Self-Monitoring and Staying Focused
What is Self Monitoring?
In short, self-monitoring is tracking your progress toward a goal.
Let’s say you set a goal to run a mile in under 9 minutes. How would you work toward this goal?
Most people would start by figuring out how fast they run now. Then they would time every run during their training program to see if they’re getting close to the goal. This is a simple example of self-monitoring.
Someone who self-monitors can track the patterns and changes that affect progress. For instance, you notice that after 4 weeks of training, your time is still the same. By noticing this, you can begin to pinpoint why the training is ineffective. From there, you can solve the problem.
Low Self-Monitors vs. High Self-Monitors
Self-monitoring allows you to notice a problem and fix it. There are two ways people self-monitor.
In the above scenario, a person who charts their progress and notices their mile time is not improving may make a conscious decision to tackle the problem. This approach shows the traits of a low self-monitor. A low self-monitor can rely on his or her own internal or self-developed cues. Low self-monitors are also more in tune with the emotions and passing thoughts that make of their internal cues.
A high self-monitor relies on outside cues. They may look to other people to know if there is a problem and to know how to respond. They can adapt to the environment’s demands. For example, a high self-monitor may rely on a coach to notify them of an area that needs work. If the coach says nothing, the high self-monitor may assume everything is fine. This approach can stunt growth during training. On the positive side, a high self-monitor may also be able to adapt on the field by recognizing what a teammate needs or by quickly adjusting their movement based on external cues.
Both forms of high and low self-monitoring can work in combination. Low self-monitoring is excellent in training. High self-monitoring is great during a game. However, your style of self-monitoring can be highly influenced by your personality, your coaches’ training style and other factors. For this reason, an athlete who is naturally good at one type of self-monitoring may need to work on the other type.
How to Improve Self-Monitoring
Whether you’re naturally a low or high self-monitor, you can always improve your progress toward goals by developing specific strategies.
Chart Your Progress
This is one of the most common techniques, because it is very effective. A study conducted in 2009 followed a swim team in which each swimmer was asked to fill out a log of his or her training regimen. The researchers found that the swimmers who charted their work were more likely to stick with their training schedules. The swimmers were also more likely to notice a cause-and-effect link that could be corrected for better results. Because they were training as scheduled and self-correcting their mistakes, they had better performance.
For instance, a swimmer might have found that on nights when he got fewer than 6 hours of sleep, his performance the following day suffered. Now he knows he needs to get a good night’s sleep, especially before competitions.
Focus on Realistic Goals & Controllable Indicators
Remember that self-monitoring requires a goal. Let’s assume you’re a baseball player. You set a goal to win 4 out of the next 5 games, and begin to chart your progress by writing down how many points your team scores each game. What’s wrong here?
Well, to start, your individual goals should be accomplished individually. You cannot account for an entire team’s performance when you’re self-monitoring. So this goal is not very realistic.
Secondly, the data you are tracking is not controllable. You cannot control how many points are scored by your team. Instead, track data that you can directly control. How many hours do you spend practicing each day? How many pitches do you practice throwing? How many pitches do you practice batting? Your goals do not need to be performance based. You can simply log the hours or attempts. Set your goals around controllable parameters that you can track.
Then you can begin to chart your progress toward your established goal. How many balls versus strikes do you throw as pitcher? How many strikes do you have at-bat during games?
What is Focus in Sports? (And How Does it Relate to Self-Monitoring?)
We tend to think that focus is the ability to keep the mind on one solitary detail or one single subject at a given moment in time. However, the type of focus needed in sports is a little different. You have to maintain focus on several things at one time.
First, it helps to understand the psychology term “attentional field.” Your attentional field is everything going on in your mind and around you physically. This can include your thoughts, emotions and physical movements (internal cues) as well as the sight, sound and motion around you (external cues). Remember that low self-monitors are good at tracking internal cues, while high self-monitors are good at tracking external cues.
Focus, as defined by sport psychologist Jim Taylor, is “the ability to attend to internal and external cues in your attentional field.”
Your ideal in sports is the state of Prime Focus. In prime focus, you are able to sort the influx of cues, both internal and external, and pay attention only to those that affect your performance.
Poor focusing ability leads you to focus on one of two detrimental cues: harmful cues and irrelevant cues. Harmful cues can include anxiety and lack of self-confidence. Irrelevant cues are simply distractions that take your mind away from prime focus, including thoughts about homework, relationship problems, and even the roaring of the crowd.
How Self Monitoring Can Help Your Focus (And Your Game)
In order to focus, you have to self-monitor. You must know what your thoughts are doing. You must know where your mind is spending its time. You must be able to observe that your focus is poor in order for you to have the opportunity to correct the situation.
Self-monitoring leads to better focus which allows for optimal performance.
But this is easier said than done. Let’s show you how.
Quick Experiment: For the next 60 seconds, whatever you do, don’t think about penguins. Set a timer, close your eyes, and do not, under any circumstance, think about penguins.
How well did you do?
Dr. Noa Kageyama, a performance psychologist, tells the story of a corralling a 3-year-old named Harold. The more a person tries to get Harold to stay within a circle on the floor, the more resistant the 3-year-old becomes. While at first Harold may have had no real interest in leaving the circle, knowing that he should not leave sparks a rebellion. He now wants to test the limits and will try every trick imaginable to try to leave the circle.
This is how the mind works when it is trying to focus. Harold represents your mind, and the space outside the circle becomes your distracting thoughts. If you try too hard to keep your distracting thoughts at bay, you’ll find you’re actually focusing on the distracting thoughts. Just like when you’re told to not think about penguins, you’ll likely end up thinking about penguins.
Ignoring the thoughts is thus easier said than done. So what do sports psychologists recommend?
Focus on the now. Do not think about the past. Do not thing about the future. Focus only on the present. Note all of the internal and external cues coming your way, but allow your mind to filter the information for relevancy.
If a distracting thought pops up, calmly acknowledge it then move on. If you fight your thoughts, you’re giving into distraction. It’s the same as telling Harold he cannot leave the circle. It only aggravates the situation.
Instead, gently redirect your thoughts. You can think of this as giving Harold a toy to play with or a movie to watch.
Don’t fight it. Guide it. Self-monitor your internal experience, and gently redirect your attention to the correct cues for the situation. This may mean acknowledging your sweaty palms and nervousness, but instead redirecting your focus to the location of the ball, the evaluation of another player’s movement, etc.
Now that you’ve seen how self-monitoring can help you in training and on game day, you should have a better idea of where to start.
Begin by setting realistic goals for which you can write down and track your progress. Look for patterns in your progress to be a low self-monitor. Look for advice and assistance from your teammates and coaches or look for responses from your environment to be a high self-monitor.
When you’re performing in a game, be aware of the internal and external cues, but don’t allow your thoughts to dictate when they are paid attention. Guide your mind back to focus only on the cues relevant to your performance.
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