How to improve focus and concentration during triathlons

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Do you struggle to maintain high levels of concentration and focus when racing?

Razor-sharp concentration and laser-focus are key to extraordinary performance. So if you want a winning competitive edge or PB-honed mindset, developing your mental focus is a smart move.

But if you’re not familiar with training your mental concentration or focus, the practicalities of building your long and short term focus, deciding what techniques you want to try and actually implementing the tools in training, can feel daunting.

In this blog, I explore what concentration and focus really are, share guidance on cultivating your long term focus and dive into the 8 techniques you can practice to sharpen your concentration and focus.

What is concentration and focus?

A crucial ingredient for incredible levels of performance in sport is concentration: being able to focus on the most important things while blocking out any distractions. Lapses in concentration can make the difference between success and failure.

Triathletes must not let external factors, such as noise levels, weather, competition, competitors etc., and internal factors, such as future wonderings, regret, doubt, mistakes, fatigue etc., derail their performance. They must have the best mental tools at hand to block them out, enhance their concentration, hone their focus and boost their performance.

Focus is like a torch beam (Moran, 2009). Triathletes can decide where to concentrate the torch beam and it can only shine on the one thing that they want to focus on, but many things may distract them and their torch beam will follow these things. It’s within their influence to quickly regain their concentration and shine the torch beam on the one thing they want to focus on again.

The more proficient the triathlete becomes at blocking out the distractions, the more consistently their torch beam will shine on that one thing and their concentration remain steady, increasing their chances for success.


Long term focus

Consistent, long-term focus creates champions. The triathlete’s dream motivates and drives them to train hard and smart everyday. Simon Hartley (2012, 2013), international sport psychology consultant and performance coach, says that world-class long-term focus comes from triathletes knowing their ‘why’s’ - their reasons for training and racing. It’s their why’s that will have them jumping out of bed in the early hours to train, or getting on the turbo for a 5 hour ride, or climbing when tired after work.

[I used a similar technique with pro Norwegian triathlete Allan Hovda, as outlined in my blog ‘How to find your Why to stay motivated’ . To uncover your why’s read my blog here.]

However, by focusing on the outcome triathletes can often lose concentration and focus on the everyday processes they need to complete to achieve their dream. Incredible levels of performance comes from consistently focusing on the relevant everyday processes they need to complete to a world-class level. Everything they do must take them on the most effective and efficient pathway to achieving their dream. They need to focus on the daily processes that will have the greatest impact on their performance, the processes that will knock minutes and seconds off their time - not 0.1 second.

[Read my blog ‘How to achieve your dream goal’ to work out the daily processes you need to complete to a high standard to achieve your ultimate goal]

Exercise: Honing in on the long term focus

The best way to hone in on your long term focus is to really uncover your reasons for why you want to achieve your dream - or your goal. As I’ve mentioned, I’ve detailed this exercise in my (much shorter) blog ‘How to find your WHY to stay motivated’.

Once you’ve established your why’s, each morning spend a few minutes going through this daily practice: vividly imagine what you would see, hear and feel when you achieve your dream and identify 1-3 things you need to do that day to achieve it (if you haven’t already planned it out!).

If you ever lack motivation, lose focus or concentration, remind yourself of why you’re doing what you’re doing, see yourself achieving your dream and get back on track to achieving your goal!


Short term focus

Unfortunately there’s little research conducted on concentration and focus, especially when it comes to endurance sports, where you need to be continually alert for long periods of time, such as half and full Ironmans.

However, using research from Moran (2009) and the tools and techniques I’ve learnt along my coaching journey, I’ve highlighted the different principles of concentration and focus with accompanying exercises - soon your performance will be through the roof!

1. Positive, productive language

Epic levels of concentration and focus comes from triathletes being able to influence their thoughts, feelings and emotions in a powerful, productive and positive way in any given situation.

A triathlete’s proficiency in recognising when they’re not in an optimum state and positively changing their thoughts, feelings and emotions to shift state, will determine their ability to consistently focus on the processes that will increase performance and therefore their chances of success.

[Margaret Schlachter and I spoke about this quite extensively during Season 2 Episode 9 on The Adelaide Podcast, tune in to hear Margaret’s thoughts and the mental practices that work for her!]

