Focus for Performance Excellence

Focus is one of the most important skills in sport performance. An athlete may be the most talented in their sport, but if their focus is not in the right place, they will not perform to their potential.

Athletes are frequently reminded of the importance of focus, but few understand how to improve at this skill. Fortunately, focus can be trained and improved like any other skill in sports such as stick-handling, shooting, and skating.

Here are three steps to improving your focus:

1. Know What to Focus On

Athletes perform at their best when they are focused on the task at hand and in the present moment.

This sounds easy enough, but our minds can make this challenging. Many distractions can interfere such as bad calls, self-doubt, and the crowd.

2. Identify Distractions

It's important to identify common distractions, so that you can develop a strategy for how to better manage them.

Distractions can be broken down into two categories. What is occurring in your environment (external) and what is occurring in your mind (internal). Here are some common examples:

External distractions

  • the crowd

  • ref's calls

  • weather

  • playing surface

Internal distractions

  • thinking about past mistakes

  • self-doubt

  • daydreaming

  • the outcome of the game

A good question to ask yourself is "how much control do I have over each of these?"

Often you don't have any control. You can't change the refs calls, the weather, playing conditions or what the crowd thinks of you. You also can't change your past mistakes.

Focusing on things we can't control is similar to driving a car with a punctured tire. Your energy will quickly seep away as you're trying to accomplish your goal.

That's why it's important to always remain focused on what you do have control over. We always have full control over how we prepare, our attitude, and our effort.

We always have control over how we prepare, our attitude, and our effort.

Outcome v.s. Process Focus

You'll notice that one of the distractions listed is "the outcome of the game".

Many athletes believe that focusing on the outcome (winning the game) will help them. However, focusing too much on the outcome will actually make it harder to achieve.

This is because when we focus too much on the outcome, we become distracted from the process, which is what we need to do.

Focusing on the outcome will also cause performance anxiety. Let's say you have to take a free throw late in a close basketball game. If you are thinking too much about winning the game, you will begin to put excessive pressure on yourself to make that shot. You begin to think "this shot has to go in." This pressure will cause self-doubt and your muscles will tighten up, causing you to miss the shot.

But if you're focused only on giving your best effort when taking that shot (aka the process), then you're not worried about whether the shot will go in and you're not putting excess pressure on yourself. You're only focused on taking the best shot that you can. This is far easier to manage.

Focusing on the outcome is like staring at the top of a staircase

A good way to think of the outcome and the process is as a staircase. The top of the staircase is the outcome you want. Each individual step is what you need to do to reach it. If you focus on the top of the staircase, you lose sight of the steps. Worse yet, you will become anxious, discouraged and frustrated if you're not climbing it as fast as you'd like.

Focusing one step at a time simplifies this for you. The process can include areas such as warming up properly, skating hard, and communicating with teammates.

So remember, if you focus on the process, the outcome will take care of itself.

3. Create a Focus Plan

Focus plans help an athlete mentally prepare for competition. Focus plans use what's called "if-then"planning scenarios, which are also known as implementation intentions.

You can create an if-then focus plan for a series of possible situations that might come up. For example,

"if I find myself thinking about winning, then I will tell myself to focus on 'this moment'."

"if I get a bad call from a ref, I'll accept it and refocus on the next play"

"if I start to worry about the crowd, I'll tell myself I can't control this"


Focus is one of the most important mental skills an athlete can develop. Learning how to focus more effectively involves knowing what to focus on and how to refocus. Create a list of your most common distractions and create if-then plans before your next competition.