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Focus Makes Perfect: When To Think, And When Not To, When Playing Sports

The relationship between my mind and my body is complex—winning races involves far more than just putting one foot in front of another, for example. And as scientists dive into the minds of elite and amateur athletes alike, they're both confirming old axioms and discovering surprising contradictions.

ByTeal BurrellNOVA NextNOVA Next
Professional golfers keep their eyes on the ball, letting the rest of their body run on autopilot.

At mile three of the 2012 Charlottesville Marathon, I was winning. Feeling comfortable and ecstatic about my position, I was also honored with a personal escort, biking alongside, to lead my way. But I knew that a lot could happen in the remaining 23 miles, so I kept myself in check, not allowing my excitement to take over. My legs felt eager to blaze a sub-six minute mile, but instead I reined them in to maintain an easier—and more realistic—6:30 pace.

It was my ninth marathon. By that point, strategizing in a race was nothing new. My running career began when I was 14, and since then my feet have pounded asphalt, concrete, grass, gravel, and more as I’ve logged countless miles and hours training. As I have improved as a runner, my mind wanders less, and I think more about how my body is feeling. It turns out that’s exactly what I should be doing. Just as with other athletes, the relationship between my mind and my body is complex—winning races involves far more than just putting one foot in front of another. Psychologists and neuroscientists are diving into the minds of elite and amateur athletes alike, eager to uncover the mental strategies that create champions. They’re discovering that what produces winners in one sport may be disastrous in others.

Analyzing the Long Run

In endurance events, like running and cycling races, elite athletes focus intently on the state of their bodies. This internal focus—on arm and leg movements, breathing, sweating, and so on—is called association by sports psychologists. Endurance athletes who learn to associate are exceptionally in tune with their bodies, which has obvious benefits when strategizing a race. “You get better at reading your body the more miles you put in and run,” says Dr. Robert Weinberg, a professor of sport behavior and performance at Miami University. “An elite marathoner can tell the difference between running a 5:01 mile and a 5:02 mile. These people know their bodies.”

Professional runners like Constantina Dita—here leading the 2006 Chicago Marathon—focus internally.

But when the mind of an elite runner starts to wander—whether that be concentrating on music, conversation, or simply admiring the scenery—their world-class times start to slip. It’s tempting to tune out by blasting music, but if endurance athletes want to improve, they need to stress their systems and experience pain, says Erik Lind, a kinesiologist at State University of New York, Cortland. And while dissociation can be comforting while training, it can be downright dangerous in competitive events like marathons, where a loss of focus can lead to injury or even death. “At some point the mind has to pay attention to what the body is saying or, at a high intensity, yelling,” Lind says. “If you keep going, something catastrophic might happen.”

Death is an extreme case, of course. While it has happened, it’s more common that marathoners hit “the wall”—the point in a race where their body exhausts its last reserve of fuel. Running becomes exceedingly difficult. People hit the wall, Weinberg says, because they “have dissociated and haven’t checked in at all. All of a sudden stuff is going on in the body but they’re not aware of it. At mile 18…it all hits them, and they hit the wall and they just stop.”

The wall is physiological—people simply don’t have enough calories left to burn—but psychology can play a large part in preventing it. Restraining oneself in the early miles, as I did in Charlottesville, slows the body’s consumption of precious resources and delays the onset of the wall. Starting slowly requires patience, doubly so when you’re being passed by competitors. You have to be aware of your breathing, heart rate, and the overall effort your body is expending. You also have to override what your mind may be telling you—that it’s okay to go fast since you feel excited and energized.

Being able to monitor pain gives athletes an edge over their competition.

By mile 22 in Charlottesville, my lead was long gone. I had fallen behind around mile six and was now trailing by at least a minute. My body was exhausted. The hilly course had taken its toll, and every muscle in my body ached. I was running beneath a picturesque canopy of trees wrapping along a lazy river—it was a tempting temporary escape from the relentless hills. But instead of letting my mind wander, I took stock of myself. I was feeling okay, actually. I knew I had enough energy to muscle through and maybe—just maybe—the woman ahead of me didn’t. So I relaxed my shoulders, and I focused, calmly, on my pacing and stride.

“On longer events it is important for you to be in touch with your body and maybe make adjustments or corrections,” Weinberg says. “If you feel your calves are tight you might try to do something. If you feel your breathing is too shallow or too fast you, might do something.”

Elite runners constantly assess how they are feeling--from their legs and strides to their heartbeat and breathing rates.

By developing an intimate relationship with their bodies, endurance athletes can accurately interpret its signals and push their limits. The success of an athlete “comes down to their personality that allows them to push through their pain,” Lind says. “Or at least monitor their pain.” This gives them an edge over their competition.

As I rounded the bend a half-mile from the finish, I knew I had played my cards right. In the miles since the river, I had slowly chipped away at the lead. Soon, I was briefly neck and neck with the leader. I lengthened my stride, pulled ahead, and regained the lead. Everything hurt. But I ordered my muscles to soldier on, literally muttering encouragement under my breath. This was the moment I had trained for all season; I didn’t want to leave anything on the table. As the finish neared, I dug deeper, willing my last morsel of energy into my exhausted legs, literally forcing them to sprint. They listened. I pushed them relentlessly through the chute and over the line, winning by 13 seconds.