The words triathletes say and use are the structure and architecture of their thoughts, feelings and experiences. They can make the difference between world-class and sub-par performance.

Triathletes often lose concentration and focus because of what they’re saying to themselves. They often don’t realise that what they’re saying is exactly what they don’t want. For example, they may say ‘I don't want to be distracted’ or ‘No, no, please no, don’t cramp up now’ or ‘I don’t want to lose to my competitors’, and the problem is that the brain cannot directly process negative words or phrases, without first getting in touch with those feelings/thoughts, so it understands the instruction of what not to think or feel about.


For example, for the next 2 seconds I do NOT want you to think about Einstein riding a purple elephant and juggling three pink monkeys. Did you notice what happened? You immediately thought about it, because your brain is creating that image in your mind, as it prepares not to think about it!

This is what happens with triathletes’ feelings and thoughts when they say 'I don't want to be distracted’, their brain triggers the pathway for distraction. Triathletes therefore want to point their brain in the direction they want to go in, using positive, powerful and productive language.

Photo credit: Agurtxane Concellon

Photo credit: Agurtxane Concellon

Allan Hovda experienced this when he won the 2018 Norseman race. Allan felt he had failed because he knew his performance was not his best. This is because he lost concentration and focus in the last 20km of his race.

Allan’s mindset switched from a killer to victim's mindset, he was beating himself up and calculating in his head how he could come to lose, despite having a 21 minute lead.

One of the most significant factors that influenced Allan's performance, was what he was saying to himself and how he was saying it.

Exercise 1: Use powerful, productive and positive language

Recognise when you are using unhelpful/negative words/phrases in and around your training and races, and change them to be positive and empowering instead.


In the left hand column, write down all of the unhelpful thoughts you say to yourself in and around training and competitions, and in the right hand column, optimise these thoughts to powerful, productive ones - remember you must write them in positives!

For example, I won’t be distracted > becomes > I have epic levels of concentration and focus!

2. Directing concentration and focus

One of the most important principles of effective concentration and focus, is that triathletes must deliberately decide to invest their mental energy and effort on the one thing they want to focus on - and it must be on something they can influence (Moran, 2009).

Remember that concentration and focus is similar to a torch beam, triathletes can choose what they’re focusing on at any given time. It’s also like adjusting the zoom of a camera lens, triathletes can alter the levels of their concentration and focus by zooming in and out on a particular thing (Eriksen and St James, 1986).

Research in sport psychology suggests that triathletes can direct their concentration and focus in 4 ways (Moran, 2009):

  1. Broad - when triathletes are aware of multiple stimuli simultaneously

  2. Narrow - when triathletes are locked onto one thing

  3. External - when paying attention to the environment. For example, triathletes will concentrate on how the other triathlete are cycling on an Ironman course to avoid collisions

  4. Internal - when triathletes mentally rehearse a skill in their mind before performing it, just like how Michael Phelps mentally rehearsed his swims in detail

Being able to shift focus between these four areas is crucial for triathletes wanting to enhance their performance. For example, when triathletes are anxious they have a narrow internal focus; therefore, it’s recommended they positively shift focus to an external factor.

As Moran (1996 and 2009) points out, triathletes ‘lose’ their concentration when they focus on things outside of their influence and this can then lead to a negative spiral of anxiety and mistakes (which I also talk about in my blog How to avoid negative thinking).

This occurs when triathletes concentrate and focus on the following things:

  • Something that’s outside their influence

  • Irrelevant to the task at hand

  • Not in the present moment - thinking about the future

Triathletes must become highly skilled at noticing when they have lost concentration and re-direct their torch beam as soon as possible to avoid a negative spiral of thinking, which leads to mistakes.

Exercise 2: Become a genius at directing your concentration and focus

As I’ve mentioned, focusing on the outcome of your competition is the ‘wrong’ goal. This is because it’s not 100% within your influence.

