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  • Writer's pictureBen Carnes

How athletes can learn to control their focus and handle distractions

Coaches and athletes spend countless hours improving technique and looking for ways to enhance performance during a game. In addition to the physical side of the game, coaches need to help athletes also develop the mental side of their game. Learning how to control your focus and deal with distractions is a key part of playing at your best in any sport. This can include both internal distractions and external distractions that pop up during a game. Internal distractions might include nerves, worries, doubts, or even positive things like hopes, dreams, and ambitions. External distractions may include crowd noise, weather conditions, refs, bad calls, and opposing players.

When athletes talk about being "in the zone," they refer to a mental state of complete and utter focus. In this state, all external distractions disappear, and the athlete only focuses on the task at hand. This is a simplistic view of a complex state of mind, but everyone would agree that allowing distractions to enter your mind while playing a sport is a surefire way to decrease your performance. Developing a plan for this is essential to help athletes overcome distractions and balance everything that is demanded of them in today's game.

The next question athletes usually have for me is, "but what if I always seem to lose focus during competition?" Research shows that athletes can improve this skill by practicing these skills and learning how to ignore outside distractions going on around them. The ability to focus is not something that some athletes are born with, similarly having trouble concentrating is not something you always have to be stuck with. Just like anything else in life, the more you practice this task of balance in your mind between what needs you attention and what should be ignored, the more your performance will improve.

Be aware of what you are focusing on

Right now, you are not paying attention to what the bottom of your feet feels like because your brain does not think that is important. If our brains paid attention to every single thing that we could see, touch, feel, taste, or hear, we would be completely overwhelmed all the time. In the field of sports psychology they refer to this as filtering, or being able to prioritize many things going on around us that could cause an individual to become distracted. This process of filtering goes on all the time, and a lot of the time, our brains do a pretty decent job of helping us make sense of the world and prioritize what is going on around us. As we go through life we develop and tweak this hierarchy of importance that will help us improve our performance in a game or match.

Usually, this process happens constantly and seamlessly every single day. However, when high-pressure situations arise, this can cause the process to get out of whack. If we over-focus on things that we cannot control, past events, worry about what could happen in the future, what other people might think of us, think about how good the other team is, wondering if we will win the game, etc., we can quickly find ourselves in a place where we are distracted. Just like our example with you not paying attention to what the bottom of your feet feel like, if you wiggle your toes, suddenly, your brain is paying attention to that. Why? Because you have directed intentional thought to the bottom of your feet. Before taking back control of our focus during competition, we must first be aware of what it is we are focused on (or are not focusing on) during competition.

Here is a free worksheet that will give you the resources we cover throughout the rest of this article:

Action Step #1 - What do you focus on during competition?

If you printed off the free worksheet, #1 gives you some space to write down the things you often find yourself focused on or thinking about during competition. Write out your list and try to be thorough as possible. What has distracted you in the past? What has caused your performance during games to suffer the most?