Focus for Performance Excellence

Updated: May 17

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 other sport skill such as stick-handling, dribbling, and shooting.


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 you 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 remain focused on what you have control over. You always have full control over how you prepare, your attitude, and your effort.


We always have control over how you prepare, your attitude, and your 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 you focus too much on the outcome, you become distracted from the process, which is what you need to do.


Focusing on the outcome too much can also cause performance anxiety. Let's say you have to take a free throw late in a close basketball game. If you're thinking about winning the game, that can lead to worrying about what might happen if you lose the game. This can cause you to put excessive pressure on yourself to make that shot. You may start to think "this shot has to go in". This self-doubt can your muscles to tighten up, causing you to miss the shot.


Focusing on the process means identifying and focusing on the steps needed to achieve the outcome, not the outcome itself. While taking that free throw, that might mean going through your pre-shot routine and preparing for the shot by bouncing the ball, spinning the ball in your hands, and visualizing the shot going in. Then when you're ready, releasing the ball so the ball arcs into the net. Focusing on each of these small steps helps you stay in the present moment and leads to better performances, because you're not overwhelmed by the outcome.


A useful analogy is thinking 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 only the top of the staircase, you lose sight of the steps you need to take to reach it.

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

3. Create a Cue Word or Phrase


To help you maintain focus and manage distractions, you can create a simple word or phrase to repeat during competition. These are commonly referred to as a cue words.


Cue words should be:

  • Short You'll be repeating your cue word frequently throughout your competition, so if it's too long it will be hard to remember and that may become a distraction.

  • Positive It should focus on what you want to happen, not what you don't want to happen. If I ask you "don't think of an elephant", where does your mind go? It immediately brings up an elephant. Our brains can't pick up the word "don't". So you can imagine that a cue word that says "don't worry about the outcome" is not going to help you as much as "stay present".

  • Personally Meaningful Your cue word/phrase should relate to your individual needs as an athlete and what you need to perform optimally. For instance, if you struggle with maintaining your intensity late in a hockey game, then create a cue word that encourages intensity, such as "push it" or "go hard". This is very specific for the athlete and their performance goals.

Other examples of cue words might be "present", "process", or W.I.N. (which stands for What's Important Now?).


Create a word and/or phrase you can be repeat to help you refocus during your next competition.


Summary


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, recognizing what distracts you, and refocusing through the use of cue words. Try these tips out before your next competition.