Focus, what is focus?! Athletes have been harped on to focus since the beginning of competition. It’s one of the most common phrases we hear in sports. But, what is it? When asking your athletes to focus, what are you actually asking them to do? Can you write out 5 simple steps to achieve the focus you’re asking them to possess?
At first I was perplexed by this question, how can I paint vivid guidelines for my players to follow in order to attain the focus I’m asking them to have? I found my answer within the definition of concentration. The definition of concentration in a sport or an exercise setting involves four parts; Selective attention, maintaining attention focus, situational awareness, and shifting attention focus.
Selective awareness is the act of focusing on relevant environmental cues. It’s the physical process of eliminating irrelevant cues from your realm of attention and only selecting the relevant cues to concentrate on. Once an athlete has mastered a skill, they no longer have to consciously think about it while they are performing it. For instance, younger athletes are taught to drop step as a first step to any fly ball. With more practice and experience, that first step becomes second nature, done without thought. Having these second nature habits allows athletes to pay attention to other parts of the game.
Maintaining attention focus is the ability to maintain concentration throughout the entire game. This is tough because studies show the average time thoughts stay on target is about 5 seconds. Some of the greatest athletes earned their reputation not on pure talent, but the ability to stay focused in competition. Tennis player Chris Evert never had the best physical ability, but she never let a bad line call, missing an easy shot, or crowd noise, affect her. Concentration was the key factor that made her a champion.
Maintaining situational awareness is an athlete’s ability to understand what is going on around them. It’s the peripheral vision of concentration. This ability allows players to size up game situations, opponents, and competitions to make the right decisions in play.
Shifting attention focus is the ability to be flexible with attention; being able to switch one’s focus depending on what the situation calls for.
Think of Concentration as a personal spotlight. Athletes have to know where to point their spotlight, how narrow or broad to make the beam of light, and be able to switch it from place to place quickly, in order to focus on the correct things.
Researchers have found that when studying elite athletes in their most exceptional performances, three of the eight key components of their performance were related to concentration.
1) Being absorbed in the present and having no thoughts about the past or future.
2) Being mentally relaxed and having a high degree of concentration and control.
3) Being in a state of extraordinary awareness of both their own bodies and the external environment.
It has been proven that expert athletes, compared to novice athletes, have a different focus in game situations. Exp
ert players are able to disregard irrelevant stimuli and focus on task-oriented things, rather than the outcome of the task. This is proven by the study of eye movements in experts and novice athletes. A perfect example is the basketball player Magic Johnson who was known for his no look passes. He used advanced cues to know what his teammate’s future moves would be.
Focusing on the wrong cues, is one of the biggest problems for athletes. It’s not that they lack the ability to focus, but their focus is concentrated in the wrong area. Sometimesathletes get caught up in focusing on internal worries and concerns, past experiences, future events, the pressure of the game, and body mechanics.
Jim Thompson, the author of “Positive Coaching” brings up a great perspective in concentration. Most athletes are consumed with trying to avoid looking dumb. They are focused on not making a mistake, which is actually causing them to focus solely on making mistakes.
Quote of the day:
“When I’m training I’m focused… by focusing all the time on what you’re doing when you’re training, focusing in a race becomes a by-product.” -Orlick and Parintons landmark study of Canadian Olympic athletes