Four steps to being in the moment

By John R. Ellsworth M.A

Every athlete I work with in one way shape or form has challenges with “being in the moment” or focusing in the present when it’s time to perform in competition.  When in the heat of a ballgame it is critical for focus to be on only the things that matter to successful execution of the skill or task at hand.  Anything that penetrates or distracts an athlete’s focus is what I call “mental congestion”. Singular focus without mental congestion is what aligns the athletes thought processes on getting the job done and achieving success.

Below are 4 Steps to Being in the Moment I have offered to athletes in an effort to help them perform with a clearer mindset:

1. Stop thinking about your performance.

“I have rarely felt comfortable in the game.  I feel awkward, as if my movements and actions with the bat are all over the place. When I get in this frame of mind I tend to focus on who is watching and what they might be thinking about me and my performance. I try so hard to let go, but I can’t seem to let things go and trust in my skills.”

Athletes are almost always aware of where they are in their routines, but sometimes the awareness becomes “over-awareness” and when this happens we become less connected with our own body awareness in the moment. Thinking too hard about what you are actually doing injects what I call “mental congestion” which in turn takes you out of the performance “frame of mind.”  Focusing more on what’s going on in your mind’s eye about performance execution and not so much on the things outside of you and out of your control is a critical “factor” in performance success. Often athletes pay more attention and in essence give more power to “others” they believe are judging and being critical of their performance. This kind of “power giving” thought process affects self-esteem, and damages confidence.  The critical point to remember is that no one outside of you has any direct control over your success or failure, unless you give them the power to do so.

2. Forget about the future or the past.

“I simply cannot stop thinking about the errors I made last week at a critical time in the game.  These mistakes caused us to lose the game, and consequently the team lost the tournament.”  In some shape or form I hear this from every athlete I work with. It’s either a statement about what I didn’t do or a statement about what I must do that interrupts the unconscious presence that is required to be in the moment.  Think a moment about the last time you really enjoyed something. Were you distracted by something else; absolutely not. You were you were deeply connected with the experience of doing whatever it was that you were doing.  Everything feels better, tastes better, and looks better when in the moment. Performing in the moment allows for a complete sensory experience.  Negative thoughts, or negative self-talk is often centered in the past or the future neither of which we have any control over changing. As Mark Twain said, “I have known a great many troubles, but most of them never happened.”  Worry, causes anxiety, and results most often in stress. Worry and it’s by products by their very nature are affected by thinking about something that has either happened, or something that has not happened neither of which we have any control over.  Ruminating, or thinking bleakly about what “might” or “might not happen based on events of the past is the flip side of worrying. You can only master thinking in the present if you practice it.  The next time you are about to sink your teeth into a tasty bowl of vanilla ice cream try and savor what the taste does to your present state of mind.  My guess is that you won’t be thinking about what you had not accomplished today. Savoring simply drives your mind to a place where it can’t focus on anything else because it is occupied in a present tense state of enjoyment.

3. Focus on Task Relevancy

Baseball requires mastery of specific skills for hitting, fielding, or pitching.  Success with the skill requires repetition and hours of practice.  When we achieve practice success we build confidence and when we build confidence we have the physical and mental capacity to perform to the levels we desire.  Sound simple, right? Easier said than done!  The most important aspect to success is making sure the practice plan is focused on the mastery of the appropriate skills required for success.  We all work hard in the batting cage or in the bull pen, but we aren’t always working hard at mastering the right tasks? To achieve mastery the ballplayer must focus on the tasks associated with the skill and only these tasks.  Anything that is essential to the successful execution of a skill is said to be “relevant” to that skill and visa versa anything irrelevant will not support success.  For example, anything external and out of the athletes control is said to be irrelevant because it has no bearing (unless the athlete lets it) on the successful execution of the skill. For example, letting the crowd have an impact on what you do at the plate, or letting the condition of the mound affect success.  Relevant to execution of a swing would be hip rotation, head position, and driving your hands through the ball. Before you embark on mastering any skill, take the time to make a list of the skills relevant and critical to hitting, pitching or fielding and a list of the irrelevant tasks.  This little exercise will help with focus, and the development of a well thought practice plan.

4. Find Flow

The most complete way to achieve and living in the moment is the state of total absorption psychologists call flow. Flow occurs when you are so engrossed in the task that you lose control of everything else around you. Flow embodies an apparent paradox.  How is it possible to be living in the moment if you are unaware of that moment in time? The depth of total immersion locks in focus and attention so that “mental congestion” is unable to penetrate.  In essence, you are unaware of the passage of time.  Flow is elusive, and some say challenging to repetitively achieve.  I disagree! I believe that with the right set of tools, executed in sequence (routine) the stage can be set for the creation of a flow environment.

In essence you create the optimal conditions for the flow state to occur. Step 1: set goals that are achievable, 2: Goals are to be clearly defined. “It could be playing the next bar on a scroll of music or finding the next foothold if you are a rock climber, or turning the page if you are reading a good novel,” says Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, the psychologist who first defined the principle of flow. 3: The task needs to offer direct or immediate feedback allowing for immediate communication of success or failure so adjustments can seamlessly adjust your behavior. As attention focus narrows, self-consciousness slowly evaporates. Awareness merges with in the moment action. Personal mastery is achieved in such a way that you are aware, but at the same time unaware. The task is totally intrinsic and being done for the sake of doing rather than the gain of something. Everything is effortless.

There are other steps that enhance and enforce “being in the moment”, but in my view these four have most power in helping others achieve their sense of what an unconscious in the moment performance is like.

John Ellsworth holds a Master’s Degree in counseling psychology with a specialization in sports psychology. You may contact John at Protex Sports, LLC.  You can also send your questions to Ask Coach John.

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