While running might be my ‘therapy’ I can certainly say that it also occasionally results in a wry smile as I pound the pavements and parks throughout the cities and towns I run through. Traditionally I am a fan of cues to help the mind focus on helpful, productive aspects of endurance runs. These days, I am finding that I am saying “eyes up, please” an awful lot.
Now, I’d like to say that this is me practising what I preach and using cues to help me perform. Sadly, it’s not. Living so close to some of London’s beautiful parklands, this is what I find myself having to say to fellow humans with whom we runners have to share our footpaths. My message of “eyes up” is delivered to people of all shapes and sizes – walkers, runners, people pushing prams, walking dogs, hanging out with family, friends and loved ones.
The obsession with phones seems to permeate into every corner of society. Just like smoking, mobile phone obsession is an addiction that is difficult to kick. The journey to digital wellness starts with an admission that you have a problem and that you are willing to work on it.
I read this quote on the tube in London during my commute in early 2019 (!):
Social media has colonized what was once a sacred space occupied by emptiness; the space reserved for thought and creativity. – Mahershaia Ali
On the contrary, there is almost an equal and opposite interest in clearing our minds… The self-help industry is going nuts with gurus who have all the secrets to this process! The popularity of ‘mindfulness’ is because we’re obsessed with filling our minds at all times. We are losing the ability to be still. Any time we’re not being entertained we’re labelling it ‘boredom’.
Psychologists working with elite athletes know that the ability to relax and to concentrate is imperative and part of the multitude of ingredients for successful performance (which in many sports requires thought & creativity). Frequent questions are posed to us – “Why can’t athlete X seem to pay attention?” or “Why does athlete Y seem so unsettled?” Frustratingly, athletes can be passive participants in this process of learning to relax/focus/quieten their mind… “What app can help me to relax/focus/quieten my mind?”
Don’t get me wrong some of the apps are amazing – I’ve mentioned several in previous articles. However, we also need to be able to transfer the use of these to the performance arena, which is always phone-less. If you believe in the simulation and the creation of habits, then finding time without your phone is also a fundamental step in this process.
We need to understand that the ability to relax, to be bored, to concentrate are skills. If we keep avoiding them by filling every single moment with doing something (many times with our ever so handy phone) then we lose the gaps, the pauses, the moments of nothingness that helps our mind rest.
Here are some simple day-to-day activities to consider in relation to phone use to embrace the task you’re doing at the time:
- Buy an alarm clock. Place your phone on charge in the living room overnight. Commit to a pre-sleep routine that sets you up for one of the most effective recovery modes we know.
- Wake up in the morning and do your own morning routine (e.g., exercise, breakfast, shower – in whatever order) without looking at your phone.
- Walk through a park without looking at your phone. Take this chance to notice the green space you are passing through and breathe in the fresh air.
- Drive somewhere from door to door without looking at your phone (vs checking it at each traffic light!). Put on some tunes and pay attention to the road in front of you!
- Stand at the pedestrian crossing of traffic lights without looking at your phone. Embrace doing nothing while waiting.
- Watch a movie at home with your phone in another room. One. Thing. At. A. Time.
- Spend an entire night out with friends/family with your phone either at home or out of sight (vs on the table the right way up!).
None of these suggestions will be new nor do they seem particularly ‘high performing’ however what they do highlight is that it’s often our day-to-day habits that add up to high performing behaviours that withstand and triumph in pressurised elite sporting environments.
There is clearly a bit of tongue in cheek in my writing as while I thoroughly enjoy teaching strategies to relax/focus/quieten minds, I am an advocate of some wise advice about being what we repeatedly do as well as embracing being in the outdoors taking in the surrounds and being present with the people and/or animals with whom we’re sharing the experience.
Andrea Furst PhD | Sport & Exercise Psychologist CPsychol HCPC Registered
Get in contact with Andrea – firstname.lastname@example.org. Andrea is based in London and provides both face-to-face and virtual sport psychology services to athletes worldwide.