Here’s What to do the Next Time the Coach Yells “Focus out There!”

“Focus out there!!!” 

If you have ever played sports then you have likely heard a coach yell these words countless times.  Focus is the act of concentrating on a specific target, while ignoring other irrelevant factors that cause distraction.  In sports, the ability to properly focus attention is often the difference between winning and losing, good players and great players.

The importance of focus

The first thing to know about focus is that we are 100% able to control our own focus — even if this is, at times, difficult to do.  It is important to accept this fact and not get caught up thinking you have physical limitations that prevent you from directing your attention toward specific stimuli.  For example, right now you could focus on an object in the room, or you could focus on something you did earlier today.  The point is that our minds are very powerful, and under our control — the key is developing focus skills that allow us to reach our full potential.

In sports, focus might be the single greatest variable when it comes to success and failure.  Athletes regularly have in-game distractions around them (i.e. the crowd, the opponent, etc), as well as more global focus distractions, like a pending storm, what a college recruiter is thinking sitting in the stands, or issues looming around an upcoming sport retirement transition.  Focusing on the next play in sports (the only thing that’s important) is certainly not always easy, but it is possible, and the dividends are very worthwhile.

The impact of fear

Human fear can get in the way of a lot of things in life, including sport success.  Think about this — our minds can’t think of two different things at the same exact time, meaning one thought will always win over the other.  When athletes struggle to focus on relevant factors, it is almost always irrelevant factors grounded in fear that steal their attention.  For example, rather than focusing on the next play, an athlete might worry about things like whether the coach is going to pull him, what negative things the fans are yelling in the stands, or even how bad he will look if he makes yet another mistake in the game.  In all three of these examples fear is the driving force behind the focus distraction.

Drilling deeper, fear can be a useful tool when it’s based in things that put us in harms way — like driving in a car out of the way of a potential accident.  In sports, however, this is usually not the case as it is irrational fear that is the biggest hurdle to success.  What this means is the fear distraction athletes experience isn’t that they are going to be physically hurt, but that their ego will be damaged because of not performing well.  It is for this reason that the more effort an athlete puts toward conquering fear, the more likely he or she will see an additional benefit of dramatically improved focus as a result.

Where to direct your focus

When I work with athletes I like to keep things simple, and improving focus is no exception.  During competition there are two very important places athletes should direct their focus, and each has a specific time and place to be used:

  1. Focus on the next play.  For the majority of time during a game athletes should work hard to discipline themselves to focus on the next play only.  Sounds simple, but remember all those distractions that regularly get in the way.  Before each play the athlete should be thinking about his or her assignment, where they need to be on the field, and an awareness of time left in the game.  Remember, by focusing on these factors it becomes impossible to simultaneously focus on distractions.
  2. Focus on something pleasant.  Our minds can change gears in just a second if we program our mind to do just that.  For example, if you are a reserve sitting on the sidelines and becoming frustrated about playing time, simply getting angry in your mind won’t do much (in fact, it will likely steal the attention you need to focus on what’s going on in the game).  By focusing on something pleasant (i.e. the fact that you are healthy enough to be a part of the team, and eventually will get your chance) your attitude, confidence, and self-esteem will all improve as a result — and these variables help with overall success in life.

Final thoughts

Often in life we look for more complex “answers” to the problems we experience than are necessary.  For example, take weight loss — people will spend billions of dollars each year on fad diets and mechanisms designed to quickly trim fat, but the reality is that for as long as humans have walked the earth the best way to lose weight is remarkably simple: Eat less food and move more.  The same thinking is true here — even though “focus” might seem like a simple, unimportant skill, the reality is that it is one of the most important life skills to develop.

How important do you think focus is when it comes to sports (and life) success?  What advice do you have for young athletes looking to improve in this area?

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