Sport Psychology & Focus to Be World Class
Sport Psychology is a key component to evaluating what works and what doesn’t in athletic performance. When one considers an athlete’s ability to focus, many would consider it important, maybe even fundamental. So why is it so many athletes are sometimes confused as to how to focus for peak performance?
I worked with one of the Great British Olympic squads just after they returned from the Beijing Games in 2008. They had had a disappointing Games and had returned empty handed. It was slightly unexpected because their previous Olympic performance was pretty good. The athletes were very capable and they had one of the world’s most respected coaches. In one of our first meetings, I asked the coach to list the 5 most significant factors that would impact on the athlete’s performance. “What are the 5 things that they really need to do? If they could only do 5 things, which would be the most crucial 5?” As I asked the coach the question, he looked at me perplexed. He then proceeded to draw up a list of 32 crucial factors that each athlete absolutely had to do in order to perform well. All of a sudden it became clear to me why these athletes had not performed. The greatest mind on the planet could not focus on getting 32 things right all at once. As I challenged him to reduce the list he became adamant that you could not prioritise just 5. In talking to the athletes, it became obvious that they were very unclear about what they needed to do to perform well. When they stood on the line, their mind was whirring with the long list of things they needed to do. As a result, they under-performed and became confused, frustrated and disillusioned. A skill that had once been second nature to them had become complex and difficult.
As a BASES accredited exercise and sport psychologist, I work with many athletes. When I’m working with them, I often describe focus as a torch beam (Taylor 2010). In reality, our focus is similar to a narrow beam. We are really only able to focus on one thing at a time. Often we will think that we are focussing on a hundred different things, because our mind seems to be full to bursting point. However, we actually only focus on one at a time and dart between the various things that are in our minds, spending very little time actually dedicated to any one. Our torch beam hops between those thoughts that are competing for our attention, and only settles on any one of them for a moment before dashing off to the next (Hamilton 2008).
The challenge for many athletes is actually to take control of the torch and decide where the beam will shine. What is it that you need to focus on? Once you know, you need to take a hold of the torch and make sure you direct your beam and keep it steady. It’s tough to do at times. A lot of us don’t have the mental discipline required to hold our focus for any prolonged period. We are easily distracted and find that something draws the torch beam. This tends to be exacerbated if we’re scared (Horn 2008). Imagine walking along a path in the dark with a narrow torch beam. If you are scared, you react differently. If you hear something go bump behind you, the likelihood is that you’ll spin round and shine your torch on it to see what made the noise. This draws your beam from the path you are supposed to be following. If you were comfortable walking the path, or you could see pretty clearly, you would be much less likely to take your beam off the path.
In sport, if we’re not feeling confident we tend to start over-thinking. This draws our focus (Blanke 2007). A tennis player should arguably be 100% focussed on the ball. If she’s not watching the ball, the chances of playing a decent shot are pretty remote. If the player is thinking about making a mistake with the last shot (instead of shining their torch on the ball) her torch will be shining on her own thoughts. When we over-think, we experience what I call ‘thought blindness’. Imagine a batsman in cricket facing a fast bowler who delivers a ball at 90mph. The batsman has to select a shot and execute it in a split second. Thinking takes a relatively long time. If the batsman thinks, he will not see the ball clearly because his brain will be tied up with his thoughts and will not be registering the ball (Hamilton 2008). The only way for the batsman to play a good shot, is to simply watch the ball as closely as possible and let his unconscious mind play the shot. The batsman has to be in a ‘mindless’ state (Rotella 2005).
Many players do need to think at times. They may need to decide where to play shots and how to play their game tactically. However, when it comes to executing the shot, thinking will tend to interfere (Gallwey 1986). Our ‘non-thinking’, unconscious mind controls our movement. If we want to play great shots, we have to feel the shots, see the shots and hear the shots. We can’t think them. To be in ‘the zone’ we need to be totally absorbed in what we’re doing, to the exclusion of everything else. The more intensely we can immerse ourselves in the shot, the greater our chances of entering ‘the zone’. When we engage our senses fully, we will start to immerse ourselves and become absorbed in the shots. In order to do this, we need to be able to control our focus.
For years I have heard people say, “How do I stop thinking negative thoughts?” The answer is alarmingly simple. Focus on something else. If you try not to think about something, the chances are you will think about it even more. Here’s a challenge. Don’t think about the word “blue”. Don’t think about the colour blue. Don’t think about blue things. Think about anything except BLUE.
What are you thinking?
The only way to stop thinking about blue is to start focussing on RED. Red roses? Red Ferraris? Red anything. The same is true of negative thoughts. The way to stop thinking them is to start focussing on something else. You do this naturally when you’re confident. That’s why you play better when you’re confident. Confidence and focus are closely linked. If you can control confidence, focus will automatically become easier. Control your focus. Choose to focus on something that will help you play better (Anderson 2000). Arguably the best way to focus on our performance is to engage our senses (Rauch 2010), particularly your 3 primary senses in sport. Focus on what you see, hear and feel.
Here are some examples that have come from athletes I have worked with recently.
– Watch the opponents eyes.
International Squash Players
– Watch the movement on the ball.
– Feel the shots.
– Hear the sound that your shots are making or the sound of your footwork.
– Feel the balance in your feet.
– Hear the sound of your rhythm.
– Feel the smoothness in your movement.
– Watch the ball and pick it up as early as possible (as your opponent plays the shot, rather than as the ball comes over the net).
– Feel ‘lightness’ in your feet and hear the sound of your footwork.
– Hear the sound of the club hitting the ball
– Feel your balanced start position
– Close your eyes to stop yourself following the ball.
– Feel the solidity of the front leg (and knee).
– Hear the sound of the rhythm in the approach run.
– Watch the elbow on the opponent’s sword carrying arm.
These are the points of focus which the athletes felt would give them the best performance. It’s important to focus rather than think. We need to notice, rather than analyse. It’s easy to start analysing how something feels. If we do this, we could start screwing up our technique because our thinking brain starts to try to control our movement. Noticing allows us to simply observe and be aware of these sensory cues, without feeling the need to control or change them. Our subconscious mind will execute the skills. We simply need to see, hear, feel and trust!
Anderson, M (2000) Doing Sport Psychology. Champaign, Il. Human Kinetics.
Blanke, G (2007). How to Stop Overthinking Your Life and Start Living. Real Simple
Gallwey T (1986) The Inner Game of Tennis. New York. Pan Books.
Hamilton J (2008) Think you’re multi-tasking? Think again. NRG. published 2nd October 2008.
Horn, T. (2008) Advances in Sport Psychology. Champaign, Il. Human Kinetics.
Rauch, S (2010) Trager ® : A Body / Mind Approach in Sport Psychology. Podium Sports Journal. 1st April. https://www.podiumsportsjournal.com/2010/04/01/trager%C2%AE-a-bodymind-approach-in-sports-psychology/
Rotella R (2005) Putting Out Of Your Mind. London. Pocket Books.
Taylor, J (2010) Understanding Focus in Sports. Psychology Today. 13th July 2010. http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/the-power-prime/201007/sports-understanding-focus-in-sports
Simon Hartley, MSc, BASES Accredited Sport & Exercise Psychologist.
Simon is a freelance sport psychologist & performance coach at Be World Class. In recent years he has worked as a consultant performance psychologist to the English Institute of Sport as well as working with a range of professional sports in the UK. Simon has worked with Premiership and Championship football clubs, international teams including England Squash and professional golfers.