However, as Moran (2009) outlines, performance goals (specific performance goals that are within the triathlete’s influence, such as swimming with the lead group of pro male swimmers) and process goals (actions that are required to achieve your performance goals, such as efficient swim stroke in a swimskin) can help enhance triathlete’s concentration levels, because they encourage the triathlete to focus on the task at hand and influential actions.

When creating your mental game plan for competition, answer and outline the following:

  • What point(s) of focus would help ensure I perform at my best?

  • When might my levels of concentration and focus waver?

    • How can I stop this from happening in the first place?

    • How can I shift from an unhelpful focal point to a positive, productive focal point?

3. ’In the zone’ or ‘flow state’

The optimal state triathletes can be in during races is when they’re ‘in the zone’ or ‘flow state’.

This is when triathletes are fully absorbed in the task at hand, there is no difference between what the triathlete is doing and thinking, they’re completely focused on the most important thing for executing the skill to perfection, time passes by unnoticeably and the triathlete feels light and comfortable in their body. The triathlete’s unconscious mind has taken over and their conscious mind is simply observing how the movement feels.

To enter the flow state and perform at their best, triathletes must fully engage with their senses (see, hear, feel, taste and smell) around specific and relevant movements and actions in the present moment. If they start over-thinking about the movement/action, they’re more likely to mess it up and become distracted by unhelpful thoughts, such as past mistakes.

For example, fastest female marathoner of all time Paula Radcliffe counts her steps and concentrates on her breathe and stride (Thomas, 2013). If one of the world’s leading experts on high performance, Steven Kolter, is going to do an adventure action sport that’s risky and dangerous, he gets into flow by doing a warm-up lap of that sport and creatively interprets every inch of terrain (Scientific Triathlon, 2015). Kolter says by stacking creative act upon creative act, you increase your dopamine which helps you enter flow.

Exercise 3: Getting into flow state

One of the best ways to train your concentration and focus and help you enter flow state more readily is a daily mediation practice. Kolter’s preferred form of meditation is practicing Box Breathing, a technique the Navy Seals use to enhance their focus and also help with accelerating recovery (Kolter, 2019). Box Breathing is when you inhale, hold, exhale and empty your lungs, and hold each cycle (or side of the box) for 5 seconds, and the number seconds increases with your competency. By learning to focus through panic, helps you achieve flow state when you’re out training or racing.

You can also try meditating through action, like professional American obstacle and endurance athlete Amelia Boone (Ferriss, 2015). The best way is to either listen to one song on repeat or have no audio, and choose one thing you want to focus on during your training and racing. For example, your breathe, steps as Radcliffe, Born to Run author Christopher McDougall (2012) starts by focusing on easy running and once he’s mastered that moves onto light running, then smooth and then fast, or something else that works for you.

For the duration of the session, ensure your focus doesn’t deviate. Things will try and grab your attention, such as your own thoughts, doubts and stuff going on in your environment, but keep bringing your focus back to that one thing.

4. ’Switch on’ and ‘switch off’ zones

It’s challenging to be on high alert and concentrating for the entire 70.3 or 140.6 race, which is why many athletes use imaginary ‘switch on’ and ‘switch off’ zones (Moran, 2009). This idea was first raised by cricketer Sir Garry Sobers, when he said:

“Concentration’s like a shower. You don’t turn it on until you want to bathe…. You don’t walk out of the shower and leave it running. You turn it off, you turn it on….It has to be fresh and ready when you need it.” (Cited in White, 2002)

For example, a triathlete will be in the ‘switch on’ zone for the first few minutes of the swim, but in their ‘switch off’ zone when running from the water to T1. A tennis player will ‘switch off’ when looking for their towel and will ‘switch on’ when they step up to serve.

Exercise 4: identify your ‘switch on’ and ‘switch off’ zones

What are you ‘switch on’ and ‘switch off’ zones in your upcoming competition? Try practicing this technique and these zones in your training sessions and see what happens!

5. Dismantling pressure

Did you know that sporting events contain absolutely no pressure in and of themselves? This is because pressure is an internal experience. Pressure is something triathletes create and experience in their mind about a race, when they think about the future and tell themselves inaccurate stories, such as ‘What if I lose?’, ’What will my sponsors think?’ or ‘What if I fail to make the course record time?’. These thoughts, feelings and visualisations create even more unhelpful and negative feelings, emotions and thoughts, leading to doubt, lack of confidence, anxiety and more.

