The Mentally Resilient Athlete: The Importance of Focusing

FOCUS!!!  Every athlete has been told this countless times throughout the year.  Listen to practically any post-game interview and you will hear someone talk about focus in some manner, “We need to overcome distractions,”  “We can only control what we can control,”  “We gotta focus on our game,” “You can’t pay attention to what others say about your chances of winning,” and the list goes on…

If focus is so crucial to athletic success and athletes know the need to focus, why do athletes continue to lose focus when games are on the line?

Well, the answer to this million dollar question is three-fold:

First, distractions come in many forms and are constantly present.  In fact, it is probably impossible to list every potential distraction that you may encounter in a competition.  Distractions include thoughts, emotions, feelings, physical sensations, weather, course or arena conditions, spectators, parents, coaches, referees, opponents, and so many more.  It is difficult to focus when your mind is constantly bombarded by a barrage of distractions.

Secondly, it is impossible to focus 100% of the time and it is actually counter-productive to be over-focused.  Over-focus creates anxiety which caused a decrement in athletic production.

Thirdly, most athletes were never taught how to focus or how to minimize distractions.  Normally, coaches have the expectation that all athletes know how to focus.

In order to focus effectively during a game, you need to know fours things:

  1. What to focus on – To play your best, you should focus on what you need to do in the present moment (for example, your game plan or strategy for the current situation).
  2. When to focus – To avoid over-focusing, you should take a mental break when breaks in action occur. Then, prior to play resuming, you should resume focusing to ready yourself for the next play.
  3. How to focus – Learning how to immerse yourself in the moment and narrow your focus on what you need to do.
  4. More importantly, how to regain focus, or re-focus, when distractions occur – Learning cues to help snap you back to the play at hand.

LPGA pro Lexi Thompson experienced a huge distraction during the final round of the 2017 ANA Inspiration.  Thompson was advised that she was being assessed a four-stroke penalty midway through the final round, after a TV viewer notified officials of a ball placement error made by her on the 17th green in the third round.  Thompson was tearful but finished the round with a bogey and three birdies to force a sudden death playoff with So Yeon Ryu.  Even though Thompson lost the playoff hole, she showed an amazing ability to re-focus and gather herself to close out the round strong.

THOMPSON:  “Just [had to] regroup myself. My caddie helped me out tremendously. We have a great relationship and he just said, ‘Stay with it. You can still win and we can birdie this hole.’ I just tried to gather myself before I hit that tee shot. Made a great putt there.

Focus gives you the power to put distractions to the side, immerse yourself in the moment and accomplish what you need to do in the NOW.

Strategy for Improving Focus:

Let’s work on a strategy to re-focus when distractions barrel into your mind.  The first step is to quickly become aware of when your focus breaks down.  The quicker you notice yourself losing focus, the easier it is to rectify the situation. 

Next, have a re-focus cue in place that gets your attention back to the task at hand.  Your cue could be a word, “Focus” or “Now,” an action such as snapping your fingers several times or even an object such as something on your uniform or in your pocket that you can grasp.

Your ability to focus and re-focus is your greatest antidote to distractions.