In competition, athletes often get distracted by thoughts, fears and forecasts. This creates added stress and takes focus and concentration away from the current play. Performance plummets, mistakes are made and the player struggles to get his or her head back in the game. What if you could help athletes stay focused in the present?
What Focus Means
As an athlete, when I got distracted and made a mistake, my coaches, in their infinite wisdom would say things like, “focus,” or “get your head in the game.” It wasn’t helpful. Likely, they knew what I needed to do. My coaches just didn’t know how to explain it to me, how to teach me how to shift my attention. I know they meant well, I often thought, “If I knew how to focus I’d be doing it already.”
The Lesson of the Rubber Band
As a coach, I used to tell athletes to picture a rubber band in their minds. A rubber band can stretch backward, as if stretching into the past. It can also stretch forward, into the future.
However, when we stretch the rubber band into the past or into the future, it is under added stress. That stress effects its adaptability to the current moment. It isn’t at the ready, poised to do its job. The rubber band is at its peak performance level, when it is relaxed and “ready” for whatever comes its way. It can take action and react as needed.
When athletes get stuck in ancient history (I really messed up this play last time we ran it.), second guess themselves (Why did I miss that shot?) or make excuses (I thought she was going the other way.) they are stretching into the past. With their focus in the past, athletes may hesitate, lose motivation, decrease effort or become frustrated.
Focusing on the future outcome (Hang in there for 2 more minutes and we win.) or forecasting a future mistake (I really hope I don’t miss this free throw.) stretches athletes into the future. With a focus in the future, athletes may press, tighten up or become nervous.
In both scenarios, the athlete inhibits his or her focus on the here and now and raises his or her stress level – both detract from performance. Mistakes mount as errant decisions are made. How can you help a player stay focused in the present moment?
Help Your Team Stay Present-Focused
Athletes can remain present-focused during competition by following a simple and individualized recipe to create and use a cue.
Step 1: Identify Distractors
Over the last few competitions, what has distracted them from the present moment? Consideration should be given to internal distractions like their own thoughts, fears and forecasts. They should also consider external distractors like referees, weather or a boyfriend in the stands.
Having athletes identify distractors increases their awareness of when their attention shifts away from the present moment. This puts individuals in the driver’s seat when it happens again.
Step 2: Generate a Present-Focus Cue
Ask athletes think of what to tell themselves when their attention shifts away from the here and now. Then have them write this on an index card for future reference. Encourage players to keep this simple. It just needs to be something that makes sense to them.
A few ideas:
- “Be here”
- “Stay present”
- “In the now”
Step 3: Plug In the Present-Focus Cue
In practice, for the next week, tell players to plug in their present-focus cue any time their attention drifts from the task at hand.
WARNING: Athletes may find themselves using the cue a lot at first. With practice, like anything else, they will become more comfortable focusing in the present moment. Using their cues will flow more naturally too.
Help your team perform up to its potential by coaching players to keep a present focus. They’ll make fewer mental mistakes. When things don’t go their way, they’ll bounce back faster. Closing out the big game will come more easily. Teach your team to be like the rubber band.
Create A Present-Focus Cue
Question: What other tips have worked for you to keep athletes present-focused? I’m sure we can learn from each other. Please leave a comment in the section below this post.