The other day I was listening to actor/comedian/podcaster/all-around interesting guy Bryan Callen on his podcast, aptly named ‘The Bryan Callen Show’. Among other things, he and his guest were discussing professional athletes and their mental focus. Some of the techniques to achieve such an elite level of focus were very interesting to hear, and at first appeared to be counterproductive. A prime example, and my personal favourite, was the repetition of a seemingly contradictory mantra. The concept is that when an athlete is in the depths of a mentally and physically draining competition, his or her mind’s voice repeats, “Relax. Look away. Go away.” While this may sound insane (how can I relax when I’m about to kick a game-winning field goal from 50?), when one puts it into context it actually comes across as sound. Here’s how I think it works. In athletics, why would one not want to relax. Does Lyoto Machida strike better when he is tight and tense? No. The looser he is, the more impactful and dynamic the punches and kicks. Well why would you want to look away? Of course, this isn’t meaning to tell yourself to physically look away, but rather to look away from the situation, and almost look outside of your body. Lastly, the “go away” phrase can mean many things. It can be a warning to your fears, certainly, but also a reminder to yourself to not be so conscious of abilities. If you’re able, you know you’re able. So just… Be able. If you’re playing in a hockey game, you know you’re playing in a hockey game. So there is no need to remind yourself you’re playing in a hockey game, or of how your defensive skills can be used in this hockey game. Rather, remind yourself to let it flow. In this respect, “Go away” can be an ego check, since that pesky part of your personality loves to control things. If you have genuine confidence in your technique, then there is no need to worry about it.
I decided to put this approach into practice today during a challenging cross-country ski course. It wasn’t necessary to break out this mental chant from start to finish; I waited for certain spots in the run to use it. I like to pick my spots because a) it can get a little redundant, and b) I found it best to use it in segments that required the most focus. There was a point after my second or third wind where I was faltering. My physical and mental tank was being drained: I was sucking wind and becoming frustrated that I was falling behind my fellow skiers. This is when I kicked the chant into gear. I began to think, “c’mon man. Relax. Look away. Go away.’ Repeat. Relax, it’s just gliding through snow with long boards on your feet. One foot in front of the other. Look away. I think I did physically look away as well, just to admire nature for a second. Go away. Get outside of yourself; your abilities are well established, if they weren’t then you wouldn’t have a chance. Repeat. I began to time it with my strides. Re-lax. Look a-way. Go a-way. Before I knew it, I was on the downhill towards the home stretch back to the start. This particular mantra is just one way to harness oneself into “the zone”. Funny how much easier this “zone” can be achieved the further you push yourself away from, well, yourself. I assume that a system like this can be easier applied to endurance athletes like cross-country skiiers or runners, but I’m sure it is useful to everyone in the athletic spectrum. Often, the mental side of athletics and exercise is overlooked. But almost all of the time, it is the most important aspect. When we think we’ve reached our peak, we need our mind to convince us we haven’t. And this focus technique is one heck of a positive distraction to help us do so. When you’ve done all you can do, and you reach that ever-constant plateau, just remember: Relax. Look away. Go away.