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James Ellington’s top ten tips to staying mentally focused

Reading Time: 5 minutes

What is mental focus?

Olympic athlete, James Ellington, is someone that has proven his mental focus through his incredible and inspirational journey to elite level athletic competition after a major road accident in 2017.

Having suffered multiple severe injuries which saw him in a wheelchair, he experienced a knockback that not only threatened his career but his life too. Despite it all, he’s found the determination and mental focus to push himself back to elite level athletic competition.

But what is mental focus? Mental focus is the ability to concentrate on something in your environment and direct all your mental effort towards it. Once you’ve worked on achieving that healthy mental state, it supports you in learning new things, achieving goals and performing well – no matter what the situation is.

Below, James shares some of his top tips he uses to stay mentally focused, which can be practised in any situation you find yourself in.

1. Split your goals up into smaller milestones

Whatever the case may be, whether it’s sport, everyday life or work, it’s important to not let the bigger picture overwhelm you. By splitting your ultimate goal into short-term goals, you can deal with the situation in hand and before you know it, you’re that step closer to reaching your goal. Take every day as it comes.

2. Visualisation is key

Visualise yourself reaching each milestone, through every process. Although it helps to take one step at a time, having your ultimate goal in sight can help motivate you and bring you to the desired feeling and accomplishment you’re aiming for. James imagines himself going through the race and coming out of the blocks running. Whilst losing is at the very back of his mind, he never lets it manifest itself. Victory is forever at the forefront.

3. Make time for self-reflection

James’ advice has always been to ‘forget things fast’ but he wanted to make sure everyone makes time for self-reflection. There’s always room for improvement and he recognises the importance of looking back at personal best performances to ensure he’s bringing the best practises forward into future races. For example, in preparation for the Olympics, James is looking back at his European Championships semi-final race where he was at his best to see how he compares now.

The key here is to learn from previous experiences with little emotions involved. Your reason for reflection should always be based on positivity.

4. Have a support circle

Having people around you that are supportive of your goals is a big part of your mental focus.

James’ team mates play a part in him staying mentally focused. Being with like-minded people who are going through similar training helps you to relate to each other. Everyone has their bad days so when others are experiencing it, the team is always on hand to remind each other that it always comes back around. And likewise when everyone is expressing positivity, it rubs off on you and motivates you.

Your support circle doesn’t necessarily have to be physically around you, it’s about knowing they support you from afar. In the lead up to a big competition or race, James separates himself from any distractions, including family and friends, so he can stay mentally focused. This is never personal but it can be so easy to relax and lose focus when you’re around familiar faces. That’s why it’s key to have people around you that understand your goals and what it means for you to reach them.

5. Eliminate any distractions

Removing any distractions that can take your attention away from what you’re trying to achieve is an important step in achieving a healthy mental state. We live in a culture with so many interruptions – regular notifications from electronic devices have made us so used to interruptions that even when we don’t, we go searching for one.

A digital detox is something that James regularly does in the lead up to a competition to ensure he isn’t using any energy or head space on anything else apart from what he’s trying to achieve. Turning off notifications from your devices is a good way to put you in control of your devices and can help reduce distractions.

6. Practise mindfulness exercises

One key benefit of mindfulness is the ability to calm and focus the mind. No matter the situation, this ability to stabilise and direct the mind is especially important in moments when we may feel stressed, distracted, or overwhelmed.

Whilst there are so many mindfulness exercises for you to try, it’s about finding the right one for you. Yoga is a mindfulness exercise that James wants to pick up but he regularly uses music therapy to sit down and let his mind wonder. He also makes time for a lot of quiet time which gives him the space to not think.

7. Consuming the right nutrition

We often forget the impact that food has on how we feel throughout the day. Our brain uses 20% of the energy produced by the body so if we’re not fuelling the brain with the right nutrients, you can start to experience fatigue and concentration problems.

Like most people, James has noticed the effect too many refined carbohydrates and sugar can have on his focus and energy. His approach to nutrition has always been about listening to your body and knowing the right nutrients you need just when your body needs it.
Your body and mind work hand in hand. Focusing on having a healthy and balanced diet is key.

8. Follow a routine

Setting up a routine for yourself, even if it’s for the morning, will help you focus on specific tasks and put you in a healthy mental state to work with focus, energy and impact. James’ training is part of his routine but he recognises that it’s also important not to get too hung up on routine. Life can throw some obstacles in the way so although following a routine can help with your focus and productivity, remaining flexible and adaptable is key.

Since James’ accident, his training has changed from quantity to quality. He trains less but its more quality training to allow time for recovery. Although this was a change from his previous routine, James understands the benefits and how it is a good thing for him.

9. Listen to your body

Sometimes as productive or focused you want to be, your body and mind might need a rest. Try not to fight it as it can often affect you for even longer which will ultimately impact your goal, whatever it may be.
James finds it so hard to take time off from training when he’s feeling ill or physically/mentally fatigued, but he knows how much it would impact his performance in the long-run if he tried to fight it. Stay focused and let your body recover when it needs it so you can get back to your best even quicker.

10. Believe in yourself

And lastly, believing in yourself can affect your mental focus more than you think. If you doubt yourself and challenges arise, it can be easy to procrastinate, lose motivation, or even give up.

Every time James steps on the track, there is a 1 in 8 chance that he could potentially lose against other athletes, but if he performs to his best ability, he believes he can win and that’s the most important thing he needs to focus on.

Transforming these tips into your solution for mental focus

“We’re all different but we’ve all got the same tools to help us in challenging situations. Sometimes it’s hard to know what you’re capable of. If you can persevere, you can change a lot. Manifest that you can do something, be realistic of the challenges along the way and change your mind-set from ‘I can’t’ to ‘I can’. You’ll be amazed at what you can achieve.” – James Ellington, Olympic athlete

Even the unthinkable is possible and James’ journey is a true reflection of this. Whatever situation you find yourself in, whenever you feel distracted or slightly overwhelmed, try implementing some or all of James’ top tips to help you reach that healthy mental state.