The mind and the body develop together and where one goes the other is pulled along. If you are training the body to become capable of something extraordinary, are you training the mind for its role in this as well?
There is a saying, most notably promoted by Daniel Siegel, that captures the principle: where your attention goes, energy flows. What we mean by ‘energy’ is the athlete’s combined physiological and psychological preparations for action. What is happening in the mind affects the whole body, and vice versa.
Let me insert some diagrams I’ve been using with some mental development coaching I am doing with a boys’ competitive soccer (futbol) team who are asking for help to improve their mental and emotional approach to high-stakes (i.e. intimidating) games.
For better or worse, what your mind tends to do over and over again when faced with stressful anticipation of some event ahead is etching that pattern more deeply into the brain’s neural structure. If you tend towards positive, productive, constructive thinking patterns those are getting stronger and if you tend towards negative then those will get stronger.
What patterns have you been etching?
Within this, there is the question of WHAT you are focused on – something in the past, in the present, or in the future – and then there is the question of HOW you are processing that – in constructive ways or destructive to the kind of energy you need for success in this situation?
The benefits of being present in the now are abundant and the centerpiece of mindfulness. There could be constructive reasons to turn attention to the past when processing the experience of the past in order to learn or reconcile trauma. There could be constructive reasons to turn attention to the future when processing possibilities to prepare to better handle them. It is a question of which zone your situation needs you to be in right now in order to keep yourself moving on the path toward success in this situation.
If you are stuck in destructive patterns or just don’t have control over the ‘monkey mind’ in stressful or high stimulation environments this could be a good reason to access professional help to learn new patterns and be guided (and disciplined) into building strength around them. People come to coaches in the gym all the time seeking their help to make them do strength and conditioning work because they need external guidance and pressure to do what needs to be done to get stronger. It is really no different for the mental side of things. No matter how weak one’s attention is or the label that has been put on that condition, there are exercises and accountability methods that can help people strengthen control over attention and improve thought and emotional regulation patterns. In this world of accelerating flow of information and energy, the environmental distractions and gravitational pull toward non-constructive patterns of self-regulation are only going to get more intense. Those who develop strength in this way are going to have advantages.
To generate better patterns is not a matter of ignoring or denying the problems and threats of consequence to mistakes. Those provide meaningful information that should be taken into account. It’s the repeated exercise of noting the gravitational pull toward negative modes of processing and then turning back (again and again) toward a more constructive mode that builds strength. When you are building muscular strength in the gym you work your muscles against incrementally increasing loads of physical resistance (usually the weight of some object). When you are building mental strength in the mental gym you work your attention against distraction (which is the content your mind spontaneously generates with abundance). There are exercises designed to moderate the amount of distraction so you can gradually increase the challenges to attention you face in the practice environment. By this, rather than view all that inherent monkey mind activity as a curse it is seen as the very material by which you may build your mental strength.
But there are no shortcuts or hacks to this that I know of: building attention strength takes time and effort. But it is worth it.
So, remember that where your attention goes, your energy flows. When you need positive, constructive, creative energy – which virtually all situations of your life could benefit from – your attention points the way toward it. The practice you put in will make a difference. When you gain more control of your attention, you are taking it back from those mysterious forces that were controlling it previously. You are gaining control over your energy flow and that is the most precious thing to life.
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