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Bruce R. Wilk, P.T., O.C.S. Director
8720 N. Kendall Dr. Ste. 206
Miami, FL 33176
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The difference between top triathletes and the next tier of competitors is often a matter of focus. Both groups are generally in top physical condition. What gives many consistent victors the winning edge is their ability to appropriately adapt their mental attention to each competitive discipline within the sport.

Mental focus can be divided into two separate categories – width and direction. The width of attention determines if our focus is broad (taking in many aspects) or narrow (focusing on a single aspect). The direction of attention determines whether we are externally focused (on objects or events outside our bodies) or internally focused (on feelings, thoughts and physical reactions.) The combination of these width and direction categories results in four different attentional styles, each useful, depending on the situation. To illustrate the differences in these mental styles, let’s use the example of two people simultaneously entering a bar during Friday night happy hour.

The first enters with a broad external focus and takes in all of the sensory information around her. She notices empty stools, people partying, the blare of loud music and the enticing smell of food. If she has come to the bar to “get into the scene,” she is definitely entering with the right type of attentional style. If she is meeting a date in this sensory-overloaded state, she is improperly focused to give her date adequate individual attention. In this case, a narrow external focus would best serve her goals and those of her date.
The second person has a broad internal focus and is awash with feelings and thoughts. He’s still thinking about a new business deal, but feels fatigues. Pressures of a hectic day are still heavily on his mind. He also feels his heart racing with anxiety from an earlier argument at work. This broad internal focus is beneficial only if he can wrestle with all that is on his mind and reach some resolution. Then he can unwind and enjoy the friendly atmosphere. If he can’t work out his difficulties, he may seem distant and preoccupied and will miss another wise enjoyable evening.

Alternately, if this second person comes into the bar with a narrow internal focus instead, he may only be aware of his racing heart. Rather than be aware of all of his bodily and emotional reactions, his attention would be entirely focused on his feeling of uneasiness. If he uses this focus to motivate relaxation, then he may be able to enjoy the evening. If he remains fixated on the narrow internal focus of anxiety without changing his attentional mode, he might be in for a long, depressing night.

PROPER FOCUS FOR EACH DISCIPLINE. All four of these types of attentional styles come into play when training and competing. The trick is to practice maintaining the right one necessary or optimal performance in each leg of the race. In training, most competitors are primarily focused on the physical aspect and do not practice the right type of mental focus for racing. The good news is that they can be taught to adapt their mental modes for use in a actual competitive situations. But they need to practice the appropriate styles during their training.

The triathlete who best prepares himself to contend in real conditions is the one most likely to excel. This means training both the body and the mind to adapt to real-life competitive situations.

Obviously, no one attentional style should be used exclusively during the different legs. The sections that follow highlight the dominant styles necessary to meet the demands of the competition and achieve maximum performance.
SWIMMING WITH FORWARD VISION. When most triathletes swim during training, they are primarily preoccupied by the narrow internal focus of monitoring stroke, form and breathing. These are concerns that should be resolved well in advance of any race.
While racing, triathletes need to maintain a broad external focus. For successful open-water swimming, one must concentrate on remaining on course, drafting in the pack, avoiding obstacles and hazards and navigating the currents, while swimming efficiently. They must practice how to maintain proper swim mechanics while keeping a wide external focus.

One open-water drill is keeping the eyes and mind fixed on a visual marker, while swimming directly toward it. It is important to maintain good stroke while fixing on the external marker. The competitor should also practice swimming behind someone and maintain a focus of keeping the draft while practicing good overall mechanics.

While training in a pool, the triathlete should practice swimming water-polo style, which is freestyle with the head above the water. As part of this drill, he should concentrate on a fixed point outside of the pool, while maintaining good stroke mechanics.
Additionally, as a means of training to avoid obstacles, the competitor should swim with a partner who is positioned in his way. The partner’s assignment is to tag the swimmer, while the swimmer must focus on avoiding the tag.

