Focus, uninterrupted

I work with athletes to improve their performances in their sport. An element of this which seems to becoming increasingly important is minimising the number of stressors and hassles they feel they need to cope with. A common stressor is their difficulty in focusing on anything (sport, school or work) because of constant interruptions they feel they need to deal with. Most of these interruptions come from technology.

I am undecided if technology is amazing for athletes – or a hinderance. There are ways it can really help us in our sport; tracking what we do on GPS, allowing easy access to course routes, providing video clips of our competitors, even simply allowing us to research new ideas, training plans or performance advice quickly. But it can also make us unhappy when we can no longer just go for an easy run or ride without worrying about how followers will judge the figures we post, when we can never switch off as our phones bombard us with notifications and reminders of other’s training. A quick glance at @stravawankers on twitter will highlight how seriously many people take their technology when training.

In its place technology can be amazing. But with technology being with us everywhere (the majority of people reading this will be on a mobile or tablet) that place may have expanded too much. And that is when the troubles come. Chatting to a friend and an alert pops up, trying to write a report for work and a dozen emails arrive throughout it – probably with some annoying sound attached.

Some great research has found that these distractions are harming our ability to perform:

  • The Carnegie Mellon Human-Computer Interaction Lab has found multi-tasking is bad for us as we end up doing each thing at a worse level than if they were done with full focus. The constant switching between tasks means we not only do more of our tasks poorly but that we also waste time trying to get back into each thing.
  • Research in California from Gloria Mark found it takes 25 minutes to get full focus back after an interruption, and that on average, office workers are interrupted every 11 minutes.
  • All of these interruptions and requirements to switch come at neurobiological cost says neuroscientist Daniel Levitin as they only deplete our mental resources and mean our brain stores information and memories in the wrong places. He says that our brains use glucose as a fuel, and every time you switch tasks more glucose gets burned. Over the day this excess use of glucose will make you feel tired and mentally depleted. When you get into this state you start releasing cortisol, the stress hormone which puts your body into a stress state. While your body focuses on trying to protect itself from whatever is trying to attack it, it shuts down your higher cognitive thinking and becomes unable to think clearly or solve complex problems.
  • One of the most interesting facts from his recent book on how to think straight in the age of information overload is that we now take in five times more information each day that we did 25 years ago. This is nine DVD’s worth on information a day!
  • Finally, research from professor of Psychology Glenn Wilson has found that when you are trying to focus on something, simply knowing that there is an unread message in your email inbox can reduce your effective IQ by 10 points.

How can we help ourselves focus?

  1. Understand how often you get interrupted and whether the interruptions are from others or yourself.
  2. If you have a big project to work on or know you need to focus hard on something find somewhere private to work. Switch off all devices. Put an out of office on your email and whatsapp saying you’ll reply later. Send your phone to answerphone. Tell those who interrupt the most that you need time to focus. And leave your phone elsewhere so you don’t get tempted to switch it on.
  3. If you know the interruptions are self-inflicted (especially phone checking) then decide on a goal to minimise them. How many times a day would it be acceptable to you to check your phone? Would you feel comfortable having a permanent out of office message saying you check your emails twice a day and you’ll respond to their email next time you check? Make a plan and tell someone else about your plan so they’ll help you stay on track.

Two immediate actions:

  1. Turn off your notifications: facebook, twitter, whatsapp, intstagram. Check when you want but if something was truly urgent they would phone.
  2. Get self-aware of just how often you check your phone. There are some apps to do this:
    1. Moment – tells you how many minutes you spend on your phone each day and lets you limit the time you are on it.
    2. Checky – tells you how many times a day you check your phone. If you want to shame yourself into using it less you can share your scores on twitter. It also shows you where you check your phone which can help you change your behaviours. If you check it for 30 minutes on the tube twice a day but complain you never have any time to read you may realise you could replace that time with a book.

I’m feeling brave so I’m off to download Checky onto my phone. Gulp…

Parents of athletes – helping your child survive and thrive

As it is Sport Parent week I’ve been reflecting on some of the younger athletes I’ve worked with. What struck me was that often these young athletes don’t just excel in their sport. They excel in every area of their lives; their sporting performance, in playing a musical instrument and achieving high grades at school. When you are good at so many things you have a lot of choices, but when you have so many choices, prioritisation can be hard so these young athletes are talent rich, but time poor.

Often with these young athletes, to help them become more self-aware of why they are feeling so much pressure, we will sketch out the 24 hours of their day to see just how much they are doing. It often looks like this…

Area of life   Hours
Sleep is vital for all of us – but especially for young athletes who need sufficient sleep to recover from their sport, memorise what they are learning at school and stave off illness. So we always put down 8 hours for sleep. Ideally they would also have an hour before bed to chill out. Sleep 8



Calming down to sleep 1
School – many of the athletes I work with are at schools requiring them to attend between 8am and 4pm. They are getting at least 1-2 hour’s homework on top of that. Add another hour at least for travel there and back School 8


Homework 2
Travel 1
Training – most athletes are training for at least an hour, sometimes more a day, either working on technique in their sport or fitness sessions. This, with travel, takes up to 3 hours a day. Training 1.5


Travel 1
Music or other hobbies – many athletes are also expected to spend an hour a day on a music lesson or practice. Practice 1


Total 23.5

This leaves 30 minutes for breakfast, having a meal with their families, hanging out with friends, playing Xbox or watching TV; all the things which will help them relax, recover and enjoy life.

These athletes have some of the best chances in life. They love what they are learning and they are enthusiastic and passionate. But they can find themselves under a huge amount of pressure and struggling just to keep up. With such a packed life they may just not have time to get the headspace required to cope with these levels of stress. And while they may be able to tick over in winter when summer comes and you throw sports competitions and exams into the mix they may hit their coping tipping point.

If you are parenting one of these athletes maybe sit down with them (or chat whilst taking them to school or training), and find out if they are aware of just how much they are trying to achieve, if they can see where their time is going, ways they think you could help them to free up more time, help them make plans for the crunch periods and, most importantly, remind them that if sometimes they need a break from it all that is fine and that you love them for who they are, not how much they achieve.