s important now, you might then connect with what you’ve got to focus on in that moment. Maybe you notice that you’re thinking about what you’re going to do for dinner that night, and you realize that’s not helping you to perform this skill. So you bring your attention back to the present. I need to focus on what’s going to be helpful for me right now. I know athletes who find it helpful to write W I N on their hand, on their water bottle, put it on a sticker somewhere to just keep you asking that question: What’s important now?
Strategy 2: Visual Cues
Strategy number two is the use of visual cues. Wherever our eyes go, our mind goes.
So let’s say I’m a gymnast and I am working on bars but I know beam is the next rotation. My eyes are kind of glancing over at the beam and starting to think about, “Oh, well, I’m going to have to work on that flight series today.” And then our anxiety grows.
Or if I’m on the ice and I’m training on a practice session and I’m paying attention to what the other skaters are doing. And my eyes are watching what Sally is doing over there in the corner. Now I’m going to get stuck in comparing myself to her. And I could put extra pressure on myself that I’ve got to be perfect in my next jumps that I might be doing, or my next run through.
So whatever we’re looking at is going to direct our focus. Instead, find things to pay attention to in your environment that are going to help you stay focused on what you’re doing. So if you’re working on bars, find a spot on the bar to look at, to ground you, to bring you back. If you’re on the ice, pay attention to things that are going to help you. Maybe look at a certain spot on the boards or finding something that you can look at that then makes you kind of smile or feel happy and relaxed in what you’re doing.
Strategy 3: Breathing in the Present Moment
The third strategy I’ll talk about is probably the most simple of all of these and that’s breathing. Breathing is one of my favorite strategies to talk to athletes about because breathing is the one thing that we can not do in the future. And we can not do in the past when we breathe. It’s only right here in this moment.
So when I pay attention to my breathing, I’m naturally going to be in the moment, maybe paying attention to slowing my breath down, maybe paying attention to longer inhales and longer exhales breathing deep into my belly. One of the greatest ways you can bring yourself back to the present moment is to take a pause and take five nice deep belly breaths. And it can be more than five breaths. As many as you need.
Strategy 4: Focus Words
I love focus words. They are straightforward, simple, neutral words that help us focus on what we want to have happen. Let’s say I’m working on a back handspring. My mind could go to thinking about all the bad things that could happen to thinking about the fear, to thinking about the pressure I might be feeling.
But instead I’m going to come up with three words or less that help me stay focused on what I’m doing. So my three words might be load, explode, and tight. So as I’m standing there preparing for my back handspring, I’m going to repeat to myself – load, explode, tight, load, explode, tight. And I’m going to say that to myself over and over a couple of times, maybe once or twice as I set up to do that skill. We could do this in any skill, any routine.
I always say one to no more than three words. But focus words are things like strong, tight, smooth, power, attack, trust, breathe, focus, easy, zoom, spring, push. Neutral words – no positive, no negative. Focusing on what you want to have happen in that moment.
It’s a great way to bring yourself into the present moment for my figure skaters out there. You can have words for different jumps, right? If you’re going into a double loop jump, you might be thinking, wait, check, push.
There’s no right or wrong. You get to come up with what words feel most helpful for you. And a good way to ask yourself this is what does my brain need to hear for me to successfully complete this skill?
For some of my endurance athletes (swimmers, runners) having words that you might just repeat can be really helpful to keep you in the moment. Like a mantra – strong, power, strong, power, strong, power. This can help rather than focusing on what you’ve got to do, focusing on the pain, or focusing on any other aspect that might be less helpful to your performance and strategy.
Strategy 5: Five, Four, Three, Two, One Strategy
I call this the five, four, three, two, one strategy. The idea here is we’re going to connect with our senses. Your five senses – your sight, your touch, your smell, your taste, and your hearing. Usually our sight is the one that’s most obvious to us. Taste is usually the hardest.
So we’re going to start with five. Let’s say I’m standing in the gym. I’m starting to feel a little overwhelmed, getting anxious and thinking about all these racing thoughts in my mind. I might pause for a moment and name off five things I can see. Then I’m going to name off four things that I can touch. Then I’m going to name off three things that I can hear. Two things that I can smell. And one thing that I can taste.
Taste is usually a tricky one. We might be able to taste our dry mouth or the taste of something we recently ate or the water we just drank. So you have to get a little creative sometimes. But it’s very possible to go through and name off five things that you can see. Then four things you can touch, whether it’s with your hands, your feet or some other part of your body. Three things that you can hear – music, voices, background sounds. Then two things that you can smell. And one thing that you can taste.
Try to be specific. Instead of just saying people talking as something that you hear, be specific. You might hear Matt say talking to another athlete, right? So be specific. That’s going to help you ground right into that present moment.
My hope is for all of you is to take these five strategies to help you stay in the present moment. We talked today about W.I.N. (what’s important now), using visual cues or focusing on where your eyes are, breathing, use of focus words, and the five, four, three, two, one strategy. So try these out. See if that helps you stay connected to the present moment.
And if you’ve got any questions, feel free to reach out to me. I’m Taryn at Complete Performance Coaching.