Effective Strategies for High-Intensity Mental Training

Ours is a world wired for distraction. Online information and social media constantly compete for our attention, thwarting efforts to focus on a single goal. The results are scattered thoughts, shorter attention spans and a rewiring of our brains, all of which prevent us from performing at our very best in whatever we do. For many of us, multitasking—focusing on several targets at once—may seem like the obvious solution. However, performance generally decreases in multi­taskers by as much as 40% (Schwartz & Goldstein 2017).

The fact is, the human brain developed to focus on a single target, such as a predatory animal, not on a host of factors at once (Ratey & Hagerman 2008). With constant distractions, our brains fatigue, just as our bodies do from overuse, and our minds wander, generally toward negative thoughts (Gallagher 2009). Fortunately, health and wellness coaches are in a unique position to help clients learn how to concentrate with intensity and, subsequently, achieve lasting behavioral changes (Goleman 2013). With encouragement and practice, clients can learn to focus better and filter out unimportant details (Schwartz & Goldstein 2017). Furthermore, with greater focus on a single target, the “background noise” fades away, and performance can improve (Kotler & Wheal 2017).

The purpose of this article is to discuss:

  • how intense concentration can improve client adherence to exercise and nutrition goals;
  • how intense concentration causes physical adaptations that enhance exercise performance;
  • what the modes of concentration are and how they benefit athletes in different ways; and
  • how to employ strategies—including deliberate practice—to enhance concentration and thereby improve physical performance.

Mindfulness: Rein In A Wandering Mind

Mindfulness, the state of knowing exactly what you are doing and knowing when your mind wanders, is improved by using a laser-like focus on a single goal (Begley 2007). When you become more mindful, relaxing and concentrating in the here and now, thoughts about the past and the future will vanish (Schwartz & Goldstein 2017).

What it looks like: Being in the moment includes focusing intensely—whether it’s on healthy eating, executing a forward lunge with perfect form or pedaling efficiently on an indoor cycle. During a cycling drill, for example, you might cue a client to focus on pulling up on the pedals—not just pushing down—to engage the glutes as well as the quadriceps. Practicing mindfulness in eating might include sitting down at a table to eat, savoring each bite and putting the fork down between bites.

Why it helps: When you improve performance using mindfulness—shutting out distraction and concentrating on one goal at a time—they will operate with top-down focus and will better remember what they have learned (Afremow 2016). Mindfulness will also help establish daily long-term habits of good nutrition and exercise. At the cellular level, intense concentration will facilitate greater neuronal rewiring, called neuroplasticity. This occurs at any age—a fact that should be of great importance to those of the baby boomer generation, intent on continued improvement (Begley 2007).

Motivation and Determination: Get Going, Keep Going

Motivation, like attention, is a skill that can improve with encouragement from coaches. The more clients focus on increasing their motivation, the better their performance will be (Duhigg 2016). To boost motivation and create lasting lifestyle changes, coaches should also emphasize determination, especially for boomers (Gallagher 2009). While motivation is the spark that will get you started, determination is what will keep you plugging along until you achieve your goal.

What it looks like: One motivator for those who like concrete examples could be a demonstration of the ideal physical performance (Coyle 2009). If you know someone who displays intense focus themselves, they can serve as great role models for yourself (Duckworth 2016). Motivation can also be enhanced by mentally rehearsing a skill before trying it (Gonzalez-Wallace 2010). In this case, you would envision yourself crossing the finish line at a race, for example, or engaging in a positive training run (striding, breathing, smiling). Receiving positive feedback, cuing, mantras and the like can also get you excited and keep you committed.

Why it helps: An upbeat, positive mindset will help to increase motivation, elevating the brain’s endorphin (“feel-good” hormone) levels, as well as the levels of dopamine, a neurotransmitter that rewards the brain’s pleasure center (Heiden, Testa & Musolf 2008). Dopamine, unfortunately, declines with age; thus, increasing motivation becomes more and more important (Begley 2007).

Modes of Concentration and Why They Matter

When you’re driving along a familiar route and wind up heading to work instead of toward your intended destination, you might say you were on “autopilot.” Just as this kind of spacing-out can get people into the weeds directionally speaking, fitness training on autopilot can prevent you from getting where you’d like to go performance-wise. By understanding the two modes of concentration explained below, you can steer yourself in the right direction—the one that will help your minds and bodies learn and adapt—so you can perform better.

Bottom-Up Focus (Autopilot)

One mode of focusing is the bottom-up mode, or the “automatic pilot” function. In the bottom-up mode, we are essentially performing without thinking. We may not even be aware that we’re not paying attention. When you “space out” during a set, they may still be doing squats, but your mental focus is elsewhere. The bottom-up mode may be useful for athletes who must perform as quickly as possible (e.g., when they are competing), but this mode is not conducive to learning.

Top-Down Focus (Executive Function)

When you pay close attention to a task, you make use of a brain mode known as top-down focus, or “executive function.” When making a conscious choice to exercise or choose healthy eating options, the brain is operating in this mode. The top-down mode is characterized by “internal guidance of attention based on prior knowledge, willful plans, and current goals” (Katsuki & Constantinidis 2014). This is the only mode in which learning can take place.

During exercise, top-down focus will determine the number of muscle fibers to be contracted (more fibers = more force), as well as the speed of those contractions (Svondal 2009). It’s important, then, that you are actively engaged, (Goleman 2013), and not reminiscing about vacation or stressing about your workday.

Interestingly, our brains cannot be in both modes at once: When one mode is operational, the other is not. This gives us the ability to focus on just one target at a time (Levitin 2014).  IDEA Fit TipsVolume 16, Issue 7

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