Often in competition, the sudden interruption of an otherwise-stellar performance can cause an athlete to lose focus or motivation for only a few seconds. In the midst of performing well or enjoying success, an unexpected encounter with adversity can potentially shake a competitor’s confidence and composure. If an individual loses control in these circumstances, this momentary lapse in concentration can often bring about further setbacks, and a downward spiral in performance. However, for Ethiopian marathon runner Buzenesh Deba, an ability to maintain composure and focus under pressure may have allowed her to overcome such adversity and continue to perform well.
In the 2013 New York City Marathon on Sunday, Bronx-resident Deba jumped out to an early lead in the first mile, and was soon well beyond the rest of the pack. In fact, overall, Deba led for more than 80% of the race. At the halfway point, she was over three minutes ahead of one of her main competitors, Priscah Jeptoo (Kenya). However, Jeptoo increased her pace after hearing about this deficit from a race official, and eventually overtook Deba in the 24th mile to win the marathon.
Many athletes, when faced with a sudden setback during competition, can succumb to a temporary lapse in focus. As a result, their subsequent performance may suffer. When Jeptoo overtook her late in the race, Deba could have easily faltered and dropped out of the top-5 or top-10 finishers, especially because her goal was set on winning the marathon, not placing second, as she had done before. Yet, it seemed she was able to maintain her composure and focus, and achieve an admirable second place finish. After a difficult setback, athletes can use mental skills such refocusing cues to help maintain focus and composure. Refocusing cues are short, meaningful words or phrases that are used to redirect an athlete’s attention or focus to a desirable target. In a case like Deba’s, refocusing cues could help athletes focus on their own performance and efforts rather than on an opponent or the outcome of the competition. When you are faced with a setback, try to use phrases such as “Focus on my training” or “Zone in” to regain focus, maintain composure, and perhaps boost energy levels. For Deba, maintaining a high level of focus and composure may have allowed her to finish the marathon strong despite getting passed in the final stretch, rather than succumbing to the pressure of adversity and allowing her performance to suffer.