For the past several years I have really struggled with focus. I was miserable–my brain darting between tasks, unable to focus on any one thing for more than a few seconds at a time.
During the act of teaching things felt fine–it’s naturally faster paced–but sitting to work at a computer for my other job, for writing, or for planning was challenging in a way it never had been.
Even though I rarely eat processed foods, aim to get enough sleep, practice meditation, exercise, and drink enough water, I just… couldn’t. be. efficient.
I knew something was off, but I still felt like a failure.
Then, I read somewhere that “systems will beat hard work and talent every time”.
And I realized that I wasn’t failing, but I certainly was spinning my wheels.
I think it’s safe to say that, in 2023, the vast majority of humans struggle with focus. It’s impossible to process information as quickly as technology throws it at us.
We can’t keep up with our obligations because our brains simply haven’t evolved as quickly as society demands them to.
Add in processed foods, lack of sleep, the chaos of the world, and the frenetic pace of achievement we are compelled to follow, and our brains are in crisis.
I needed a system and tools to help me dedicate time to do the work that really mattered most – like writing these blogs for the skating world – and to block out distractions.
So, I went to work finding tools to help streamline my processes and started practicing their implementation, and I plugged in breaks throughout my day to allow my brain to reset in between tasks.
This process has reminded me so much of skating.
We’ve all seen skaters spin their wheels on the ice–they get so bogged down with what needs to be done that they move from one thing to the next with no focused effort to make any improvement.
Or even worse, they fail to do anything because deciding where to begin is too difficult!
In getting to work, it’s all about using your energy in the right way - Brahmacharya. (A few weeks ago I wrote about the yamas - a code of conduct presented to us in the 8 limbs of yoga… Brahmacharya is one of the yamas. You can read more about it here.)
Coaches know this, parents know this, and deep down, skaters know it, too. But for it to click and to get a system in place can be very challenging. Enter the SMART goal.
What is a SMART Goal?
The feeling of overwhelm is your nervous system’s reaction to the brain’s overdrive.
When we feel ourselves spiraling into overwhelm, we can stop and do something about it.
(To read more about the process of stopping this spiral, you can read this blog post about the role of the cognitive triangle in positive self-talk.)
How do we stay focused and avoid going there in the first place, though? As competitors and coaches, it sometimes feels like there is always SO MUCH TO DO.
The best strategy, then, is to exercise constraint. Direct our focus to one achievable thing.
Then, when we make progress towards that thing, we feel more positive and can work towards the next thing.
Many of us were taught to do this by making SMART goals (specific, measurable, achievable, relevant, and timely).
Short-term SMART goals are great motivators. Hitting them is like passing little milestones in the quest for the finish line, like running a 10k and doing a little dance after each kilometer.
In skating, a SMART goal might look something like this: I will be able to land 3 out of 4 axels in 6 months.
The brain loves the dopamine hits we get from reaching a SMART goal, but it also hates when we fail to reach one.
I once had a student who wanted so badly to achieve her dreams, that she wrote out pages and pages of SMART goals. She started every week focused and ready to work, and by mid-week, when things weren’t going as she had scheduled, she would fall apart.
One day, when I was trying to get to the bottom of what kept happening, she told me she had broken down her long-term goals into shorter-term goals and written out steps and timelines for each of them.
She was paralyzed by the breadth and weight of her goals and was a wreck because of it.
When I saw the notebook she had filled with her goals, it became clear that the only solution was for her to ditch the measurements and timelines of the SMART goals and focus only on the process instead.
I literally told her to throw the papers into the fireplace. She obliged, and a huge weight was lifted from her shoulders.
The rigidity of SMART goals induces anxiety for many skaters and therefore, they aren’t compatible with longevity and well-being in sports.
Why SMART Goals Don't Work for Skaters
If the SMART goal is helpful for business, then why doesn’t it work in skating?
Many skaters are hard-wired to work towards a goal. Their personalities drive them forward, and the environment accelerates things.
The test structure makes this very possible, too, and allows skaters to keep feeling a sense of achievement.
When you take a skater that is already self-motivated and put them in an environment of high achievement, they need constraint and grace, not daily reminders that they are going to miss the finish line.
In my experience, the focus of SMART goals is too narrow and doesn’t allow for the organic process of progress, which occurs on different timelines for everyone.
