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Distraction Control: Staying Engaged When Things get TOUGH!

Distractions impact performance by drawing attention and energy away from execution. Though we often think of distractions as external forces, one of the greatest distractions can be ...YOU, the athlete!


From the winner all the way to the last place finisher, every single athlete will experience negative thoughts during a race. These thoughts should be expected and coping mechanisms should be established - otherwise your performance may be limited by what your brain is willing to endure rather than by your physical ability.


Every athlete will respond to different distraction control techniques and some techniques will work better than others on a given day, so it’s important to have multiple distraction tools in the toolbox. Here are a few distraction coping mechanisms:


1. Mantras A 2015 study found that subjects who repeated a mantra displayed decreased brain activity, allowing for increased focus and relaxation. Mantras are short, often encouraging or meaningful, phrases that are repeated over and over during running. Athletes are encouraged to find mantras that have meaning to them. Examples include “Strength, Stamina, Speed”. “With guts come glory”, “Expect nothing, achieve everything”. A mantra could also be a song lyric, perhaps from a warm up playlist.

2. Refocusing strategy When losing focusing in a race, it’s helpful to have strategies to bring you back to the present and re engage with the task at hand. To re-focus and break out of a negative spiral, shift attention to counting footsteps or thinking of form cues such as relaxing your shoulders, standing up tall, or maintaining a quick cadence.

3. Positive self talk Self talk is a manifestation of the way you view your effort, competency, and how your expectation of a situation matches reality. For peak performance, it is essential that self talk is positive. In fact, a 2014 research study from Bangor University has shown that training in positive self talk improved performance by 18% in a cycling time trial! It is helpful to reflect on your natural self-talk, determine whether it is helpful or harmful, and reword if necessary.


For example:

“This workout is hard” ➡️ “This workout is appropriate for the adaptation I am seeking”

“I can’t race with that person” ➡️ “My competition pushes me to run faster and I can use their energy”

“I can do this” ➡️ “I am doing this”

“That workout wasn’t good enough”➡️ “That workout made me stronger. Every session makes me stronger”

“This is going poorly” ➡️ “I am in control of the situation. I will engage XX strategy to reframe. “

“I’m scared to fail” ➡️ “I am excited to see what I can do”

4. Use You Statements Multiple research studies show that self-talk in the second person (ie. “you are doing great”) vs first person (ie. “I am doing great”) is more effective in a range of anxiety-evoking situations, including racing. One research study from Bangor University showed a 2.2% improvement in cycling time trial performance when employing “you” statements. This strategy allows you, the athlete, to dissociate from your experience and provide seemingly external feedback, as a coach would.

Begin to notice your internal self-talk and reflect on what you can change to approach races strong and ready to execute. Mental skills ARE sports skills - train them!

Here are a few additional sources that we used for this article and/or find interesting!


By Jessica O'Connell, MSc Exercise Physiology, CSEP-CEP, OLY, endurance coach at Grit Coaching


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