During some point in our lives, during a moment of make or break, we’ve been told to focus – by a coach, by a teammate, or even by our own selves. But what does it truly mean to focus? When we hear Focus out there! or Just focus! do we really know where we should be holding our attention? At times, this can seem difficult or distracting, and in fact, it can even be detrimental to our performance if we are misdirecting our attention. However, focus is not an innate trait possessed only by few. It is an entirely developable skill that we can all learn.
The ability to focus can be accomplished by anyone. In fact, you’re focusing right now. As you read this sentence, your focus is on the content you are reading. Just like your decision to focus on these words, your performance begins with the decision to focus on information and behaviors helpful to your performance. As you will learn in other sections of this module, focus takes effort – serious mental effort. Attention, which is the physiological underpinning of focus, is a limited resource to each of us. Thus, you will need to be very intentional about where you direct your focus, how you attend to it, for what purpose and when. You will also want to make sure that what you are attending to is helping you advance toward your ultimate goals. Take a moment now to reflect on your performance goals and identify some specific focus points that will help you to achieve them. It may be helpful to write these down on a sheet of paper or journal dedicated to your mindset training.
Once you’ve outlined your goals and determined your focus points, you’ve set the first of many critical paths for your mindset training. It’s that easy and it’s that difficult. Your focus points might change from module to module, as your understanding of your mindset training develops, or from season to season, as the demands of your sport complicate and expand, but the process will remain the same: once you’ve isolated your goals, you’ll direct your attentional spotlight to those focus points– those tasks, actions and behaviors– that will move you in a straight line from where you are, to where you want to be.
It takes considerable practice and training, but controlling the duration and direction of your focus is crucial to stabilizing your performance outcomes, and enhancing your mental game.
A great way to think about whether your attention is focused is to take a moment to stop and reflect on your current setting. This exercise is best completed in a busy environment, but any setting will do. Grab a piece of paper and jot down something to focus on right now. This can be anything– a ticking clock, the whoosh of passing cars, or the way your chair feels on your haunches. Once you’ve found an object to focus on, do it. Try to focus on this one thing and nothing else for as long as you can. When you feel your focus drift to something else, stop the exercise and continue to the next paragraph. Ready? Go.
How easy was it for you to hold your attention? How long did you maintain your focus before your attention diverted or your mind wandered? Were you able to focus for a number of minutes or for only a number of seconds? If your focus didn’t hold for very long, you are not alone. It’s important to be aware that everything within and around you is competing for your attention at all times. This means that your external environment (such as the court or your teammates) and your internal environment (such as your thoughts or emotions) are constantly at odds and sending opposing signals to your body and brain. The decision to stay focused or to refocus is yours to make. Without that decision, your focus will be at the mercy of all the information that surrounds you. Remember that you have the ability to guide your attention and maintain your focus on whatever you want– even with distractions, when fatigued, and under pressure. However, to do so skillfully and intentionally will take effort and a lot of practice.
Our predilection is toward distraction. If we accept that our tendency is to be distracted, and that distractions will carry us away from time to time, we’re much better poised to have solutions in place for those moments when our distractions get the better of us. Managing distractions is a challenge for all athletes, particularly in times of duress or fatigue, so those who are able to recognize their distractedness and redirect their focus have a considerable edge over those who do not. The Action Plan below is a helpful tool to anticipate predictable distractions, whether external (e.g. crowd noise) or internal (e.g. discouragement), and to create simple, concrete strategies to re-focus your attention on actions and behaviors that will positively impact your performance.
Create an Action Plan like the one above before each of your competitions, and refer to it often as a part of your pregame preparation. You shouldn’t assume that your distractions will be consistent from performance to performance. As old distractions are filtered out, new ones will find their way in. But keeping a checklist of stimuli that have distracted you in the past, and more importantly, an index of behaviors that have successfully redirected your focus in times of distraction, will help make those transitions from distraction-to-refocused more automatic when the chips are down. Remember, the best way to mitigate distractions is to be prepared. Your Action Plan is your preparation.
Researchers have found that humans now lose concentration after only eight seconds, one-second less than the nine-second attention span of a goldfish!
