Outside magazine, September 1996
Virtually all of the athletes who consult with Nate Zinsser, sports psychologist for the Center for Enhanced Performance at West Point, fall into one of three categories, depending on the "issue" they need to work on (Zinsser, ever the positive thinker, refuses to call them problems). He labels these the confidence set, the concentration set, and the stress set. While all of us probably have sports-psyche inadequacies in each of these areas, Zinsser finds that most athletes fall distinctly into one of the three camps. Here then is a menu of routines to address your particular brand of mental condition.
Memorize the course. What exactly do elite racers-whether they be kayakers, mountain bikers, or alpine skiers-mean when they say they've memorized a course? According to Zinsser, they've practiced an elite kind of visualization. "Walk or ride the course and pay close attention to what you see, filing it away in your sense data bank: Where's this bump? How soft is it here? What's this turn like?" he says. "That night, replay the video in your mind's eye."
Watch the watch. Every day, when you're not working out, practice focusing by gazing at the tip of the sweep second-hand of a clock, without allowing your internal voice to interrupt your concentration. "The idea is to stop your mind and totally tune your eyes and ears to that one tiny thing," Zinsser says. "Do this for 15 seconds at first, then rest for 15 seconds, and repeat that a few times. Work your way slowly, over time, to practice as long as you can."
Play catch and release. Another everyday exercise to increase concentration involves focusing briefly on discrete distractions, paying absolute attention to them, and then moving on. Don't let them spin you off into a long chain of free associations. "Walk through the city, listening carefully, and snap your fingers every time a sound distracts you," Zinsser says. "Instead of thinking, 'I wonder which bus honked,' just hear the honk and snap. If a pay phone rings, snap." This trains your mind to follow a single line of thought, teaching you to focus on the task at hand.
Embrace the rush. Don't relax too much. An adrenaline rush shouldn't make you panic. "When your heart is pounding, your stomach is full of butterflies, and your palms are clammy, you've got to say, 'OK, this is good, my body's making itself hyperaroused, and that's going to help me,' " Zinsser says. "The quickest way to screw yourself up is to say, 'Why doesn't my body feel normal?' Your body doesn't feel normal because you're pushing yourself beyond the normal. Trust the rush as a sign that your body's ready."