When we hear someone say they were on ‘auto-pilot’, most of us assume that the individual was not ‘mentally present’ while they were doing something. We’ve all had this experience one way or another, whether we are driving several hours on the highway or going for a slow, long distance run. We just ‘zone out’ and drift away into the ether in the same way we wander into a dream without being able to remember when the dream starts! As a professional within the field of sport psychology I would contend that there are times where being on autopilot is necessary but that it is always best to train and plan to be on autopilot as opposed to just finding yourself unconsciously checking out. One way to do this is to train your mind to increase your sense of awareness. But before we discuss skills you can practice to increase your awareness, we need to define what it is and how it affects our performance.
According to researchers in sport psychology, awareness is the athlete’s perception or recognition that they need to regain control over their psychological disposition. Conversely, absence of awareness usually involves the individual being over-focused on either the past or the future. Symptoms of lack of awareness in endurance sports can include but are not limited to experiencing unhelpful levels of anxiety during pre-race activities, irrational fear of failure or injury, and decreased focus on execution of movement mechanics. Obviously, these characteristics are antithetical towards achieving peak performance states and must be dealt with consistently and aggressively in order to achieve our desired outcome goals. This is important because at the end of the day, sport competition is about having the athlete solve a problem in the most efficient way possible (e.g. the athlete needs to solve the problem of running 26 miles as fast as they can), and in order to solve the specific problem, the athlete needs to maintain composure and the ability to make strategic adjustments, which require a heightened sense of awareness . So regardless of what the environmental or personal circumstances are that affect awareness, athletes need to have strategies in place to help them avoid going into this so called ‘autopilot’ mode.
One method that I like to introduce to my clients is what I call Process Goal Awareness (PGA). PGA is a multi-step process that helps the athlete gain a higher sense of awareness and move closer towards increased focus by staying in the moment rather than perseverating over the past and/or future. The first step of this strategy requires the athlete to identify what their process goals are (process goals are small action steps that need to be taken in order to accomplish the overall outcome goal, an example would be during a marathon having the athlete focus on keeping their arms loose in order to maintain proper running biomechanics). Once the individual has identified what their key process goals are, they then need to create some sort of reminder that is symbolic of those process goals. I usually recommend that athletes tap into their physical awareness by wearing an arm-band that they can write important process goals to focus on.
Having some type of physical token is important because when the sporting environment becomes psychologically overwhelming the athlete will have a physical reminder that will help them be more aware that they are losing focus, triggering them to shift their attention back to their process goals.
Ultimately, successfully completed outcome goals are the result of hundreds if not thousands of completed process goals. You can’t run a marathon without completing each individual stride to the best of your ability. So whether you are a coach or an athlete, use this method as a way to both increase your awareness and maintain your focus. Remember, it is not enough to just tell yourself that you need to focus, you need to train your mind and have a plan to put you in the best position to succeed. This is a skill that will take time to develop and craft in a way that works best for you, so I encourage you to start training your mind using this strategy as soon as you’re done reading this article!
Ben Foodman specializes in providing mental performance services, holding two masters degrees in sport psychology & motor behavior and clinical mental health. Ben is a licensed mental health therapist and a certified strength and conditioning specialist. For more information, visit his website here.