Center of Attention: 4 Strategies for High-Intensity Mental Training
Do you place enough emphasis on enhancing your clients' focus? Building concentration can improve performance and lead to behavioral changes that will help exercisers achieve their goals.
Ours is a world wired for distraction. Online information and social media constantly compete for our attention, thwarting efforts to focus on a single goal. The results are scattered thoughts, shorter attention spans and a rewiring of our brains, all of which prevent us from performing at our very best in whatever we do. For many of us, multitasking—focusing on several targets at once—may seem like the obvious solution. However, performance generally decreases in multitaskers by as much as 40% (Schwartz & Goldstein 2017).
The fact is, the human brain developed to focus on a single target, such as a predatory animal, not on a host of factors at once (Ratey & Hagerman 2008). With constant distractions, our brains fatigue, just as our bodies do from overuse, and our minds wander, generally toward negative thoughts (Gallagher 2009). Fortunately, health and wellness coaches are in a unique position to help clients learn how to concentrate with intensity and, subsequently, achieve lasting behavioral changes (Goleman 2013). With encouragement and practice, clients can learn to focus better and filter out unimportant details (Schwartz & Goldstein 2017). Furthermore, with greater focus on a single target, the “background noise” fades away, and performance can improve (Kotler & Wheal 2017).
The purpose of this article is to discuss
- how intense concentration can improve client adherence to exercise and nutrition goals;
- how intense concentration causes physical adaptations that enhance exercise performance;
- what the modes of concentration are and how they benefit athletes in different ways; and
- how to employ strategies—including deliberate practice—to enhance concentration and thereby improve physical performance.
Exercise Your Options: 4 Strategies to Improve Intense Concentration
For best learning and skill development, coaches should constantly encourage clients to focus hard (in top-down mode) on perfect performance (Katsuki & Constantinidis 2014). (To learn how top-down focus differs from bottom-up focus, see the sidebar “Modes of Concentration and Why They Mattter.”) Even when new skills are mastered, it’s necessary to continue intense concentration to fine-tune performance. If skills become automatic for clients, it’s time to ramp up both the mental and physical complexity of the program (Coyle 2009).
In addition to using progressions and new programming to keep clients mentally engaged, health coaches can implement a number of strategies that enhance intense concentration. These strategies are mindfulness, motivation and determination, goal-setting, and deliberate practice.
1. Mindfulness: Rein In A Wandering Mind
Mindfulness, the state of knowing exactly what you are doing and knowing when your mind wanders, is improved by using a laser-like focus on a single goal (Begley 2007). When clients become more mindful, relaxing and concentrating in the here and now, thoughts about the past and the future will vanish (Schwartz & Goldstein 2017).
What it looks like: Being in the moment includes focusing intensely—whether it’s on healthy eating, executing a forward lunge with perfect form or pedaling efficiently on an indoor cycle. During a cycling drill, for example, you might cue a client to focus on pulling up on the pedals—not just pushing down—to engage the glutes as well as the quadriceps. Practicing mindfulness in eating might include sitting down at a table to eat, savoring each bite and putting the fork down between bites.
Why it helps: When clients improve performance using mindfulness—shutting out distraction and concentrating on one goal at a time—they will operate with top-down focus and will better remember what they have learned (Afremow 2016). Mindfulness will also help establish daily long-term habits of good nutrition and exercise. At the cellular level, intense concentration will facilitate greater neuronal rewiring, called neuroplasticity. This occurs at any age—a fact that should be of great importance to those of the baby boomer generation, intent on continued improvement (Begley 2007).
2. Motivation and Determination: Get Going, Keep Going
Motivation, like attention, is a skill that can improve with encouragement from coaches. The more clients focus on increasing their motivation, the better their performance will be (Duhigg 2016). To boost motivation and create lasting lifestyle changes, coaches should also emphasize determination, especially for boomers (Gallagher 2009). While motivation is the spark that will get your clients started, determination is what will keep them plugging along until they achieve their goal.