Furthermore, the feelings of pressure manifest themselves physically (including increased heart rate and breathing etc.) mentally (helpful or unhelpful thoughts about the event) and emotionally (helpful or unhelpful feelings around the event). All of which negatively impact the triathlete’s performance.

This pressure is usually created from expectations from the triathlete and others, such as their coaches, team mates, partners, sponsors. These expectations are often future goals or outcomes that they or others have made up and projected onto them. They may feel like pressure, but it is actually the triathlete turning these expectations into feelings of pressure - they can choose to listen them, or not.

The phenomenon ‘choking under pressure’ is well known and occurs when triathletes feel so much pressure that they find it difficult to perform normal skills when it matters most (Masters, 1992). What’s intriguing about this phenomena, is the more the triathlete tries to perform at their best, the worse their performance becomes (Moran, 2009). This is because they are often concentrating on the ‘wrong’ thing and creating all of this pressure, which as Hartley (2012) says, is all in their imagination.

Moran (2009) outlines that triathletes might ‘choke under pressure’ for two reasons:

  1. They place more importance on a skill than usual, causing the conscious mind to take over a previously automatic skill and their performance to reduce in accuracy

  2. Increase the amount of effort they put into the task at hand and reduce effectiveness of their performance. Often the more effort they put in, the worse their performance becomes.

Triathletes must recognise that they are the only ones creating these thoughts, feelings and emotions, and as a result they can change them. They need to see these pressures for what they really are and then get back to concentrating and focusing on the task at hand. They are the ones at the helm of their ship, no one else.

Exercise 5: Overcoming pressure

First, you need to understand that you create the feeling of pressure and therefore if you created, you can dismantle it. Remember, there’s no difference between swimming, cycling and running in your training session and during a race - only your mind makes it different. Don’t attach meaning to your performance or the competition, when triathlon becomes more than just swimming, cycling and running, your focus is wrong.

Second, as a triathlete, what’s your job right now and on race day (hint: they’re the same!)?

  • Is it to break the course record or swim, cycle and run as fast as possible?

  • Is it to win or perform the race plan?

  • Is it to break your personal record or race your best?

Remember, your focus is like a torch beam, shine it exactly where you need it in that moment.

Thirdly, to start dismantling pressure even more, you need to understand where these expectations come from and why there’s no pressure surrounding the race. You can decide which expectations you accept and which you can decline:

  • Are you scared you won’t fulfil your own performance expectations?

  • Are your own expectations of your performance realistic?

  • Are you afraid of failing to meet others’ expectations?

  • How valid are these expectations or are they stories you’ve made up?

  • Where do feel these expectations coming from the most?

  • Thinking about what your job is as a triathlete, why is there no. pressure surrounding the race?

The key to dismantling pressure is remembering your job: to swim, cycle and run as fast as possible. If you ever start feeling the pressure, hit pause (physically or in your mind), remember your job and identify what you need to focus on right now.

6. Cues to concentrate

This builds upon point 1: Positive, productive language, because not only is it important to use really helpful language, but it’s also important to have certain phrases or instructional cues that:

  1. Remind the triathlete of what they need to focus in the moment

  2. Help them enter a powerful state to deal with the situation at hand

In turn this helps them to increase their concentration and focus levels, reduce distracting thoughts and enhance their performance, increasing their chances of success.

For example, during 2002 and 2007 of Wimbledon ladies’ singles tennis, Serena Williams was seen reading trigger words or instructional cues during the change-over between games, such as ‘hit in the front’, ’stay low’, ‘get low’ and ‘add spin’ (Martin, 2007 as cited in Moran, 2009). Serena won both matches!

For the 2019 North American Ironman Championships, Allan Hovda and I created cues for him to use such as ‘relax shoulders’ for the swim, ‘activate hamstrings’ for the bike and ‘run as easy as easy as possible’, this not only helped him enter flow state, but powered him to 11th place and breaking the course record by 6 minutes.

