The post on confidence in sports got a lot of attention, over 8500 views as I’m writing this, for which I’m very grateful. It also led to a lot of questions, half the questions were mainly people questioning what “a chick for crying out loud” –actual words used by Sean R.- knows about professional sports, the other half on focus and motivation in sports. Unfortunately, I can’t answer those questions in 140 characters or less, and replying to everyone separately would take too long. When it comes to my experience within the field of sports psychology, I work with (semi) professional athletes, have a Master of Science degree within the field and experience as an athlete (look at that, I can answer it in 140 characters or less). Now that we’ve got that covered, let’s look at the importance of focus in sports.
What is focus?
Generally focus is misunderstood, a popular description of focus is the ability to focus on one particular subject/object/thing for a long time. Unfortunately, that is incorrect. Another common error is claiming that focussing and thinking are the same thing. Focus is the ability to give your undivided attention to one cue and ignoring/paying zero attention to other cues within your field of attention. Thinking is connected to the personal involvement in the sport, as in how important is the sport to that person. One of the most important differences between focussing and thinking is that athletes use failure to correct the problem when focussed, whereas failure will hurt an athlete’s confidence and cause frustration when they are thinking.
A person can choose to focus on a lot of different things, for now I will divide them into two categories; cues that are of importance and in relation to performance, and cues that are irrelevant and unrelated to performance. In football, focussing on cues related to the performance means cues related to your technique, team tactics, the score during a game, and even in some cases cues related to your opponent and their tactics. Focussing on cues unrelated to the athlete’s performance means focussing on things that will harm your ability to perform, this can include anxiety, going through your shopping list during a game, thinking about the stuff people other than your coach and teammates said/wrote about you.
Partially thanks to J. Taylor, we can now identify two different styles of focus. A focus style is, in his words, a preference for paying attention to certain cues. An athlete’s dominant style will become more evident when the athlete is under pressure.
There is the internal focus style, this is for athletes who perform best when they are only and consistently focussed on the game during training and matches. They need to maintain a narrow focus, because they are usually easily distracted by cues irrelevant to their sport and their performance. Once distracted, these athletes tend to struggle to narrow their focus onto the sport again.
Then there is the external focus style, these athletes perform best when they only focus on the sport when they’re about to start training or about to start a match, apart from that they prefer to broaden their focus. These athletes usually over think, they tend to become negative and suffer from anxiety.
Athletes with an external focus style tend to run into issues with their coach, simply because most coaches in professional sports believe that athletes who are not completely focussed don’t take their sport seriously. Unfortunately, these athletes perform best if they don’t pay too much attention to their sport, and allow their natural ability to take over. Mario Balotelli is an excellent example of an athlete with an external focus style, he cannot perform under the management of coaches who force him to continuously and consistently think about football, he’s a player who performs better when he allows his natural ability to take over.
Improving and controlling focus
The first step in improving focus as an athlete is to acknowledge and recognise cues and triggers. Pick out the cues and triggers that help your performance, avoid and ignore others. The next step is to understand the focus style, external or internal. This will help to understand what an athlete has to do. Athletes with an external focus style can become too focussed on themselves, which can lead to anxiety or too much pressure. Athletes with an internal focus style can have issues narrowing their focus after being distracted, possibly leading to frustrated athletes.
What’s up next should be used after establishing personal goals, which will be discussed in the next piece on motivation. This is from the same J. Taylor as mentioned above, the four P’s:
- Positive: Focus on positive things that improve and help your performance and avoid negative things.
- Process: Focus on what makes you perform best, e.g. techniques/tactics, and avoid distractions.
- Present: Focus on what you have to do right here and now to perform, and avoid thinking about the past. You have control over the present and can’t change the past.
- Progress: Focus on your own development and improvement and avoid comparing yourself to others. Athletes develop at different rates, as long as you’re steadily progressing towards the goal you want to achieve, you are on the right track.
Practice makes perfect, just like technique and confidence require practice and training, focus does too. Each athlete requires a different type of practice, but there are options for all types of athletes. Pre-performance routines tend to improve the focus of athletes, as does relaxation. Some athletes require visualisation and imagery in order to focus on the task ahead. Every athlete is different, but with the help of psychologists and coaches athletes can determine which tools they need to and can use.
There’s only so much information I can put in a blog post, so I’ll leave it at that. Special thanks to J. Taylor (Ph.D.) for sharing his insight and knowledge. Remember, positivity gets you further in life, that’s a promise.