Your focus is dependent upon the information toward which you direct your attention. When it comes to performance, this information falls into one of two categories: relevant information or irrelevant information (i.e. distractions). What’s fascinating about the human mind isn’t its ability to avoid distractions, but instead its ability to ignore distractions. You will never be able to truly avoid the competing external stimuli that surround you. In fact, all of the interference (or, “background noise”) you experience is always being sensed by your brain. However, it is only the information which you consciously decide to focus on that your brain processes. Believe it or not, there is a big difference between information being sensed and information being processed.
Below, you’ll find an exercise that puts the relationship between focus and performance to the test. You’ll need about 15 minutes, a ball, and ideally, a partner. While this exercise works best as a team drill, instructions are included to allow you to complete it independently. So block aside a few minutes, work through the exercise, and review the exercise summary beneath the graphic.
SUMMARY: Even if your performance differences between Rounds 2 and 3 of this exercise were minor, how and where we direct our attention impacts our performance, either positively or negatively. Selective attention, as we’ll be detailing in the section to follow, works in much the same way. If we choose to focus on information relevant to the task at hand, the mind will trigger the body to perform or react optimally. If we allow our focus to land on irrelevant thoughts or stimuli, our mind might miss the triggers it needs to perform consistently. Our mind processes the information that we focus on, so the more we choose focus points that are relevant to our performance, the better, and more consistent, our performance outcomes will be.
Our mind and body go through multiple stages between the presentation of an event (which grabs our focus) and our ultimate performance (i.e., the results). We want you to develop a Focus to Performance mindset that addresses each one of these stages: focus, thoughts, emotions, body reactions, behaviors and results. The flow from the event through each stage and its impact on your overall performance is outlined in the Focus to Performance Mindset model below.
Focus is a primary driver of our performance mindset. However, our minds can become easily “hooked” on any number of things at any given time. These distractions may include other parts of our performance mindset – past, present or future – and play a role in our ability to maintain a proper focus. For example, if you look through the model from left to right, these factors may include remembering past performances, thinking of the outcome or opponent, how anxious or angry we feel, body sensations like sweating or trembling, what we’re physically doing, such as passing the ball, or other information that our senses are bringing into our present-moment awareness. Athletes often get hooked on some piece of irrelevant information, particularly during high-pressure situations. Those athletes who are able to focus or refocus on relevant information increase their chances of performing successfully and achieving the results they want.
Each second, our brains are rapidly assessing hundreds of thousands of bits of information streaming through our stream of consciousness. While this can give us the impression that we can focus on multiple tasks simultaneously, we know that it isn’t truly possible. As you’ve been reading this text, your mind likely has not focused on your left foot – until now. And even though your foot has been sending signals to your brain this whole time, you likely haven’t given your left foot much attention – until now.
At all times, information flows through your Focus Window. It is that information on which you choose to hold your present-moment focus that matters most during competition. If you are focusing on negative (or de-constructive) thoughts that could potentially hinder your performance (such as the opponent’s skill level, soreness or negative criticism), then you cannot also be focusing on constructive information that can enhance your performance. However, the opposite is also true: if you’re holding your focus strongly on those positive thoughts and the relevant information, you cannot also be focused on something negative. It is important to be as intentional as possible about what you are choosing to focus on when you are performing, and to command your focus window to allow those negative thoughts to flow through while locking onto those that are positive and advantageous to your performance.
Russell Wilson’s mindset focus is a great example of how important it is to focus on the task you want to perform. Multiple studies have proven the importance of focus training to performance outcomes. One such study had two groups of soccer players complete a fairly typical soccer drill. While the first group was asked to focus on what they wanted to do during the drill (e.g., keep the ball close to the cones), the second group was asked to focus on what they did not want to do during the drill (e.g., letting the ball stray away from the cones). Both groups completed the drill with their assigned focus, and the results were vastly different. Athletes who focus on what they want to do (i.e., positives) versus what they don’t want to do (i.e., negatives) have better performance and a decreased risk of making mistakes.
When it comes to your sport, you will perform best when you focus on the relevant information for the task at hand. Just as you would eat a healthy diet and ensure proper rest to keep your body operating at an optimal level, you’ll want to make sure that you deliberately focus (or refocus, when distracted) your attention on what is relevant in that moment.
PEAK AND POOR PERFORMANCE EXERCISE
Below you’ll find an exercise we use with many of our clients to customize their mindset training. Take a few minutes to reflect on two distinct experiences you’ve had as an athlete: a peak performance when you’ve performed at your absolute best, and a poor performance when you just couldn’t seem to get over the hump. Your recollections of these experiences will be useful to your training in subsequent sections, so answer each question as thoughtfully as you can (use additional paper, if needed) before you review the summary section that follows.
