Friday, May 16, 2008

Engineering Athletic Focus

(Doc's column from the May publication of In Motion, MIT's department of athletics, physical education, and recreation newsletter)

“Being at MIT puts tremendous amounts of time constraints and pressure on [student-athletes].”

No doubt, this opening statement by a junior MIT student-athlete is as true as the Pythagorean theorem. More than 800 students compete in MIT intercollegiate athletics and it’s safe to assume that the majority would agree with the athlete’s proposition. He speaks not in discontent or criticism, but with the sincerity of Tiger Woods in the golfer’s quest to be the best. “I want to be what I’ve always wanted to be: dominant,” he once stated.

Woods isn’t afraid to inform the world of his idea, just as our student-athletes know they are in Cambridge for a reason. For that, they endure lack of consistent sleep for, well, years. Awareness of the unsettling hurdle is one thing; understanding how to increase and maintain focus during practice and competition is another.

A common strategy for improving concentration during an athletic event involves the integration of a mental trigger mechanism. The trigger can be a word (“Go”), a phrase (“I can do this”), a feeling (“smooth”), or an image (“picturing a successful action”). Whatever an athlete chooses as his or her trigger, it needs to be easy to recall and, hence, generated with a minimal amount of effort. “I use a lot of positively reinforcing visualization,” commented a graduate student-athlete. “I think that I have found success with focusing my mind on the motions I want to achieve and then [partnering] that up with a lot of physical practice.”

Being able to trigger desired experiences and outcomes with a mental tool allows an athlete to minimize possible distractions and re-center her mind on the moment. A trigger is especially useful at MIT because of the limited amount of actual practice time. A sophomore elaborated, “Because of our pretty intense schedule and workload, we often don't have as much time as other teams to work on our game on the court. As such, we have to work on our mental game to get that edge over the other players at other schools.”

As we continue to motivate, teach, and demand the best out of our student-athletes, a pitch or prompt to them about triggers may be helpful. And it may just work for you, too.


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