You’ve been running on a trail, feeling great. Suddenly, you hit a small rock, stumble, but manage to catch yourself… that is, until you take another dozen steps only to crash and burn after tripping over something else.
Often we assume the trip occurred from the second obstacle and had little to do with the first. But typically it’s just the reverse. You tripped over the first rock–you just hadn’t realized it.
Did You Know Your Mind Stumbles Before You Fall?
When you tripped on the first rock, your MIND tripped. It went from focusing on your footsteps to thinking about the rock it just fumbled over. And it’s that loss of focus that caused you to trip and fall from the second obstacle.
I liken it to a spinning top. When you’re running mindfully, you’re in focus and your top is spinning straight and true. But when you get out of focus, when your mind starts to go astray, or when you worry about that pebble you just tripped over, that’s when the danger appears. Or to use a sports analogy, if you’re worried about a bad call, or another competitor, or anything else outside of yourself, then your top begins to wobble. And it’s that wobble gone uncorrected, that many steps later gets you into the real trouble.
How Do You Prevent Your Mind From Stumbling?
The best way is to become aware of it and practice for it.
1. Practice Mindful Awareness While You Are Moving. This means focusing on your breath and dropping your thoughts as you run or while you do your sport. While seated meditations are very powerful tools, they’re not the best at simulating thought and movement together. This takes motion, something your body are keenly adapted for. Ask any neuroplastician or evolutionary biologist out there and he or she will tell you your best thinking comes while you’re moving. We evolved that way to hunt, gather, and avoid being dinner. And we can use that to our advantage here.
So work on dropping your thoughts while you run and you’ll link together two powerful actions in your brain, movement and meditation.
In essence, meditating while moving is where the real hard-wiring for focus and performance takes place.
2. Drop Your Thoughts. Notice your thoughts, but don’t spend too much time examining them. The key is to drop your thoughts as quickly as they arise. With practice, you’ll get really good at this.
Now here’s where the fun really gets started.
3. Practice The Mindful Shift. The third step is the most powerful one for strong rewiring of the mind. The Mindful Shift takes place the moment you’ve tripped on that pebble, you’ve lost your train of thought, or something’s taken place that’s completely derailed you.
This is the moment of greatest training possibility available to you. In this moment your brain is most highly focused because of the risk and potential severe consequences of a situation. Realize, we rarely remember what we did right, but if we “screw up” we never forget it. That’s your brain’s way of keeping you out of danger, and we can harness it in this special moment to hard-wire you for the future!
So when you trip, instead of simply getting back on track, take note that something special has occurred, and that you’ll need a powerful shift.
For instance, imagine you’re running perfectly in the zone. Then you pass a runner, hiker, or see a mountain biker go by. Next thing you know, your mind starts to wander and soon enough you catch that tree root you hadn’t noticed.
Why? Because you started to wobble a long time before. So what’s the answer? When you catch yourself wobbling, take note of the wobble.
This brings it into your awareness, and helps you eliminate the unhealthy thought habit and replace it with a new one. What’s the new one? That’s the mindful shift. Notice you’re wobbling, pay attention to the wobble, even say to yourself I’m wobbling then let it go, and reset yourself.
At first, this may even require you to stop straight in your tracks and recompose yourself (let go of your thoughts) before you get going again. That’s fine, it’s much better than a trip and fall.
Try This: You can use a cue to help you make this mindful shift. For instance, if you hit that pebble, squeeze your hands together. Feel the pressure of your fingers against your palms and ask, Am I being mindful? Then take a few deep breaths and then continue. In tennis, this may mean feeling your hands against your grip and asking the same questions before you make the next serve.
Try This: As an advanced exercise, you could even work to catch the spin before it occurs. For instance, do you know of any triggers that take you off track? Perhaps you notice you lose concentration, as I used to, whenever someone passes you. Or perhaps it’s only when an attractive person passes you by…whoops.
Whatever the trigger, take note of it, so you can use it to your advantage. Now, the next time someone passes you or you see an attractive person, note that you might start to wobble.
Try This: I used to use this physical cue myself. I would rotate my hands just slightly to the outside for a few seconds. To me, this was like a traffic light going from green to yellow–it meant proceed with caution. Then after I’d get my spinning back under control, I’d rotate the hands back to normal and go back into my regular running rhythm. It may sound strange, but these physical cues provide strong rewiring for the mind.
You can find your own triggers and use your own simple mental or physical cues.
Practice observing your thoughts on the trails or in your sport. See if you can figure out when you’ll wobble even before it happens. Then work to catch the wobble, and if you do, get rid of it as fast as you can. Get back to your breath, your feet, your sport or the trail ahead. Whatever causes your wobbles, work to catch it sooner until it becomes hard-wired in.
Over time, work to discover more and more of your distractions, or work with a mindfulness movement coach to help you plant a few distractions into your workout. Work to create situations where there’s a sharp, occasional distraction that pulls you off-task and requires you to bring your mind back to center as quickly as you can.
The goal is not to take you out of a mindful place but to help you train for the inevitable wobbles in life.
You’re strengthening the mental muscles here, using mindfulness to help keep you in the zone, help you move with less effort to be more fluid at your sport, and prevent that trip and fall, both in sport and in life.
Have fun with this and let me know how it goes!