How to Coach Athletes to Focus on the Right Thing

Focus is essential for peak performance. Athletes who focus on the right things at the right times will outperform those who get distracted. However, this begs the question, “What is the right thing to focus on?”

Where Not to Focus

Before we get to where athletes should focus, let’s talk briefly about where their focus shouldn’t be.

When an athlete is nervous, worried, or anxious it is easy for him or her to become focused on the wrong thing. Negative self-talk, mistakes, fatigue, pain, or butterflies in the stomach are just a few examples. These often lead to athletes psyching themselves out.

Another common misplaced focal point is mechanics. What happens is often referred to as paralysis by analysis. Players overthink their techniques, which disrupts the fluid movements they’ve mastered in practice.

When focus is misplaced, athletes are distracted and second guess themselves, which causes hesitation, lack of confidence, and poor performance.

Peak Performers Focus on the Task at Hand

Research clearly demonstrates that when peak performers are at their best, their focus is on the task at hand. This is also referred to as “being in the present.”

Inherently, coaches know this. I hear them say, “lock in,” or “get focused.” There are lots of variations. The intent is to get the athlete to focus in on the task at hand. But, does the athlete know that?

Focusing for Peak Performance

In order to perform at their best, athletes need to know how to focus on the task at hand. Here are 3 steps to sharpen their focus for game day.

Identify the Focal Point 

To begin with, athletes must identify where their focus needs to be during key aspects of the game, such as during a corner kick or in the red zone. Focal points which are specific, controllable, observable, and relevant work best.

For example, a soccer player might focus on footwork.

  • Specific – The brain functions best when given a specific target to focus on. Footwork is a specific component of positioning and ball control.
  • Controllable – Footwork is certainly within an athlete’s control.
  • Observable – The focal point should be something the athlete can do, see, hear, or touch. Footwork is something the athlete does. The intent here is to avoid focusing on counterproductive thoughts, pain, or fatigue.
  • Relevant – The focal point must be relevant to the game and the athlete’s position. Footwork is critical to a soccer player’s performance.

Focusing on tactics, plays, and executing the current play/maneuver are useful areas to consider when looking for a focal point. Keep them simple and actionable.

Choose a Focus Trigger

A trigger is a word, sign, motion, or action that triggers athletes to “lock in” on their focal points.

As a tennis player, my SCOR focal point was often “cross court” for return of serve. This was based on my strategy. My trigger was my ready-grip for return of serve. When I felt the racquet handle come into my ready position, that triggered my focus for hitting a cross course return.

In the above example, my trigger was an action I took. Alternatively, I could have simply used self-talk to tell myself “cross court” immediately before my opponent served the ball.

Encourage players to keep their triggers simple. One or two words or a single movement is all it takes.

Apply Different Triggers for Different Performance Segments

Now that I’ve explained how to help a player identify a focal point and choose a trigger, there is one more element to consider. A game, match or race has multiple parts. I’ll refer to these parts as segments. Some athletes find it helpful to have a focal point and trigger for each segment of their performance. This helps prevent irrelevant thoughts and distractions and keeps them focused on the task at hand.

In this clip, Olympic champion Usain Bolt explains how he uses focal points and cues during different segments of the 100m race.

In the chart below, I outlined the focus triggers Usain Bolt uses in the video.Usain Bolt Cues for 100m RaceWow, all that in under 10 seconds. These triggers keep Usain Bolt locked in and focused solely on the race.

Free Download

To help you walk athletes through this exercise, I developed this free worksheet, complete with simple directions.

Train Their Brains with Triggers

By repeatedly practicing these triggers in drills, scrimmages, and rehearsals, they will become second nature. Triggers help athletes intentionally train their brains and bodies to respond in a set way.

Coaches, it is highly preferable to allow individual athletes to customize these triggers to their own words or motions. Some athletes perform best with several cues while others need just a few. Remember, what is effective for one athlete may not be as effective for another.

If you want to know how to help an athlete refocus when they get distracted, check out this post.

Lock In Task at Hand Focus

In the heat of battle, thoughts can become scattered and emotions may run high. However, with some intentional planning, athletes can identify their focal points for key areas of their sport. Then they can instill trigger words to condition the mind and body to lock in on the right target at the right time.

Question: What are the toughest situations for athletes to keep their focus on the task at hand? Share your insights in the comments section. 

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Please note: I encourage reader discussion, however, I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

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