What does it mean to be present? To live in the moment? To be focused on the here and now?
These are all just different ways of saying the same thing. To be grounded, we must be focused on the here and now, living in the present moment. But this task is much easier said than done for many high-achieving elite athletes. Why? Because we’re always looking towards the next move, the next play, the next goal, the next game… the list goes on.
As elite athletes we’re constantly chasing the horizon in an attempt to improve ourselves and our ability to perform at a peak state level; this is how we “push” ourselves. For the most part, this is a good trait because it keeps us from getting stagnant or from falling behind. But, there are plenty of situations when having such a future-oriented focus can be detrimental.
Here’s a practical example that comes to mind for me: as a defender in ice hockey, you’re often referred to as the quarterback; you start a lot of the offensive plays. However, unlike football, you’re rarely just handed the puck by your own team, you have to win it back from your opponent first. So, let’s say there’s a defender on the ice playing in one-on-one and thinking about the breakout pass they have to make after getting the puck back.
In this scenario, the defender should be focusing on the task at hand: stopping the player on the one-on-one. Instead, they’re focused on the play that’s two steps ahead and is completely conditional on their ability to accomplish the immediate task; stopping the one-on-one. Their inability to focus on the task at hand could result in a domino effect of missed cues and small mistakes as a result of one thing, distraction, which could ultimately end up resulting in a missed opportunity for the defender and the puck being in the back of their own net.
Being in the present moment for athletes has less to do with the zen practice of meditation in this case than it does with the ability to simply focus on what is currently around you and your specific role in that situation. Let’s go back to the previous example with our defender in a one-no-one. If they were focused on the present moment they would have been completely focused on the following in-the-moment cues: their opponent’s body positioning, speed, proximity to their net, location of other opponents as well as their teammate’s whereabouts on the ice, the distance between themselves and the opponent (their gap), and where the puck is. This is the information they need to take into account to get the task at hand done. Without a focus on these cues, the defender may miss a slight change of direction that results in them getting beat to the net.
Lack of present-moment focus results in missing information and missing out on the small, but important, details.
On a grander scheme, lack of present moment focus means that we forget to celebrate the small wins we experience every day in favour of a persistent focus on the end goal which results in massive missed opportunities for solidifying growth and ultimately, dwindling motivation.
So, for all of the athletes out there, ask yourself: how often am I completely focused on the task at hand versus thinking ahead and worrying about the next thing I have to do? When did you perform better?