Plus, the SMART goal is too harsh of a measure of success or failure.
Not every goal or indicator of progress should be black or white–even taking a test should be measured sometimes in terms other than Pass and Retry (see this post for more on this topic).
Skaters that already are constantly being judged need to reinforce the process and stay connected to the joy of their work. We need consistent grace and a strong belief that we are already whole…. And that the practice is the path.
The goals we set are just a guide, like GPS, to keep us from spinning our wheels or going in circles.
Of all the hacks and processes I implemented to help rein in my brain, my favorite is a browser extension called Momentum. It turns every tab you open into a beautiful page that asks you: “What if your main focus for today?” I love this because, even though I may have twenty things on my list one day if I just stay focused on one main thing, I can trust that I will gain some momentum. (I suppose that’s why it’s named Momentum 😂)
I think of the answer to this question every day as my intention for the day.
Sure, there’s a minimum level of work that I have to do–I still have to show up to teach in all the places, but among all of the other tasks, I make one a priority. And I make sure that one daily priority aligns with my larger purpose of changing the world of skating, so it helps take me in that right direction.
This same idea is helpful for training, too.
A competitor will have a minimum amount of work to get done on a daily basis. For example, they will warm up, do some moves and/or edge drills, complete at least one program run-through, do a few spin and jump repetitions, etc.
The amount and content will vary depending on the skater’s level, individual schedule, and the time of year.
If a skater goes to school full-time and does any other activities, though, their brain generally can’t handle more than one or two priorities beyond the daily grind. They simply don’t have enough ice time or bandwidth! And that’s ok.
In these cases, I remind them of their “everyday” work, and together we set one priority for the day or week (two MAX).
Sometimes the priority is process-oriented–to keep repeating their keywords, for example, or to make it through an entire session without getting off the ice. Other times, it’s to give extra time and energy to choreography or a particular spin or jump or to a dance or moves test.
I might still sometimes call it a “goal”, but really, it’s much more like an intention.
Why Intentions Are Better Than SMART Goals
By definition, a goal is focused on the end result… it’s a finish line or a milestone. A goal is often about striving for a standard–often of perfection–that may never be met.
As I mentioned above, goals can be great for keeping us motivated and achieving–dopamine is a powerful motivator, and society is good at pressuring us to reach more and more goals.
But what happens when progress slows for any number of reasons? Illness, injury, other obligations, fatigue, burnout, growth, or just because it’s hard? Then dopamine does the opposite and stops our motivation in its tracks. (Here’s an interesting article in Forbes on the role dopamine plays in motivation or lack thereof.)
With no motivation and a deadline or event looming, then it’s easy to become depressed, anxious, and/or overwhelmed, especially for skaters who feel the judgment and competition surrounding them all the time.
We can always break the goals down into baby steps or more process-focused steps to help regain our motivation, but sometimes that’s still not enough to stave off the negative feelings and emotions.
If you are a big-picture thinker and maybe a little controlling by nature like I am, it’s so easy to get bogged down in the details and burn yourself out.
This is why I prefer to keep the focus on being mindful of the here & now.
By definition, an intention is a plan to think and act in a certain way, preferably in alignment with a greater principle or purpose. It involves staying focused and mindful in the present moment, rather than on the future or the past.
Since an intention focuses on the present, it comes from the idea that we are already whole because we are all of a divine nature.
The idea is that our intended action or thought is already within us… our purpose is to practice bringing it to light simply by getting to work. As always, the practice IS the path.
Come back next week for part II... I will go into how to set an intention (it’s different than what you think), how rituals can help make your intention more powerful, and why we should set daily intentions for our skating practice.
Want to know more about how yoga can directly help you in your skating journey? Check out my Performance Tools for Skaters. It has some short practices to help guide you along your skating and yoga journey and beat performance anxiety. And it’s FREE!
Author // the skating yogi
My name is Sarah Neal. I have been immersed in the world of figure skating for over four decades. I have seen firsthand the abuse that happens at the higher levels of our sport and experienced how that trickles down into unhealthy training practices and habits at the grassroots. I have seen this play out in the operations of the very institutions that control our sport. Whether for a profession or hobby, pursuing skating should be a joyful, rewarding process, an opportunity for athletic and personal growth, and a place to build lasting friendships.