SUMMARY: What we tend to find among athletes reporting on poor performances is a focus on uncontrollables. These include external sources like fans or the perceptions of their coaches, teammates, opponents, or internal influences like their feelings or emotions—nervousness or doubt are common feelings of note. Similarly, their focus tended toward past events—a missed shot, a dropped pass, any of a variety of mistakes or miscues—and future outcomes—the inevitable loss of a game or personal prestige, a dip in statistics, a missed opportunity for a scholarship or future playing time, and so on. When it comes to controllables, like behavior, we predictably see performance-inhibiting results. Head-hanging, negative self-talk, and angry behaviors are only too common.
On the other side of the continuum, athletes reporting on peak performances tend to note a focus on the task and the present moment. When asked to recall what they were thinking, many have difficulty, or even report that they weren’t really thinking. Now this, of course, isn’t true. We’re always thinking. But what it tells us is that their thoughts were likely simpler and more sequential—unlike the frenetic, colliding rush of thoughts we have when we’re anxious. It also tells us that their thoughts were backgrounded—their thoughts were positioned behind the task, not in front of it. The same is true of their feelings or emotions. Athletes performing optimally aren’t feeling any fewer emotions than those who are performing poorly, they’re just not focused on them. If how they feel is irrelevant to the task, it’s removed from their focus window. Controllable behaviors during peak performances are overwhelmingly performance-enhancing: vocal or leadership behaviors, chest-out “power poses” and postures, intentional, controlled-breathing, and the like.
Far be it from us to predict the results of your personal Peak and Poor Performance Reflections, every athlete is unique, but what we encourage you to do is to isolate those focus points in your Peak Performance Reflection that are controllable—these are likely present-moment foci, foci related to the task, and foci related to your actions and behaviors—and to practice bringing these focus points into your performances with intention. These are your personal performance boosters. They won’t bring about a peak performance at every turn, but they can be used to stabilize and direct your focus during times of drift or difficulty, and maintain your readiness during times of calm. Begin slowly before or during practice—you can even practice conjuring these focus points at home—and incrementally work them into your gametime performances. We’ll continue to help you broaden and develop these skills in future modules.
Awareness, Acceptance, And ReFocus to the task at hand.
Awareness – The first step toward dealing with distractions is to be aware that distractions exist. Are you aware of the irrelevant distractions your mind typically gets hooked on, or do you not realize where your focus is until you’ve missed a shot? You will only be able to shift your focus if you are aware that it has been diverted to non-essential thoughts. Once you are aware of it, you can then move on to accepting the distraction and moving on with your task.
Acceptance – Can you accept that the distraction will be there, and instead of trying to not think about it, or avoiding it, can you be okay that those distractions will come? It is important to acknowledge these hooks so that our minds can let go of them; simply accept the thoughts, accept that they are going to be there during pressure situations, and then allow them to pass through your focus window. Telling yourself that it’s okay those thoughts/distractions are present and that it’s okay because you knew they would be there can be helpful in these moments. Once you accept the distractions, you can move on towards refocusing on the task at hand.
And Refocus Attention – After you have become aware and accepted the distraction, guide your attentional spotlight back to the task in front of you. No matter how you feel (e.g., confident or fearful) understand and remind yourself that your best opportunity for success is focusing on the task presently in front of you. A golfer’s task may be to hit their target, while a softball player’s task may be to focus on the ball. Each sport and each athlete is different, and it’s important to know specifically what your task is in order to refocus your attention toward it. Nothing in that moment is more important than whatever your task or target is at that time, and you don’t need to feel or think a certain way to behave how you want.
Becoming an avid user of the AAA model (or any sport psychology tool for that matter) will take time. One of the best ways that you can begin to incorporate this tool is to try it out during practice. As you notice your focus being diverted or when you become aware that you are no longer focusing on the task at hand, remind yourself that it is normal and that these things happen. Once you have accepted the distraction, try to draw your mind back to the task at hand as quickly as possible. Practicing this process until it feels more natural or second nature will allow you to utilize it quickly and seamlessly in more critical moments of your performance.
Contributors: Videography by Neal Burke. Music by Klankbeeld. Music used with permission from http://www.freesound.org/people/klankbeeld/