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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?

What should you focus on during competition?

For this next part I want to include an excerpt from my book Focus Cycle: a guide to controlling your mind and body in Big Moments,

"So how do we do that? Part of our top-down response is to intentionally focus on what we choose, based on the following two questions:

  1. What can I control?

  2. What matters right now?

It is sometimes helpful to sit down and just list what you can control and things you cannot control. For example, you cannot control some things like score, the weather, bad calls, playing time, something that your teammates do, how good your opponent is, and the list goes on depending on your situation. On the other hand, you can also write down what you can control, like your effort, intensity, enthusiasm, focusing on the present, trusting your process, taking the next step, and so on. Focusing on things that you can control will help you stay focused on what matters, while focusing on things outside of your control will do nothing more than serve as a distraction and keep you from playing at your full potential.

When it comes to things that matter right now, I often give the example of a quarterback in football. If he makes the wrong read and accidentally throws an interception to the other team, does that matter? Yes, if he wants to be a great quarterback, he will need to learn from his mistake and fix that at some point to improve. Is that something he should be worrying about or focusing on in the middle of the next possession? No, absolutely not. That could potentially be paralyzing to his decision-making process and possibly cause him to play too conservatively. It could end up costing his team the game. The most important part of that second question is what matters right NOW! If it doesn’t matter right NOW, then decide to deal with it later. You can fix it the next day in the film room or at your next practice or training session.

Another example of this is on the golf course. If a golfer is slicing their mid-range irons, the middle of the round is not the time to try a significant diagnostic adjustment. Instead, make a note of it and take care of it on the driving range or with your swing coach. Diagnosing a problem like that during competition is distracting and does more harm than good."

Action Step #2 - What should I be focused on during competition?

If you downloaded the worksheet, next you will fill out #2 and start to separate what matters right now and what you can control. Here are some possible examples:

Can’t control: Past. Bad throws/shots/reads/drives. Future. Will we win? What will happen if we lose? What will our ranking/rating/status be? Coach being disappointed. What college recruiters might think. What teammates think. Any other external distractions from other athletes, your coach, officials. Outside distractions from the crowd, playing field surface/condition, or atmosphere.

Can control: Attitude moving forward to set yourself up for success. Being ready for the next play or the next drive/series/game/set/match. Showing my teammates that I can maintain confidence and keep fighting. Lifting up and encouraging others. My effort on the next pitch/shot/drive/set. Pre-planning for potential distractions. Using strategies to control anxiety and stay calm. Being confident in my skills and abilities on the court. Using breathing techniques to slow down and move on from past distractions to the next play.

Matters right now: What plays are we coming back to? Is the defense different than we prepared for? What do we need to accomplish with this next possession? What hole or hazard is coming up? Do I need to make minor adjustments based on current performance? Am I distracted in this moment? Do I need to refocus on my short term goals?

Doesn’t matter right now: Internal distractions that cause you to lose focus on the task at hand. What was my footwork like? Did I use good technique? Did I use the right club last time? Did I drive to the basket when I should have last possession? Did I make the right read on the last possession? Did the WR run his route correctly? DOESN’T MATTER, FIX IT LATER!

Based on my list, what will I focus on during competition in the future? If you go back through your list and identify what you can both control and that matter right now, you can simplify it down to a quick key phrase that will help you regain and control focus in whatever high-pressure situation you find yourself in. Here are some examples:

Football Player - THIS PLAY - I will focus on this play, what is the situation, what is the call, and what is my assignment.

Baseball Player - THIS PITCH - I will focus on this pitch, what is the situation, what do I need to do to perform at my best right now?

Golfer - THIS SHOT - I will focus on this shot, not past mistakes, not what this could do to my score in the future, THIS SHOT, right here, right now.

But what if it is difficult for me to focus on this during competition?

Good. You should be proud of yourself for working on something that does not come naturally to you. You should see any shortcomings as a chance to improve. You should look at any past failures as the stepping stones that helped you get to where you are at today. Don't wallow in how hard it is. If controlling your mind and body during Big Moments was easy, everyone would be able to do it. Just because you have not been as successful in the past as you would like does not mean that you can not improve in the future.

Remember, if you are not good at focusing on what you choose, you can practice this skill! Research in the field of sports psychology has clearly identified positive outcomes in athletes who were able to see measurable improvement training these techniques. If you downloaded the worksheet, there are directions that explain the focus activities you can perform. If you are an athlete looking to deal with internal distractions or external distractions, commit some time to do these activities. If you are a coach looking to help your athletes improve, make some extra copies or make some of these on your own! Don't just hope you will become better at focusing, make a plan and be sure of it!

Action Step #3 - Focus activities to help you focus on what you decide

The final page of the handout has instructions for three different focus activities that will help you narrow and broaden your focus.


•Teaches you how to NARROW your focus

•Touch each number starting at 1 (in order) on the grid with your pen/pencil

•Underline all of the even numbers in order

•Draw a triangle around all of the odd numbers (in order)

•Make up your own activity where you are focusing on numbers and completing the task you assign yourself

•Record each activity that you complete as well as how long it takes you to complete the activity

•Add distractions like TV, parents talking, cell phone notifications, Tik Tok or YouTube playing in the background

•Train 3x per week for 5 minutes


•Teaches you how to BROADEN your focus


•Focus on license plate in front of you

•Practice “scanning” what is going on around you

•Other cars, signs, buildings, etc.

•Practice this 3 times per week for 5 minutes


•Teaches you how to BROADEN your focus

•Extend your arm in front of you with your thumb up

•Focus on the thumb, texture, shape, size, etc.

•While you are focused on the thumb, move it to the side

•Stay focused on the thumb but “scan” the room and notice what else is behind your thumb

•Practice this 3 times per week for 5 minutes


Controlling your focus and dealing with distractions during competition is a skill that can be learned and will lead to success on the court or field. It takes time and effort to master, but so does getting good at any sport! Not only will better focus help you perform at a higher level but it will also help you play with confidence! The key is to have a plan and to be dedicated to the process. Dedicate time this week to use the tools in this article to help you learn how to control your focus and deal with distractions.

  1. Be aware of what has a tendency to distract you. Notice when you become distracted.

  2. Have a plan for what you will focus on, things that matter right now and that are within your control. When you notice you are distracted, come back to the task at hand and focus on what will help you have fun and play at your best.

  3. Learn to overcome distractions from the outside world by practicing your ability to focus. Set aside training time throughout the week so you can be confident in your ability to refocus. This will lead to positive outcomes and help you compete with confidence, and lead to greater success in the future in both spots and life!

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