Take a moment right now and look at the people around you. Where are they? Are they being present, engaged in what is happening right now OR are they in their heads, working some problem they have in life or possibly worrying about something they have no control over? Are they in the future dreaming of the life they want for themselves and their families? As mental coaches, we talk a lot about this idea of being present in practice, competition, and engagement in sport and life as a whole. We talk about being ‘in the now’ and engaging in what is happening moment to moment. We ask our athletes to remind themselves, ’where you at?’ as practice in mindfulness throughout their day to day life. But why?
You see, there is something about the present moment that provides a sense of confidence, of passion, of drive that is unlike any other. You could call it ‘the zone’ or ‘on fire’ but I am sure that everyone who reads this article has been present at some point in their lives.
Kids in the 21st century know the present moment well through the use of video games where, if they disengage from the game, they are sure to falter. There seems to be a magical feedback loop that makes video games so popular providing the user rewards, social engagement, and just enough challenge at each level to grow and progress ultimately developing a skill in play that is truly inspiring. I have my own ideas about the gaming culture but, at least for today, we will not dive into that subject.
Or how about extreme sport athletes on the edge of what is imaginable 500 ft up a rock face without a rope then unpacking a squirrel suit at the top just to jump off. These athletes have to be present because with a single second of disengaged focus, their lives could end up ending quite quickly. Then, at the end of their focused effort, a euphoric high is experienced and only leaves them with the craving for more.
Imagine a world where we as humans could engage in life as fully as kids engage in video games or extreme athletes engage in their craft. This is truly where performance is obtained and, the best part is, we can train ourselves to focus this intently anytime we choose.
In both of these examples the environment demands the attention of the user with the threat of dismal endings if that focus is broken. This makes it easy to be so engaged.
If we shift our focus now to your world, you might ask yourself why you cannot hold this kind of focus and attention at your jobs or with your families or in your sport. The fact of the matter is, we perceive more pressing matters that are threatening our livelihood demanding our attention. These matters may include a relationship that is on edge, or a job that could crumble, or a family member that is in poor health for these are all things that impact us in a negative way and we don’t want that. If we bring this idea into the sporting world, we might perceive threats from getting hit by a 200 lb. linebacker, a coach willing to pull you from the field, or maybe even a father watching critically from the sidelines. These perceived threats take our focus and bind it without our notice, and we fail claim to it’s tight grip constantly pulling our thoughts in their direction.
So, how can we control our focus? How can we effectively become just as engaged in the present task in order to perform up to our potential? You begin training yourself to become present and engaged on what is in front of you.
Step 1: The beginning of being present – Awareness
Set a timer for every 2 hours on your phone throughout your day. Yes, I am talking outside of athletics right now. At every alarm I simply want you to ask yourself, “Where am I right now?” And think about this not in the matter of physically, but rather, mentally. Are you present? Are you now?
Sadly, most do not even realize they are stuck in the past or in the future so, by engaging in your own status, you can then choose to do something about it.
Do this for 2 weeks in your day to day life followed the the next 2 steps.
Step 2: Acceptance
After becoming aware of where your mind is, you are then faced with the answer of that question. You might actually find yourself disengaged in the present moment. You also might find yourself completely engaged. The important part of this step is accepting where ever you are at. No matter where you find yourself, there you are.
Woah, talk about vague… Maybe I better put it in better terms here. Have you ever got mad at yourself for doing something you know you should not be doing? Well, that is effectively ‘past’ thinking… Your getting mad at yourself for something you did that you can’t do anything about now… Which, does not help anything regarding this present moment focus stuff… so…
You will hear this from our coaches all of the time:
It is just fine to find yourself in a poopy mindset or with your focus in the wrong place, however, it is not ok to stay there!
Step 3: Action
So what do you do if you find yourself in the suck, out of the moment, or just unfocused as a whole? Well this is the opportunity to become more engaged in what you are doing. So, step 3 is ENGAGE IN WHAT YOU ARE DOING!
I have done a few interviews with athletes over the years and it is always so interesting to hear about what they have to say surrounding having the right attitude in sports and how these methods have helped them not only change their focus but also how that focus has helped them change their attitude.
Here are a few fun actions you can take to become more present.
The 5 to 1
After the first and second steps move through this sequence:
Name 5 things you see:
Name 4 things you hear:
Name 3 things you physically feel:
Name 2 things you know for certain:
Take 1 deep deliberate focusing breath…
The one thing that you need to know about the present moment, is that it is always happening and you always have an opportunity to tap into that present moment through your senses. They will bring you back into the now if you find yourself distant and disengaged.
Another method to help reengage in the present moment is body checking. This strategy goes like this… You go through step 1 and step 2… Take the next 10 seconds and deliberately move your focus to and through your body from tip of the head to the bottoms of your feet. Throughout this experience try to send a movement signal to each muscle you pass. Head to nose to neck to chest to back to arms to fingers….etc
These 3 steps can occur in less than a second the more you practice so the more you move through the steps, the easier it will be to reengage in whatever you are doing. I would like to point out here that this is all the process of the practice of mindfulness. Being present is apart of being mindful. If you want to look into more information about mindfulness I would recommend anything written by John Kabat-Zin. Another book that has really helped me understand this concept is The Power of Now.
Ok, so if you are looking to become more present in your focus and attention, I have provided a little guide for you here. At this point, it is up to you to start the practice and I say this purposefully because the steps I mentioned really are a practice. It is something that you do and continually do. It is not something that you get. You don’t BECOME PRESENT you are BEING PRESENT.
Keep that in mind as you look to the present moment. I would be interested to hear the experiences of athletes, coaches, and parents alike in being present. What works well for you? How do you help your athletes become more present in practice and competition?