The Surprising Way Focus Can Destroy Your Dreams (and how to stop it)

Training and racing

Nov 09

When I was a kid, I used to get terribly carsick.

Each time we’d make the 3 hour drive to Nan and Pop’s house, we’d take the long and winding road Old Pacific Highway. These days a highway cuts a relatively straight and definitely faster path through the hills that stood between our house and theirs. But back in the 80s, the only way to get there was via the narrow, winding, twisting and stomach churning Old Pacific Highway.

Every. Single. Time we went, I’d get sick. I knew all the tricks to supposedly avoid it - but I never could. It was so bad I never looked forward to going to see my beloved Nan and Pop because of it.

I distinctly remember Mum telling me not to think about it. That by thinking about it and talking about it, I was talking myself into it.


I was reminded of my childhood nightmare at an open water swim squad I ran last month.

Not because someone was sick (thank god!). But because a woman said she only wanted to get in the water to make sure she wouldn’t have a panic attack in her next race.

It reminded me of mum’s words - “that by thinking about it and by talking about it, I was talking myself into it”.

I still don’t believe I could have prevented my car sickness (sorry Mum!). But I have no doubt about the power of your mind to influence what happens in your life.

What are you focused on?

You can talk yourself into things - so be careful what you talk about.

If you spend time thinking / talking / stressing about the possibility of having a panic attack in the swim (or crashing your bike or getting hit by a car or twisting your ankle on a trail run or tripping over in front of everyone at the finish line), you’re increasing the chances it will happen.

Because your focus (on the negative outcome) has planted that seed in your mind. You’ve probably even pictured it happening. You’ve thought about how you’d feel, what you’d do and what you’d say about it. You’ve remembered all the times you have panicked or crashed or twisted your ankle or tripped which, to your mind, is evidence of the fact that it will happen again.

Unfortunately I see this all too often….

Women who are focused on what they don’t want, rather than on what they do want.

What do you focus on? 

Sure, it’s a good idea to use visualisation to build your confidence and to improve your ability to respond to stressful situations like panic attacks, flat tyres and drafting penalties calmly (and in fact, it’s something I recommend to all my clients).

And while you might feel like you’re reassuring yourself, you’d be better off spending the time visualising yourself having a relaxed, enjoyable and comfortable swim and getting out of the water feeling happy, rather than visualising yourself having (or not) having a panic attack. The distinction is small yet powerful.

Because the more time you spend focused on what you don’t want to happen, then you’re doing yourself, your training, dedication and commitment a disservice and risk slipping into a self-sabotaging mindset.

Because what you focus on becomes the filter through which you see the world and everything that happens to you.

So what are you focused on - the outcome you want or the outcome you don’t want?

And it’s not just limited to swimming or even sport….

Think about a time you’ve told yourself you couldn’t do something. Or that you’ll freeze and forget what to say during a meeting at work. Or that you aren’t ready. Or that you’ll “fail”.

What happens when you repeat something over and over again to yourself? You come to believe it right?

This is why self-doubt and the fear “stories” we tell ourselves often become a self-fulling prophecy - because we’ve laid the groundwork in our minds.

Our beliefs shape our actions - and our actions of course change the outcomes and ultimately you sabotage yourself. As Mum said - by thinking about it and by talking about it, you can talk yourself into a panic attack or a fall or a crash or a sprained ankle or tripping or freezing during that important presentation at work.

Are you focused on what you want - or on what you don’t want?

My challenge to you - focus on what you want and not on what you don’t want to happen.

If the swim is an issue for you, find a mantra that helps to keep you calm and in control in the water and practice coughing out water while you keep swimming. Rather than visualising yourself having a panic attack, picture yourself having the best swim you possibly can and getting out of the water feeling ecstatic with the swim. Keep your thoughts positive and constructive.

Concentrate on what you can control - your thoughts.

Re-write the script you’re telling yourself about the situation and remind yourself of the result you want - what positive outcome do you want? How do you want to feel? Do you want to feel confident, relaxed, reassured, brave or calm?

Picture that.

Focus on that.

And even though you don’t always believe her, your Mum is probably right 🙂