Focusing Your Attention Effectively to Achieve a Podium Performance

by Stephen Walker, PhD, NCC, CMPC, USOC Registry of Sport Psychology


Balancing our focus of attention is a key to performing well, especially when facing competing demands. This is even more important during competition.  Weather conditions, crowd noise, coach’s expectations, parent’s observations and the pressure to perform well can add up to a significant challenge.  Focusing on the right things and sustaining that focus is the key to mental toughness.

Any time there is a lot of distracting activity around us we may be susceptible to losing focus.  As our stress load increases, the jitters and other stimuli start banging on the door of our concentration certain challenges must be met if we are to do our best.  We must control our state of awareness, manage our arousal level and keep the focus on those things that factor into the “task-at-hand.”  This includes internal as well as external distractions.

Robert Niedeffer, in his book An Athlete’s Guide to Mental Training, used a schematic that purposely drew one’s attentional focus to two primary dimensions – Broad to Narrow and External to Internal.

This tool is valuable when one systematically studies the broad stimuli of the competitive environment.  When one routinely examines the weather conditions, wind, temperature, humidity, crowd noise, structure and condition of the field or court, and more, they are using a ‘broad-external’ focus in their preparations. The goal is to understand and control for those external conditions that have the potential to distract us in competition.

A ‘broad-internal’ focus systematically requires a body scan for tension, a proper warm up, use of techniques to lower our arousal level, take stock in our motivation and internal drive to succeed, and more.  Doing so can enable us to channel our attention to the optimal physical state associated with our best performance (not too tight/not too loose).  Broadly scanning our internal focus must include a review of our Self-talk, our tools in our gear bag, the facilities we must be familiar with… all of these things address the broad external or broad internal conditions Nideffer felt were key.

A narrow focus externally or internally requires greater detail in the examination of certain specifics essential to a strong performance.  This routine has helped a huge number of athletes to prepare for competition effectively.


Additional Tools in Focusing

There are other considerations we would do well to incorporate when analyzing “how” we focus.  For example, if we can learn to alternate our focus between a stressor, and the tools we use to manage that stress, we are better able to address that concern.  Our goal is to keep ourselves on task.  In training, we effectively study our keys, review the plays we’re likely to run, and selectively focus on the performance cues that work for us.

Stress is insidious because many times we don’t understand all the sources contributing to it.  For example, our tension can be focused in our minds as we’re thinking about something. Our attention can be focused with a fixed point concentration on a stressor that involves a particular challenge our opponent presents us with.  Another focus might involve an awareness of how tense we are, or our physical state experiencing the stress.

All of these challenge us.  Sometimes the experience of all these occurs simultaneously.  We get overwhelmed when this happens.

The fundamental truth on game day is that we are either distracted by the vast number of stressors or challenges facing us – or – we are completely dialed in on the tasks required for a quality performance.  I call this a Podium Performance.  At Podium, we will soon be offering an opportunity to learn focusing skills in a live format.  Stay tuned in the coming weeks.

Our ability to bypass this stress and distractions is dependent on one thing – our focusing skills.

The focus of our attention can be on the breathing techniques we use to reduce our stress load and lower our pre-competition tension levels. Our focus during our pre-competition preparation may be on stretching properly so tension in our body does not take away from our performance.  Study and focused attention on the details of our performance skills reminds us of “how” we’ll execute the task-at-hand.  Routines for getting in a proper focus are key to serving in tennis, driving in golf and other fine coordination tasks.  But what about responding to situations in play?

Consider batting in a baseball game.  While taking batting practice before the game, a selective focus on the laces of the ball as it comes hard to the plate…enables us to “see the ball – hit the ball.”  Focusing on the detail of our swing, what sort of stroke we’re making and the proper alignment to our swing, angle of the swing, level of tension in our hands which impacts bat speed,  breathing to get centered prior each pitch… all of these things prepare us to be ready with our focus, trust our preparation, and exclusively channel our attention on those things that enable us to perform our best.


When it counts the most.

The focus our attention on the task-at-hand – and – “how” we’re actually executing these skills during competition becomes our primary objective.