CYCLING TOWARD ANAEROBICTHRESHOLD. Most triathletes train during cycling with a narrow external focus that is required for safe pack riding. They are keenly aware of the positions of others riding in the pack and of potential safety hazards and drafting opportunities they might pose.

During triathlons, the primary mode should be a broad internal focus because a pack riding and traffic hazards are less important in competition. The internal focus should be placed on maintaining anaerobic- threshold level, while achieving peak and aerodynamic position. This focus can be practiced during training by cycling in aerodynamic position and using a heart-rate monitor to recognize the internal signs of anaerobic threshold.

The triathlete should form a mental checklist that includes cadence, heart rate, breathing patterns and degree of leg burn. Once the proper indicators of anaerobic threshold are recognized, he should concentrate on maintaining that level for a sustained period in an aerodynamic position. This type of focused training may begin with a brief period of practice during a training ride and should be lengthened during subsequent sessions. This same mental checklist can be utilized during competition.

FILTERING OUT EXTERNAL RUNNING STIMULI. Triathletes tend to fall into two categories of focus while running in training. Many take on a broad external mode, observing their surroundings, watching for road hazards, looking for landmarks and greeting other people. Others assume a broad internal focus, while concentrating on other aspects of their lives in an introspective way. Both of these are considered dissociative strategies. Neither of these mental directions is appropriate for competitive conditions.

Outside factors are unimportant on race day. The proper style is a narrow internal focus that highlights achieving and sustaining anaerobic threshold. Choose one physical aspect that is key to your performance (i.e. breathing, pace, arm, movement) and focus exclusively on this specific aspect. This technique is called associative style and is the approach most used by elites.
The difference between the wide internal focus of cycling and the narrow internal focus of running is the concentration that running requires. A bike is a mechanical device that requires broader attention, while running involves only the competitor’s body.
As with cycling, a runner’s training should involve recognition of anaerobic threshold and progressive efforts to sustain it over prolonged periods. The triathlete must blot out competing internal and external disturbances and concentrate on reaching race pace, keeping the body at the peak throughout the race.

THE MIND AT WORK. Beyond regular training, a triathlete can practice proper mental focus in almost any environment. Using a technique knows as visuo-motor behavior rehearsal (VMBR), the triathlete can practice the different attentional styles many times a day without ever leaving a chair. The first step is to achieve a quiet mind and body through relaxation. Beneficial relaxation techniques include deep breathing, autogenics and self-hypnosis. Once relaxed, the athlete can practice the different concentration types by mentally picturing the sights, sounds and sensations of actual racing situations.

For example, the triathlete might visualize biking while surrounded by a pack of competitors. The challenge is to remain focused on a steady heart rate, rhythmic breathing and ideal cadence- culminating in anaerobic threshold- while in aerodynamic position. To enhance this visualization, he can imagine external distractions, while internal focus is maintained. The triathlete should visualize these scenes for sustained periods of one to two minutes and should set a goal of gradually increasing these periods up to 10 minutes.
Similarly, he might envision competing in open water, while maintaining a broad external focus. By mentally practicing swimming with good form while concentrating exclusively on a distance-marker buoy, avoiding obstacles and drafting, one can visualize and thereby practice competing in realistic race conditions.

The athlete should vary visualized situations from day to day to make them as realistic as possible and to practice switching attentional styles corresponding to the race demands. By tuning into the mental mode needed for each racing discipline and tuning out unnecessary factors, you can teach the mind to produce maximum physical results.

Bruce Wilk is a board- certified physical therapist and director of Orthopedic Rehabilitation Specialists in Miami, Fla. He is an avid triathlete and is co-chairman of the Tri-Miami racing club.

Eric Goldstein, Ph.D., is a clinical psychologist and president of the Sports Psychology Center in Miami, Fla. In the past 11 years, he has worked with hundreds of professional and Olympic athletes.