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For all athletes concentrating fully on the task at hand is important. Few if any arenas demand this more than the wind tunnel. When training, you often don't have time for memory aids such as creeping and visualizing. In competition, there is no time to compose yourself, away from the hubbub.
I was prompted to write this article after the Paraclete XP Indoor Skydiving Championships. I attended Martial Ferré’s Week of Hell, training for 75 minutes a day, for 6 days. There were 5 teams doing the same grueling training schedule. Some people (mainly team jumpers) applied themselves fully every flight, whilst others found it hard to concentrate through a 12-hour day.
This competition was the first time I have been both a commentator and a competitor. Actually, I don't recommend it! I allowed myself to be distracted by technical problems with the reportage. I didn’t achieve my usual competition headspace until about round 3. Nothing nightmarish happened but I was aware (and pissed off!) that I wasn’t performing at my best. Here are the lessons we learned about concentration, mental and physical tools…
I allowed myself to be distracted by technical problems with the reportage.
Perfect concentration is achieved with 100% focus on performance without allowing yourself to be disturbed by internal or external distractions. It's important to facilitate your best performance. Mental aspects are different in competition than when training.
Perfect concentration is achieved with 100% focus on performance.
When training the art is to concentrate on specific improvements, as suggested by the coach, without losing focus on the areas that are already working, or falling into ‘the pendulum trap’ of over-correcting. Developing a mental strategy of cues in your visualization is important. Arriving well prepared, having ‘done your homework’ on the dive pool and visualized your slot helps your mental focus.
It’s important to develop a game plan to focus on what’s important and tune out other distractions.
Develop a game plan to focus on what’s important and tune out other distractions.
Internal distractions often involve some sort of negative self-talk, dwelling on previous mistakes, thinking of the outcome of future errors or even getting too caught up in technical details.
External distractions could be getting a bust, teasing from another team, someone wanting to socialize when you want to visualize the dive. Or in my case, having no internet when I run an online magazine, or no sound when doing interviews!
It can be useful to think of focus as being either broad or narrow – internal or external. A broad external focus is needed for 8-way for example, to see the big picture and react automatically to levels, problems, etc. A narrow external focus is required to build a bipole picture. Both are required to build a nice J (springbok). Internally, a broad picture could be to control the pace of the dive (calm, or going-for-it), a narrow picture can be to mentally rehearse the exact mechanics of block 2.
When in training, often a narrow focus is required, to focus on specific improvements like block technique or body position. When the competition arrives, the mechanics should be second nature and the focus is broader; the pace, the overall picture.
A well-established technique to increase concentration is by the use of rituals. Almost all elite athletes have a pre-performance routine, which they use consistently, regardless of whether things are going well or not. These can vary from simple to elaborate. A classic example is the ‘ball-bouncing’ tennis players do before serving. It gives them something to focus on that is familiar, relevant, blocks out distractions, provides consistency and reminds them it’s just another serve. Developing your own pre-performance routine can be a powerful aid to concentration. For example, mine includes yoga, to stretch the body and calm mind; laying out my equipment to help a sense of predictability and readiness; visualising the jump in a set order of different angles and speeds so I feel mentally ready.
Almost all elite athletes have a pre-performance routine.
To be successful in competition, athletes must be able to tune out distractions and focus only on the here-and-now – the next dive. Just as meditating can help concentration, the reverse is true; if we are able to concentrate on something completely, we can reach a meditative state of mind – the Flow state, of perfect performance.
If we are able to concentrate on something completely, we can reach a meditative state of mind.
Dehydration severely affects the ability to concentrate. Studies have shown that if you are only 1 percent dehydrated, you will likely have a 5 percent decrease in cognitive function. If your brain drops 2 percent in body water, you may suffer from fuzzy short-term memory and experience problems with focusing. A 5% drop in normal fluid levels can result in a 20% reduction in physical and mental capacity.
Drink half your bodyweight in ounces of water daily. (source) So, for example, if you weigh 180 lbs, you would want to drink about 90 ounces of water (roughly 3 quarts or 3 liters) to start to re-hydrate your body. Be aware alcohol dehydrates you, so limit intake (or drink a glass of water for every alcoholic beverage).
Be aware alcohol dehydrates you, so limit intake (or drink a glass of water for every alcoholic beverage).
Low blood sugar makes it hard to focus. Avoid this by eating small amounts of food regularly through the day, avoiding carbs unless supplemented by protein. Fruit such as bananas, apples or strawberries can be combined with nuts, almond butter, cheese or a protein bar. This avoids the ‘post-carb crash’ experienced after eating carbs; blood sugar increases rapidly, your body produces insulin to lower it so you end up with less energy than before.
Avoid foods with a high GI index unless it is right before a tunnel session, where the activity will avoid the post-donut slump.
Do whatever you need to maintain your body at an optimum temperature. Overheating is the killer of concentration, and coldness takes its own toll, it’s hard to think of anything else. Pack for both extremes (thermals, mini-fan, towel etc).
Overheating is the killer of concentration.
Travelling and tiredness are two of the major causes of illness. Commercial airlines are floating petri dishes, breeding, multiplying and recirculating disease organisms, it’s surprising anyone escapes unaffected. Take Echinacea and Vitamin C as a precaution, to boost your immune system. Travel with a small first aid kit, with remedies for colds, diarrhoea, allergies, sinus issues, cold sores, insect bites, plus painkillers, disinfectant cream and solutions for any personal ailments. Once the mayhem starts you won’t be able to head to the pharmacist so plan ahead and nip any problems in the bud before they affect performance.
Tiredness, poor sleeping habits or lack of sleep can be the biggest barrier to concentration. Yet many of us routinely take the ‘red-eye’ flight, fail to allow time to recover from jet lag, or push the midnight oil the night before leaving. Try to make a realistic schedule with an arrival day off to rest and prepare.
Don't try to work while you’re training (if possible). It's easy to think you can rattle off a couple of emails during debrief but then you’re not fully focused on either task. Better to do an hour before or afterwards with a clear head, and use any moments of space to relax. Chatting, visualizing, getting a breath of fresh air, or a quick yoga sequence will recharge you mentally and physically for the next session.
Coffee, chocolate, Red Bull and other stimulants are best avoided or taken in moderation as they also have a ‘crash’ affect after the initial boost. But, as an occasional boost, they can help you through the last competition dive of the day.
Deep breaths, in to the count of 7 and out to the count of 5, will oxygenate your brain, calm the mind and help focus. It may help to visualize distractions leaving with each breath and the mind filling with clarity and energy. This can be part of your pre-performance ritual, which will likely include both physical and mental elements.
All photos by Eliot Byrd, Byrds Eye Studio at Paraclete XP, Raeford