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Autopilot on the Green

In 2011, at the age of 21, Rory McIlroy was a rising star in the world of golf. A year prior, he had won his first PGA tour event—the youngest person to do so since Tiger Woods—and set a course record in the process. Toward the end of the 2011 Masters, McIlroy was just one round away from winning it all and donning the famed Green Jacket. Going into the last day, he was leading by a commanding four strokes.

Mentally, golf is unlike endurance sports. For golfers like McIlroy, focusing on what the body is doing means almost certain failure. The same is true of other precision sports like basketball and tennis. Instead, they need to focus on an external goal. Professional golfers often concentrate on the ball, basketball players frequently on the rim of the hoop. Once they zero in, they go on autopilot, trusting the torsion of their torsos or the pump of their arms to do the rest. Years of practice have etched these motions deep into their muscles.

When athletes first learn to hit a golf ball or shoot a basketball, they focus on every part of the process—the location of their hands, the angle of their wrists, the position of their legs. They run down a mental checklist as they swing or shoot. As they do, the part of their brain responsible for planning and conscious awareness, the frontal cortex, comes alive.

As they improve, their movements become more automatic and the role of the frontal lobe wanes. When professional golfers swing, for example, they have less overall activation in their brains and less in the frontal cortex than beginners. During their stroke, their brains are more efficient—they don’t need to think about what they are doing. In fact, if professional golfers do focus on their movements, their frontal cortex interferes and they often make a mistake. Coaches call this “choking,” and it frequently happens when the stakes are high.

When told not to worry about accuracy, experienced golfers were more accurate than when told to take their time.

Which is exactly what happened to McIlroy at the 2011 Masters. After nine holes, his lead had been cut to one stroke. The pressure was on. On the 10th hole, his shot off the tee landed far from the fairway, in between two cabins. He had to make a few more shots—first in the rough and then through the trees—one even hitting a tree—before he hit the green. He then missed a 25-foot putt before finally making it in the hole for a triple-bogey. On the next green, he had to take three putts, including one he missed from just 30 inches. On the 12th hole, he missed four putts from less than 20 feet. Having entering the final day with momentum on his side, McIlroy finished the tournament tied for 15th.

“If you start thinking, ‘I better really make sure I do this right,’ and you start consciously thinking about that putting performance,” says Thomas Carr, a psychology professor at Michigan State University, “then you’re more likely to break up automated sensory motor processes that you’ve practiced so hard to achieve.”

Psychology research confirms this. In her book Choke: What the Secrets of the Brain Reveal About Getting It Right When You Have To , Sian Beilock, a psychology professor at the University of Chicago, describes a study of college-level soccer players who dribbled a ball through a row of cones. When they were told to think about where their foot makes contact with the ball, they made more mistakes and navigated the slalom more slowly compared to when they were not prompted. In another set of experiments, experienced golfers forced to putt under distracting conditions were more accurate than when they were told to focus on the components of their swing. Further, if they were told to putt quickly and not worry about accuracy, they were more accurate than when told to take their time to get it right. Presumably, these seemingly not ideal conditions—distracting noises and a rushed setup—kept the golfers from overanalyzing and choking.

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Adjustments for Amateurs

Years of practice have honed the skills—mental and physical—of professional and elite athletes. Experienced runners pay keen attention to their strides, their breathing, and their aching muscles. Experienced golfers focus on the ball and let their bodies do the rest. But what should the non-professionals do? It turns out, just the opposite.

If you are a runner or cyclist conquering a new distance or simply getting into shape, distractions may be the best prescription. Turn on your treadmill’s TV, bring your iPod to the track, or find friends to chat with along the trail. “Dissociation seems to be better when you’re practicing and need to stay out there longer,” Weinberg says. “It takes away some of the boredom and fatigue.”

If you are a beginner golfer or basketball player, focus on your technique. Unlike professionals, inexperienced golfers perform poorly when distracted and do better when told to focus on their swing. They are also less accurate when rushed, and hit the target more often when allowed to take their time. Beginning athletes in precision sports are more likely to make a mistake by not focusing on the task and the specific steps required—hand goes here, wrist held this way, shoulders squared—than when distracted by an external source.

Put in enough practice, though, and some changes will occur naturally. After enough miles, you’ll be more in tune with your aching legs. Or after enough shots at the driving range, you may start forgetting about your stance and focusing on the ball. As Beilock notes in her book, “Practice can actually change the physical wiring of the brain to support exceptional performance.” Practice does makes perfect because it allows you to focus—to turn your brain on or shut it off—at the moment you need it most. In that moment, focus makes perfect.

Images courtesy mugen76/Flickr (CC-BY 2.0) , tabor-roeder/Flickr (CC-BY 2.0) , and digitalcj/Flickr (CC-BY-NC)

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