Focusing Your Attention Effectively – An Essential Mental Skill

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.