What it looks like: One motivator for clients who like concrete examples could be a demonstration of the ideal physical performance (Coyle 2009). By displaying intense focus themselves, coaches can serve as great role models for clients (Duckworth 2016). Motivation can also be enhanced by mentally rehearsing a skill before trying it (Gonzalez-Wallace 2010). In this case, clients would envision themselves crossing the finish line at a race, for example, or engaging in a positive training run (striding, breathing, smiling). Providing positive feedback, cuing, mantras and the like can also get clients excited and keep them committed.
Why it helps: An upbeat, positive mindset will help to increase motivation, elevating the brain’s endorphin (“feel-good” hormone) levels, as well as the levels of dopamine, a neurotransmitter that rewards the brain’s pleasure center (Heiden, Testa & Musolf 2008). Dopamine, unfortunately, declines with age; thus, coaches should strongly encourage older clients to focus hard on increasing motivation (Begley 2007). (For more on the chemistry of concentration, see the sidebar “The Cycle of Concentration: Brain Helps Body Helps Brain.”)
Learning to exercise voluntarily is a necessary skill for clients, and coaches who continue to boost motivation in clients should see an increase in their desire to exercise on their own (Afremow 2016; Heiden, Testa & Musolf 2008). In turn, voluntary exercise can stimulate the production of neural stem cells from an area of the brain called the hippocampus—a process called neurogenesis. Stem cells from the hippocampus then travel to other areas of the brain, where they may become new neurons capable of joining existing neuronal chains and rewiring the brain in the process (Begley 2007).
Exercising voluntarily may also produce stem cells capable of “easing depression” (Begley 2001). A study at Princeton University found that rats who exercised voluntarily produced neurons that were “calmer” than the neurons of nonexercising rats (Reynolds 2012).
3. Goal-Setting: Be “Smart” and Supportive
A third strategy useful in helping to improve client concentration is the establishment of clear-cut goals. Closely linked to motivation, goal-setting provides a target for one’s motivation. Coaches should work closely with clients to develop individualized goals (Bartram 2015). Goals should be quantifiable, recorded (in writing) and given time limits for completion (Goleman 2013). Coaches might also encourage clients to share their goals with family and friends to further stimulate action (Duhigg 2016).
What it looks like: You have likely heard of the acronym SMART: Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Realistic and Time-Bound. Setting goals with these criteria can help clients chart progress and measure success (NASM 2018). Begin goal-setting by establishing bigger, long-range goals. Then select one specific goal, and help the client divide it into smaller, more easily achieved goals (daily, weekly, monthly). Sometimes goals may have even shorter time frames; for example, “I will take more steps during the afternoon by using the stairs instead of the elevator.” Accomplishing smaller goals with determination eventually leads to major successes (Marcus 2008).
Why it helps: Clients must be held accountable for reviewing and completing their goals. If they know their coaches will be making “spot checks,” they will be more motivated to pay close attention to performance, which should also bring them greater satisfaction (Newport 2016). So, put a review of goals (and progress) on your to-do list, and cover it during the first few minutes of each client session.
4. Deliberate Practice: Combine Focus with Feedback
Deliberate practice, developed by K. Anders Ericsson at Florida State University, is a training process designed to improve a wide range of cognitive, artistic, musical or physical skills. The components of deliberate practice include (1) concentrating intensely on a challenging goal or target; and (2) receiving very specific feedback (positive or negative), ideally from a master teacher, coach or trainer intent on fine-tuning performance while reaching beyond a client’s current capabilities. Deliberate practice is hard work, requiring intense concentration on learning and improving performance (Gallagher 2009).
What it looks like: As mentioned, deliberate practice pairs intense focus with coaching feedback. Here is a three-step plan coaches can use to encourage this practice in clients:
- Set a “stretch goal.” Stretch goals are just-out-of-reach, achievable targets that will be fun for clients to pursue (Kasparov 2017). These goals stimulate clients to focus hard and leave their comfort zone, while offering them opportunities to improve performance both mentally and physically.How it helps: Clients may struggle to achieve stretch goals but will generally find success gratifying; this is true at all ages. After clients see they are improving, they often say they prefer the struggle of reaching for a stretch goal over the boredom of pursuing easy goals (Coyle 2009).