[Read Hovda’s full Ironman Texas race report here]

Exercise 6: creating cues for concentration

Your phrases or instructional cues must be short, positive, productive and powerful, focusing on the most important element of execution and emphasising positive targets (not highlighting what to avoid).

Go back to exercise 2 and for each point of focus, ask yourself:

  • What ‘trigger’ words (no more than 3) can I use to represent these focus points and help me increase my levels of concentration?

7. Mental visualisation

Our brain can’t tell the difference between what’s real and what’s imaginary and when we visualise - or mentally rehearse - situations and physical actions, our brain believes these to be real. Research has shown that visualisation has helped athletes enhance their focus, block out negative thoughts and prepare for various scenarios that could negatively impact their performance (Moran, 2009).

As I’ve touched upon, when visualising situations or movements, triathletes must use really powerful language and engage all of their senses (what they feel, see, hear, smell and taste). Here’s how some athletes have used visualisation:

Former England international first-class cricketer Mike Atherton mentally prepared for test matches by going to the match venue, fully dressed in his gear and visualising various scenarios and how he would react (Moran 2009). As he explains:

“…[I] spend a few solitary moments out on the pitch either the day before or on the morning of a match, which is when I do the visualisation stuff - what's going to come, who's going to bowl, how you think they are going to bowl, what tactics they will use, what's going to be said to try and get under my skin - so that nothing can come as a surprise.” (Cited in Selvey, 1998)

Michael Phelps, the most successful and decorated competitive swimmer of all time, is also no stranger to visualisation, as his coach Bob Bowman describes: “For months before a race Michael gets into a relaxed state. He mentally rehearses for two hours a day in the pool. He sees himself winning. He smells the air, tastes the water, hears the sounds, sees the clock.” (cited in Gallo, 2016).

Phelps will also visualise himself from the outside as a spectator, overcoming obstacles, such as if he fell behind in a race, and practices potential scenarios. (Gallo, 2016).

The impressive reigning WBC heavyweight champion Deontay Wilder is known for his use of visualisation when preparing for fights. When he has an upcoming fight, he is always visualising what he wants to do in the ring, from the time he comes out of the dressing room to entering the ring and the end of the fight (Mitchel, 2018).

Exercise 7: mental visualisation

Think about the situation you want to positively rehearse in your mind. This can be anything from the entire race to only certain sections or specific situations. You can visualise from the night before the race to just hours or minutes and go all the way through to the end, even when you're evaluating your performance, or just jump straight into a scenario (changing a tyre, start of the swim, T1, T2, first 10km of the run etc.).

Once you’ve decided what you want to visualise, step into it, seeing and feeling everything from your perspective. Rehearse exactly how you want to react, think, behave and feel. Notice what you can see, hear (both in the environment around you and the encouraging words you're telling yourself), taste, smell and feel - both the textures around you (weather, sweat, water, ice etc.) and your internal feelings. Really see a vivid picture or film of the scenario.

You could also mentally practice overcoming and dealing with all of the different challenges you might face, exactly how you want to.

8. Rituals

Pre-performance ritual are a set of sequences of thoughts, behaviours and/or actions performed prior to competition (night before, morning of and/or few minutes before start) that enable a triathlete to enter a optimised state prior to the race and remain that way during the race. The goal is to use techniques that enable the athlete to influence how they feel and think, and what they’re focusing on, priming them to enter the flow state (Singer, 2002).

Pre-performance rituals are unique to the triathlete and need to be evaluated, developed and honed regularly, to ensure they’re really helping the triathlete in the appropriate and relevant areas. This also avoids the routine becoming automated, which allows the mind to wander and the routine to become ineffective.

Post-mistake rituals enable triathletes to effectively and efficiently put any mistake, error or disappointment to one side and re-focus on the task at hand. They’re also a set of sequences of thoughts, behaviours and/or actions tailored to the triathlete.

Exercise 8: Create your own pre-performance and post-mistake routine

To create your own pre-performance ritual, follow the basic outline below (adapted from Singer, 2002):

Readying by developing a ritual that optimises your mindset and primes your body for race day

Visualise a picture or film of you performing at your best during the entire competition or specific situations - what would you see, hear, feel, taste or smell? What external cue or thought would you be focusing during each section?

