Young Athletic Woman In Sportswear Standing On The Bridge During

More Mindfulness: Training Active & Flexible Attention

BY Patrick Smith

Is mindfulness trendy? Yes. But is it super useful in endurance sports, also yes! Help your athletes bring their attention to the present with these tips.

Run with me for a moment. We’re moving along and the sweat is starting to prickle. The miles tick away. Breathing and stride sync up. Suddenly, it happens. Your senses open wide. The details. Oh the details! Effortlessly, you are aware of so much more. You notice the airy sweet tang, vibrant hues and delicate structure of flowers passing by. How each bead of sweat rolls unique trails on your skin. The fine texture and temperature of the air as you pass through dappled light and shade. You are in the zone.

And just as quickly… it’s gone. There’s that damn hot spot in your shoe. Not looking forward to that blister. And what are you going to get for groceries this week? Ugh! The future has become present and the present, though still here, is as good as gone. You’re hooked by something and the zone is lost.

What Meditation Isn’t

Tell me if you’ve heard this before. Meditation can help you live ‘in the zone’ longer and more regularly. Yup, me too. So much. And then some guru goes off and tells us to “clear our mind.” Wait, what?! I don’t want to feel blank. I want to feel all the things! So what, my dear coaches and athletes, is going on? As a fellow coach, athlete, and behavioral psychology researcher, I’m here to clear the confusion and help you and your athletes use meditation to your advantage.

…And What It Is

Despite the stereotype, the goals of meditation are not blankness, avoidance, or thought control. Meditation builds two behavioral skills. First, the wide observation of the present, or the ability to notice all internal experience as they flow through you just as you notice all the details of the run. Second, actively returning to wide observation after being redirected by a new distraction or getting back in the zone. These two skills scaffold active and flexible attention or the ability to widely notice and guide attention to useful details of your experience. 

As you have probably already experienced, getting back into the observation zone after a distraction or ‘hook’ is the hard part. And fighting with the hook, telling yourself to “stop thinking about that thing that hooked you,” only strengthens the hook. Here are two ways to unhook:

  1. Observe and Describe
    1. Look at the hook. What does it feel like? What bodily sensations are occurring as you experience it? If it had a color/taste/smell/name, what would it be? Does it have a texture? Are there other thoughts, feelings, experiences that come along with it?
  2. De-fuse 
    1. Find the strongest word pertaining to the hook and repeat it. Outloud. Fast. At least once per second for 30 seconds. Vary the cadence and emphasis of syllables. How does each syllable feel as it passes over your larynx? What do the sounds feel like as you hear them? What other experiences come along with feeling and hearing the act of saying the word?

Notice in both ways, the end result is a path back to wide observation through experiencing the hook. No fighting, no controlling, just diving in and contacting. Meditation is training to see and feel the mental chaos for the flow of experience it is, and steering your attention in that flow to the useful bits while keeping sight of the whole.

Getting Started

Start small. Try observing your internal experience for just a moment. Try in different contexts. Acknowledge experiences as you notice them go by. And when you get hooked… that’s ok. Explore it. Observe it too. Explore your way back to the wider focus through that same inquiring, experiencing, and acknowledging. Some days returning to a wide focus will feel effortless. Other days the hooks are strong. These are both okay and part of the process. Apply periodization of work and rest to your meditation training and over time, the hooks weaken and your ability to stay in the zone strengthens.

Give one of the above practices a try. Can you notice the hook when it happens? Can you observe or de-fuse your way back? What is hooking you? How can meditation lead to further self-awareness in your training? Email me and let me know for a free 30-minute consultation.

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About Patrick Smith

Patrick Smith is a Training Peaks Level 2 Coach licensed through USA Cycling. He offers consultations, fully customized training plans, and prewritten training plans you can purchase through the TrainingPeaks plans store. You can learn more at his TrainingPeaks coaching page, his website, or by reaching out.