By consistently training ourselves to account for those distractions (always present at every competition), and, training ourselves to be ready when the gun goes off, we will create in our training the highest probability our focus of attention during competition will be riveted on properly executing those things that matter most.

Coach John Wooden said, “First we form habits, then they form us.”

Training these skills, routinely sequencing your focus of attention in a proper manner during practice, and, daily execution of the skills that lower our arousal and stress levels will enable peak performance on game day.

Focusing effectively on game day is dependent on routinely practicing these skills and methods “every” training day.  Podium performances depend on it.  Here’s to you achieving a Podium Performance today!

Dr. Stephen Walker is the Editor of Podium Sports Journal, and the Director of the Podium Performance Academy. 

He has consulted with 8 Olympians and several NCAA Champions.  Three of his athletes have stood on the Podium in either World Championships or the Olympic games, each, in a different sport. 

His charges are diverse as well, some playing cello in world class orchestras while other’s dance ballet.  Performances come in many forms, but the performance skills for success are indeed the same.  Dr. Walker will soon be launching Podium’s first online program called the “Podium Mental Conditioning Program”.  Stay tuned in the coming weeks for your opportunity to join. 

4 thoughts on “Focusing Your Attention Effectively to Achieve a Podium Performance

  • September 18, 2018 at 12:16 pm

    Hi Dr. Walker,
    What is your take on keeping the score constantly in working memory? Dr. Schack in Bielefeld found that keeping a fact in working memory interferes with athletic planning.
    Simon Hartley MSc, here at Podium sports, wrote that players can only focus on one thing at a time, and that should be the ball.

    From your work here, would you say that repeating the score to onesself, or memorizing the match in long term memory, would be “focusing on the right things”?
    I have invented a simple way to keep score during a game and during a tie-break in tennis, 8 colorful bands on the throat of the racket. Because they are not digital, they can be seen and easily marked in the brightest light. As you know, no one can tell two tennis opponents the score (only the top .01% of players have a scoreboard and judge who announces the score after every point). And the players have to know the score to know where to stand, when to sit, when to switch sides, and if they need to play more points.
    Would you say that the top .01% of tennis players who are given a scoreboard and judge who announces the score have an advantage over everyone else? That is, every match they can focus on improving their play which carries over to the next match?
    I love Podium Sports Journal! You all are doing great work.
    Lynne Hartmann
    instagram @izzers_tennis

    • September 18, 2018 at 1:51 pm

      Hi Lynne,
      Tennis is a game that does have tactical considerations, just like match play golf. However, most athletes can’t factor in too many of these things, and, more often than not it serves as a distraction. My work is focused on each athlete being able to put up a Podium Performance. I’ll be sharing a short video in a few days, and if I can figure out how to do it – post it up on the site. These are less than one minute long and designed to announce my first webinar series for the Podium Performance Academy. Anyway, I digress… the primary task of any athlete is to maintain control, and direct their focus to the things that give them the best opportunity to perform their best. This is the objective, pretty much every time. Your system is probably quite helpful to you, and likely for a handful of others capable of maintaining that tactical focus while playing at a very high level. Its when the emotions get in the way that people lose their focus. For example, anger in itself is destructive and can cause an athlete to lose their composure and do stupid stuff. However, if processed effectively, and converted to determination – then you get the intensity with purpose and execution is most likely enhanced. Thanks for your support. I love engaged readers such as yourself. Enjoy!
      Dr. Walker

  • September 27, 2018 at 2:41 pm

    Thanks for your thoughtful reply Dr. Walker.
    I look forward to your videos. I have seen top Junior tennis players become angry…got to see a face-slap once in Berlin during a match (nobody got in trouble and at the end of the match both players were friendly). During that match there had been arguments between the players about both line calls and the score. More often than anger, though, I have seen frustration.
    In any other sport the players can vent their anger on the ref who might have made a call they disagree with and commiserate with teammates. In tennis, the player is the ref, and he is the scorekeeper. Anger and frustration can build. I like your point “the primary task of any athlete is to maintain control”. I think it would be easier for any tennis player to follow your guidance if he used my scoring system. Some of the frustration would simply be gone. And definitely pre-frontal cortex neurons would be freed up to do something productive.


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