You might want to add in music, mantras, incantations, meditation or something else!

Creating your own post-mistake ritual will be about trial and error. Many high performers have a box that they put their unhelpful thoughts into, which Megan Hine and Kev Merrey talk about on my podcast, The Adelaide Podcast.

You might also be interested in my Ebook: Olof Dallner also talks about this technique in my Ebook: ‘Develop Your Tough Mindset with Olof Dallner’. Download it for free by signing up to my email list and you’ll also receive free mindset advice each week!

To really improve concentration and focus levels, slowly integrate these 8 things into your competition mindset. Start with where you’re struggling the most and quickly improve this to a level you’re happy with before moving on.

It’s important to adopt your competition mindset during training and creating training sessions that mimic competition conditions. This is because repetition is the language of the brain, the more you activate a certain neuropathway, the stronger, better and faster at its job it becomes.

For example, during the marathon section of an Ironman you can’t listen to audio, so start training without audio and become skilled at holding your concentration and staying focused.

Remember, your job is simple; you just need to swim, cycle and run as fast as possible. Create your game plan and stick to it - no matter what. During your race, you just need to execute the processes like any other training day. Focus on the task at hand and you’ll be flying!

If you have any questions or would like to find out how we can work together, send me an email to adelaide@adelaidegoodeve.com


Resources:

Eriksen, C. W. and St James, J. D. (1986) Visual attention within and around the field of local attention: a zoom lens model. Perception and Psychologies, 40, 225-240.

Ferriss, T. (2015). Amelia Boone on Beating 99% of Men and Suffering for High Performance (#127). [podcast] The Tim Ferriss Show. Available at: https://tim.blog/2015/12/22/amelia-boone/ [Accessed 2 May 2019].

Gallo, C. (2016). 3 Daily Habits Of Peak Performers, According To Michael Phelps' Coach. [online] Forbes.com. Available at: https://www.forbes.com/sites/carminegallo/2016/05/24/3-daily-habits-of-peak-performers-according-to-michael-phelps-coach/#57c854c1102c [Accessed 2 May 2019].

Hartley, S. (2012). Peak performance every time. London: Routledge.

Hartley, S. (2013). Two lengths of the pool. Be World Class.

Kolter, S. (2019). How To Enter A State Of Flow With Ease | Steven Kotler.

Masters, R. S. W. (1992) Knowledge, ‘knerves’ and know-how; the role of explicit versus implicit knowledge in the breakdown of complex motor skill under pressure. British Journal of Psychology, 83, 343-358.

McDougall, C. (2009). Born to run. New York: Random House.

Mitchell, J. (2018). Self Made: Heavyweight Champion Deontay Wilder Has Already Won The Fight Of His Life. [online] Forbes.com. Available at: https://www.forbes.com/sites/julianmitchell/2018/11/29/deontay-wilder-has-already-won-the-fight-of-his-life/#5680428d29c5 [Accessed 2 May 2019].

Moran, A. (2009). Attention in sport. In: S. Mellalieu and S. Hanton, ed., Advances in applied sport psychology: a review, 1st ed. Oxon: Routledge, pp.195-220.

Scientific Triathlon (2015). Flow - Feel your best and Perform your best with Steven Kotler | EP#82. [podcast] Scientific Triathlon Podcast. Available at: https://scientifictriathlon.com/tts82/ [Accessed 2 May 2019].

Selvey, M. (1998). Private Atherton saves his best for Brisbane. [online] the Guardian. Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/sport/1998/nov/20/cricket [Accessed 2 May 2019].

Singer, R. N. (2002) Performance state, routines and automaticity: what does it take to realise expertise in self-paced tasks? Journal of Sport and Exercise Psychology, 24, 359-375.

Thomas, C. (2013). Paula Radcliffe’s top running tips - lunges and lycra. [online] Lunges and Lycra. Available at: http://lungesandlycra.co.uk/paula-radcliffes-top-running-tips/ [Accessed 2 May 2019].

White, J. (2002). Interview: Garry Sobers. [online] the Guardian. Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/sport/2002/jun/10/cricket.jimwhite [Accessed 2 May 2019].