Mental focus makes the athlete. The ability to remain centered, focused, and in the moment, even under extreme pressure, separates the great athletes from the also-rans. Mental focus is what lets us tune out the crowds and make the shot, tune out the pressure and make the putt, tune out the screaming in legs and lungs and keep pushing to the finish line.
We develop this practice in training, and we also work on it in yoga.
The first step is pratyahara, a turning inward of the senses that disengages you from all the distractions of the external world and sharpens your focus on your internal experience. Pratyahara is what keeps the sixteen-year-old soccer player's eye on the ball, while the six-year-old soccer player wanders around the field chasing butterflies or asking Mom for a juice box.
For many years I taught a weekly yoga for athletes class at the University of North Carolina Wellness Center, where a wall of glass brick separated the studio space from
the indoor track. I purposefully set my mat against the glass brick, so that students could learn to handle the distraction of the runners and walkers on the other side. The unfocused image of people as they passed by made a beautiful visual metaphor for what happens as we begin to focus inward. We saw the runners, some moving fast, some slow, but we couldn't quite make out their faces. Sometimes they passed by over and over and over; sometimes they walked by once and were gone. Whatever excitement was happening on the other side of the wall--an impromptu race, an older gymgoer with a walker, a mother with a toddler following her--we stayed focused on the experience in our bodies, breath, and minds. This was the practice of pratyahara.
Run through this simple exercise at the beginning of your next yoga
practice, training session, or trip to the meditation cushion, to set the mood
for an internal experience that will develop your focus.
First, soften your gaze or close your eyes. Even then, you'll be receiving visual information through your sense of sight. Notice it, then soften your awareness further. Next, notice the sounds that are present around you, both far and near; soften that awareness, too. Breathe in and out through your nose, noticing any odors, then soften your sense of smell. Toward the end of an exhalation, swallow, and notice the taste of your own mouth, softening that awareness, too. You'll be left with the sense of touch. Feel the air and your clothing against your skin, notice the parts of your body in contact with the ground, then soften that awareness, too, so that you focus exclusively on how things feel from the inside.
From there, re-engage only the senses you'll need for your next action. If you are sitting in meditation, keep your focus inward. If you are on the mat, try keeping your eyes closed for as much of the practice as you can. If you are heading out on a run, leave the iPod at home. See how this shifts the experience, laying the groundwork for better focus on what's happening right now.