- Break skills into chunks. Intense concentration is easier to maintain if skills, like goals, are broken down into smaller parts (chunks).How it helps: When the chunks of a skill are mastered, they can be combined into more complex sets to be practiced regularly. The Navy SEALS, for example, divide complex tasks into manageable chunks for easier mastery (Kotler & Wheal 2017).
- Offer specific feedback. Give clients detailed observations, both good and bad, about performance.How it helps: Specific feedback, emphatically delivered by a coach, adds a sense of seriousness to deliberate practice, letting clients know right away if they’re on the right track or need to correct course. In this way, clients will always be striving to fine-tune performance. When skills are mastered, clients should be encouraged to continue focusing hard on improvement as they consider new stretch goals.
The Perks of Paying Attention to Industry Trends
As medical practitioners look for new, more effective ways to keep people healthy for the long term, qualified health coaches will see job opportunities increase. In great demand will be master coaches who possess subject matter expertise and interpersonal skills. Offering a focus on intense concentration, in addition to physical performance, will give coaches an edge—as well as a track record of proven results, as these strategies enhance the opportunity for client success.
What’s more, as health and wellness coaches encourage clients to continuously focus with intensity on improving mental and physical performance, the result will include beneficial brain changes (possible at any age) and a better quality of life, particularly for older exercisers. Constant, deliberate practice is important and, if done regularly, can improve concentration and help clients rise from the depths of distraction to the peak of their performance.
Understand the key differences between top-down and bottom-up focus.
When you’re driving along a familiar route and wind up heading to work instead of toward your intended destination, you might say you were on “autopilot.” Just as this kind of spacing-out can get people into the weeds directionally speaking, fitness training on autopilot can prevent clients from getting where they’d like to go performance-wise. By understanding the two modes of concentration explained below, you can steer your clients in the right direction—the one that will help their minds and bodies learn and adapt—so they can perform better.
Bottom-Up Focus (Autopilot)
One mode of focusing is the bottom-up mode, or the “automatic pilot” function. In the bottom-up mode, we are essentially performing without thinking. We may not even be aware that we’re not paying attention. When people “space out” during a set, they may still be doing squats, but their mental focus is elsewhere. The bottom-up mode may be useful for athletes who must perform as quickly as possible (e.g., when they are competing), but this mode is not conducive to learning.
Top-Down Focus (Executive Function)
When clients pay close attention to a task, they make use of a brain mode known as top-down focus, or “executive function.” When clients make a conscious choice to exercise or choose healthy eating options, the brain is operating in this mode. The top-down mode is characterized by “internal guidance of attention based on prior knowledge, willful plans, and current goals” (Katsuki & Constantinidis 2014). This is the only mode in which learning can take place.
During exercise, top-down focus will determine the number of muscle fibers to be contracted (more fibers = more force), as well as the speed of those contractions (Svondal 2009). It’s important, then, that clients are actively engaged, listening to coaches (Goleman 2013), and not reminiscing about vacation or stressing about their workday.
Interestingly, our brains cannot be in both modes at once: When one mode is operational, the other is not. This gives us the ability to focus on just one target at a time (Levitin 2014).
As clients learn to concentrate with increased intensity, the brain establishes links of neurons that communicate with each other both electrically and chemically. Chemicals called neurotransmitters ferry the electrical impulses from one neuron to another along neural pathways across gaps called synapses throughout the neuronal chains. This is the physical process of learning and memory, and intense concentration enhances the process (Ratey & Hagerman 2008).
When we focus with intensity on exercise performance, the brain secretes neurotransmitters, including dopamine, which elevates heartbeat and concentration (Heiden, Testa & Musolf 2008). As concentration improves, the brain and body begin to work better together in a synergistic relationship.
During exercise, for example, the brain directs muscles to engage in physical activity, and muscles, in turn, stimulate improvements in brain function. The brain gets faster, sending motor-nerve impulses to working muscles, producing quicker, more powerful contractions.
As physical fitness improves, clients are often able to increase exercise intensity as they ramp up attentional ability, or concentration intensity (Heiden, Testa & Musolf 2008). So, too, with improved fitness, mitochondrial growth in muscles increases, which may be linked to better brain function (Bartram 2015).
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