Perhaps the most important skill you’ll need to be a competitive athlete is compartmentalization. Compartmentalizing on a broad level is essential to managing your athletic, academic, and social commitments. Athletes must be students in the classroom, competitors on the field and in the weight room, and brothers/sisters/friends in their free time. Broad compartmentalization allows us to navigate between these three domains effectively and remain organized. A related, but more important skill is micro-compartmentalization. This is where an athlete focuses entirely on the immediate task at hand without worrying about the future. Micro-compartmentalization is basically mental shortsightedness. Imagine a rock climber dangling off the side of a cliff; he doesn’t worry about climbing the rest of the mountain, he only looks for the next hand hold. Be the rock climber.
No doubt you’ve heard about compartmentalizing to such a degree before, but do you ever utilize it? Have you ever been so tired, sore, out of breath, or broken down that the only way to accomplish a task was to literally focus on taking one step at a time? Here’s a familiar scenario: it’s a brutally hot summer day in July, and you’re looking down the barrel of a preseason conditioning test. Eighteen 110-yard sprints, as fast as possible. Maybe it’s a turf field, in which case the surface scorches your cleats after baking in the sun all day. A blanket of humid air smothers the field; heavy and undisturbed save by your team’s apprehensive breaths. You know this test is going to take everything you have, and then some. There’s only one way out: to focus solely on the immediate challenge, to micro-compartmentalize, to embrace the pain.
You start by running one sprint at a time. “Just get to the other end of the field, as fast as possible,” you tell yourself. This works for the first few sprints, but soon an insidious self-doubt and urge to fake an injury begins to gnaw at your mind. You’re thinking “there’s no way I can make all these sprints in the time limit”. You must compartmentalize further. Thus, each sprint becomes four smaller challenges, completed consecutively and at full speed. First, the get-off: come out firing, drive your knees, fast and powerful steps. Second, the sprint: long strides, arm swing, breathe. Third, the home-stretch: stay strong, sprint through the line, don’t let your team down. Finally, the recovery: breathe, stand tall, smile, you’re having fun. On to the next one. It’s pure tunnel vision. Each challenge becomes your entire world, and nothing else exists outside of completing them. During each segment of each sprint, you repeat those mantras, willing yourself through. When the dust finally settles, you wipe the sweat from your eyes, and stand victorious. You have passed the test.
At Stadium Performance, our athletes often show up to lift and ask how many sprints we’ve assigned for the day’s conditioning session. The way I see it, you shouldn’t care how many sprints you’re running after lift. Be shortsighted. You’ve already got plenty of tasks to accomplish before we even get to conditioning, so don’t distract yourself or worry about the future. Treat every rep as if it will be your last, and put your heart and soul into that one rep. Focus on the mission at hand. There’s only one way to become a proficient compartmentalizer, and that is to practice daily until it becomes a habit. Get used to ignoring the pain, giving your maximum effort, and being short-sighted.
Ultimately, compartmentalizing can be summed up with three words: win this rep. Forget how seemingly impossible the larger task might be. If you’re still breathing, you still have an opportunity to accomplish it. Win the most immediate battle. By repeatedly winning these small fights, you eventually win the war.