Many factors contribute to sports performance. Outcomes in sport are very often decided by a small margin which, in many cases, can be traced back to a lapse in concentration. Below are some common signs of low concentration, which will give you some idea of how well focused you are in the sporting arena.
If you have poor focus, you are likely to show some of following characteristics:
- You are often easily distracted by outside factors during competitions, including the opposition, referees and officials, the audience, and sometimes the weather.
- You are often distracted by internal feelings of anxiety and fear.
- You have a tendency to ‘switch off’ at crucial moments in competitions.
- After making a mistake you will often dwell on the error replaying it in your mind.
- You have a tendency to over-think and over-analyse up-coming games. This is sometimes referred to as ‘paralysis by analysis.’
- You become overly concerned with winning and losing, and consequently you take your focus off the key processes and actions that win games.
These tips and tools will help you develop match-winning focus.
The power of process
Focus needs to be directed towards stimuli and actions which are in your control. There are two main types of focusing style; process and outcome. Often in professional team environments there is an over-emphasis on outcomes, where the athletes and coaches become overly consumed with winning and losing. The problem with this over-emphasis on outcomes is that it does not tell you HOW to achieve the desired result.
Take an outcome and break it down into the key processes that form the backbone of this outcome. For example, winning a football match may include processes such as keeping your head up, playing the ball to feet, tracking back, keeping your eye on the ball, and so on. Once you have identified the key processes, make sure all your preparation is organised to keep your focus on these processes. This may involve modifying your language when you communicate with team-mates and coaches, making sure that it is at the process level.
This will keep your focus on what you need to do to create a win.
If you’re a coach it is important to make sure that your instructions are process driven, and directed towards the tasks that your players will need to focus on if they are going to win.
To read more about the Mindsport approach to process orientation in sport follow this link.
Telling someone to go out and win is not coaching, telling someone how to, is!
Improve your concentration by not trying as hard
Athletes and coaches often make the mistake of thinking improving concentration involves trying harder. In fact, the opposite is usually the case.
Obtaining a state known as ‘relaxed excellence’ is the pathway to developing an optimal focus.
In order to obtain this state of relaxed excellence, clear your mind of any thoughts. With your eyes closed focus on the dark space that now occupies your mind, while taking slow and deep breaths. As you begin to feel more relaxed imagine breathing in a calm soothing light that moves through every part of your body, creating a soft and peaceful tingly feeling. With every exhalation notice any negative energy that may still be present leaving your body.
If you do this regularly you will have a powerful tool to get you feeling relaxed and focused whenever you want.
There are only 2 directions focus can take: inwards and outwards.
Inward focus consists of attending to your internal thoughts. In the context of sport, planning your routines and set-plays is an example of inward focus. Dwelling on past mistakes, and worrying about up-coming events are also examples of inward focus.
Outward focus involves attending to the physical events that are going on around you. Being consumed with the physical actions of your sport would be a prime example of outward focus.
Do all your inward focusing before a performance. This may involve planning your strategic approach to the game, and creating a positive internal state to go out and compete.
Once you enter the competitive arena become totally absorbed in the physical actions of your sport, and allow your internal thought processes to function automatically. The moment that your focus goes inwards during a performance, you run the risk of paralysis by analysis. This is a state that arises when you over-think automatic actions. The moment that you think too much about the specific action you cause it to unravel, and become cumbersome.
Where should my focus be?
When you are aiming to improve your focus it is important to clearly separate the things you have control over from those which you don’t.
The procedure for this is to think of 2 domains; ‘inside the bubble’ and ‘outside the bubble’. Everything that you have control over exists within your bubble, while the things you cannot control exist outside your bubble.
For example, the fans’ behaviour is an ‘outside of the bubble’ factor, while your work rate during a performance is an example of an ‘inside of the bubble’ factor.
Write down 10 things that as an athlete you have control over, and 10 things that you do not have control over.
During your sporting career make sure that you keep your focus on the things you can control and influence, and ignore the factors over which you have no control.
Tick tock, tick tock
There are many exercises that you can use to develop and improve your focus. The one below is fairly common, but the great thing about these kinds of exercises is that you can invent your own.
Find a comfortable seat in front of a clock and spend as long as you can focusing on the movement of the second hand, with a clear mind. The moment a thought enters your head, stop and start again. Time yourself and see how long you can last. Over time your performance on this task will begin to improve. This will help you achieve a very effective outward focus system.
Move towards the things you want
Often your focus is directed away from the things you don’t want instead of towards the things you do. Faulty inward focus styles which may include internal dialogue such as, ‘I don’t want to lose this match’ should be replaced with, ‘I want to win this match’. Although a subtle change, it is powerful. You should always strive to move towards your goals, instead of focusing on the things you want to avoid.
You get more of what you focus upon, so if your mind is preoccupied with what you don’t want, unfortunately this is exactly what you will get.
Take note of all the internal dialogue that you have with yourself and make sure that the language you use shows that you are moving towards your ambitions, and not away from things you want to avoid.
Productive focus styles are easier to achieve if you spend a short amount of time getting yourself into a positive state. When your mind and your body are feeling good, this will be reflected positively in your behaviour. Consequently your focus will automatically be directed towards positive and constructive ends.
Here is an exercise that is used frequently to generate resourceful states.
Close your eyes and create a big, bold colourful picture of a group of people closest to you. Now imagine the one thing that each of these individuals is saying to you in order to make you feel on top of the world. Notice how good their messages make you feel, then open your eyes and take these good feelings into the sporting arena.
Mental rehearsal is often known as visualisation. This term is misleading as visualisation involves more than just the visual sense.
The brain doesn't distinguish between reality and fantasy, giving imagined events the potential to become as impressionable as physical experiences.. Vivid dreams are a prime example of this. If you can utilise the power of mental rehearsal then you can dream with your eyes open and make magic happen in the sporting arena.
Mental rehearsal can be used to improve any faculty you wish. In this section you can use it to improve your focus. Get yourself into a relaxed and comfortable state and close your eyes. Create a big, bold, and colourful picture of you looking focused in your sport. Imagine this picture is on a panoramic screen, and now turn this picture into a movie. Notice how you move when you are focused, and notice the sounds that accompany the movie when you are focused. Keep watching the movie until you know that you can apply this kind of focus in the present moment. Once you are sure of this, open your eyes.
Keep your feet on the ground
In the world of sport sometimes it is important to be pragmatic and down to earth. There is a real danger if you are a highly ambitious individual to become lost in your dreams and aspirations. Individuals who become overly preoccupied with visions of success and glory forget to place their focus on the processes that they will need to engage in if they are going to obtain their long term goals.
Outcomes are only a reflection of the quality of the processes you have been engaging in. If your processes are dominated by an inward focus of success and glory you will make little progress towards your goals.
Everyday examine what you have done in order to move towards your dreams and aspirations? Do this religiously and you will keep tabs on your progress, helping to prevent any potenial slacking. This exercise is more powerful when you get someone close to you to ask you this question once a day. This creates a certain level of accountability to this other person, adding an external pressure to keep you moving towards your goals.
The importance of keeping in shape
Fitness is obviously a huge component of any sport; without a good level of fitness performances suffer dramatically. Fitness also has a huge impact on your concentration levels. When you are suffering from fatigue it is a lot harder to keep your focus. Proof of this is the fact that you are more likely to make a mistake towards the end of a contest when you are tired, compared to any other time during the competition.
Try to increase your training regime incrementally to improve your stamina. This may be systematic increases of ten minutes during training sessions.
Please explore our article on how to get more out of your gym routine in the Mindsport article '9 ways to maximise your workout using the mind'.