How To Help Athletes Focus On What They Can Control

What is your favorite sport blooper? Chances are good that you enjoyed a laugh at the expense of an athlete who wasn’t focused on the right thing at the right time. Bloopers can happen when athletes focus on what is beyond their control (e.g., referees, weather), which quickly builds frustration, stress, and distraction.

In sports, there are countless things to focus on: position, technique, the play, crowd noise, etc. The best athletes learn to direct their attention to the items they can control.

My Tennis Debacle

In high school, my team played for a spot in the finals of the VA State Championships. They counted on me to come through my singles match with a win. As the match got underway, I became focused on my opponent’s unconventional style of play, poor technical skills, and his questionable calls.

Worse was that I knew I should be winning and I wasn’t. I was frustrated and muttered under my breath, angry with myself that I was letting this kid beat me. I didn’t want to let my parents, my team, or myself down.

My head swarmed with counterproductive thoughts. I focused on all the wrong things. I didn’t realize how much this affected my performance. Most importantly, I didn’t know what to do about it.

How to Focus on Controllables

As a coach you’ve surely seen countless examples of athletes (and perhaps yourself, too) focusing on the things beyond their control.

They become irritated, frustrated, stressed, and tense. This intensity of emotion and muscle tension negatively effects an athlete’s performance.

How can you help your team focus on what they can control? Athletes can learn to focus primarily on what they can control by working through this simple 3 step exercise.

The exercise is designed to help athletes think more productively by focusing thoughts on their “Circle of Influence” rather than their “Circle of Concern” (Covey, 1989).

Step 1: Performance Factors

Direct athletes to generate a word bank of factors they focus on during competitions. Have them aim for at least 10 performance factors.

Some may be more controllable, while others will be less controllable. Athletes can collect both at this point in the exercise.

Step 2: Categorize Each Factor

Now ask athletes to categorize each factor in their word banks as either controllable or uncontrollable.

A controllable factor is something an athlete has some control over and can do something about. Examples may include technique, breathing, tempo, effort, holding onto the ball, or accuracy.

An uncontrollable factor is something an athlete has no control over and can do nothing about. Examples may include weather, crowds, teammates performance, referees, coach reactions, or play calls.

The idea in Step 2 is to make a quick assessment of each factor and categorize it without over-thinking it.

Step 3: Scrutinize Uncontrollables

This is where the magic happens. Athletes need to shift their perspective of uncontrollable factors and focus on how they can influence the way they perceive them.

Changing the way athletes perceive an uncontrollable factor often means helping them shift focus to the 3 things they can always control: their thoughts, emotions, and reactions.

In Step 3, athletes review the factors they categorized as uncontrollable. For each factor, ask them to try to identify a way they can influence it.

  • Is the uncontrollable factor something to be avoided or ignored, like a bad call by a referee or rain in a football game?
  • Can athletes change how they think about it (called reinterpretation) or how they feel about it? Making a mistake is an example of this type of factor.
  • How could they react differently to factors such as being scored on in a soccer match or losing a set in volleyball?

Once players find their points of influence, the uncontrollable factors are crossed out and relabeled to highlight what can be influenced.

The intent is for athletes to come away from the exercise understanding that they can influence how they think about a variety of performance factors. The more athletes focus on what they can influence, the better they perform.

Free Download

To help you walk athletes through this exercise, I developed a free worksheet, you can download.

Thinking Like a Champion

Athletes who direct their thoughts and attention toward the problems and circumstances they can control will outperform those who focus on the uncontrollable. Help your team rise to the top by putting their time, energy, and effort into aspects of competition they can influence. To play like a champion athletes have to start thinking like one.

Question: What uncontrollable factor do your athletes get distracted by? Leave your example in the comments below.


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

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