Home » Focus is a Muscle by Connor O’Leary at TEDxUIUC (Full Transcript)

Focus is a Muscle by Connor O’Leary at TEDxUIUC (Full Transcript)

So I spent the next week or so lying in a hospital bed, coughing up blood, while the blood thinners ran through my veins trying to break down those clots. Hands down it was one of the scariest experiences of my life. But ultimately I was released, I was able to go home and I was able to finish those last few rounds of chemotherapy.

Now it wasn’t until I got home from the hospital that I realized it was my focus that I had to thank for being alive. It was those sometimes endless thankless cold terrible hot days of training that it served an even greater purpose than a spot on the podium. It was my focus that saved my life.

Now eventually after my chemo and my blood clots, I was able to get back on the bike. And I was able to start really training again. And eventually I did get back to the top of the sport. But before that, when the chemo and the blood clots were over, I was starting from Ground Zero. And I knew that I couldn’t just start riding immediately. So I focused on the lowest impact sport I could possibly think of, which at the time was swimming. And I remember going to the local community pool and it must have been seniors night out or seniors get half off because the place is absolutely crawling with bald-headed old guys. And I’m not going to lie, I fit right in.

So at the pool they had this kind of resistance track where you walk against the current. And so I decided okay, I’m going to start there. So I hopped in and started walking against the current. And I quickly realized that I was getting lapped by a 90 year old man, not 19, 90! Granted he was a really fit 90 year old. But I remember thinking to myself, man, this is what I’ve become. I went from being in a lead level athlete to now getting lapped in a community pool by a bunch of old people. I’m not going to like crush my soul but I remembered that focus is a muscle and it has memory — muscle memory. Although my body wasn’t cooperating, my mind hadn’t forgotten all of my cycling and training. And I could still remember those stories that I would tell myself. When I’m really hurting in a race it is key to compartmentalize. I can’t think of the big picture in the moment.

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So if I’m on this climb with 10 kilometers to go, I’m thinking of the challenge or in this case the climb, in the smallest increments possible. I focus on 30 seconds, I tell myself OK, Connor, you can do anything for 30 seconds. And then I tell myself that same thing 30 seconds later. And I do this again and again and again until ultimately I’m at the top of that climb.

I’ve learned through cycling that our minds really do tend to give up before our bodies. And focus is about being able to tell ourselves the story, whatever story that may be. Now like I said, I was ultimately able to get back on the bike, really start training and get back to the top of the sport. And I didn’t know it at the time but I had one more big race ahead of me. Now anybody who knows me knows that I love traveling and I love exploring. And so when I heard that CBS was accepting applications for the Amazing Race, I knew there was no question I had to apply. So I grabbed my dad, we went into the garage and we shot this quick five-minute application video. And then before I knew it, less than six months later there we are: land upon the start line, ready to go, 10 other teams on a race around the world.

Now anybody who’s seen the race or has watched a few episodes knows that you have to read the clue. The entire clue. Those that don’t usually get eliminated quickly. So there my dad and I are. We’re on the second leg, somehow we are in the lead and we’re in Bora Bora. So we ribbed that clue open and we take off, headed to dive for pearls. So we get to the dive location and we realize we don’t have our dive bags, which we needed for the dive challenge. We hadn’t read the entire clue and we hadn’t followed the rule that we set for ourselves before the race even began, which was to read the clue slowly, thoroughly and focus on what the clue actually said. But instead of letting ourselves get distracted by our huge stupid mistake, we knew we had to refocus and get back on track immediately. So that’s exactly what we did.

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You have to be able to adapt on the Amazing Race. There are so many variables that can really hinder your ability to focus, just like everyday life. In this case you have a camera in your face, you’re very sleep deprived, you’re in who knows where and you’re racing for a million dollars. So like I said you have to be able to adapt. But focus isn’t just about being singular in mind. Like I said, it’s about adaptability. And if you’ve learned how to focus, when you need to change directions in your life, you will do so much easier and quicker if you strengthen this mental muscle.

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