By John R. Ellsworth – Mental Game Coach
More and more athletes I work with on the mental game come to me with focus and concentration issues. Lack of focus or losing focus at critical times can be a constant source of stress anxiety and poor performance. What is a distraction? In sports most athletes lose focus from time to time, but what separates the good ones from the great ones is their ability to regain focus and composure and get right back to the task at hand.
When an athlete loses their touch – a softball pitcher who can’t find the strike zone, a golfer who three-putts from 20 feet, or a basketball player who throws up an air ball – for no apparent reason, you have to look to the athlete’s mental game. Why would a competitor lose their touch in the final two minutes of a basketball game? Fear of losing? Are they afraid of letting teammates down? Could they be too tense to make the shot because the entire arena is watching?
There is no one or thing to blame for your loss of focus. The distraction could be external (something outside of you) or internal (thought or image) to drag you away from being focused. Let’s focus on external distractions – the stuff that happens around you – or any distraction that is triggered externally and not all on your own.
Coping with External Distractions
Coping with distraction is a part of sports athletes must learn. Basketball players have to deal with hecklers all the time when shooting a free throw, for example. How do you deal with external distractions?
Top athletes use preshot routines to help them stay tuned into the right performance cues.
For a basketball player, a free-throw routine shields your mind when the pressure is on to make the shot. Total absorption in the steps of the routine helps to occupy your mind and thus deflect distractions that may come into your mind, such as crowd noise. Your mission is to focus on your performance cues within the routine, which also serve to keep you focused in the process and not worry about missing the shot.
Performance Cues of a Preshot Routine
Pre-shot routines help you stay focused on execution and deflect distractions. Mostly used by sports with self-paced tasks, such as a serve in tennis, putt in golf, or a free-throw in basketball, pre-shot routines spell out what you need to focus on prior to execution of a skill, also called performance cues.
The starting point in a good pre-shot routine for a free throws is to release the last play and don’t waste energy on what just happened. Take a deep breath and feel balanced on the foul line.
Your mind should be clear and ready to focus on the target. Set up to the line as you always do in your foul shot routine. Bounce, twirl or hold the ball in a way that feels good to you (or do what you usually do here). Feel the weight of the ball and center yourself on the line.
Next, create a good mental picture of the ball’s trajectory and visualize it go in, or just “sense” the ball going in the basket. The key here is to create a positive picture or feeling in your mind to boost confidence. See it, hear it, feel it, or think about it going in, and know it is going in. If you get a bad picture or thought here, STOP immediately and restart your routine from the beginning.
I worked with a college basketball player that is now playing in the WNBA who had a very challenging time centering her mind when on the free-throw line. The crowd shouting during her shots was a major challenge for her focus. She was unable to recognize that her mind was drifting. Focused athletes won’t hear a gun go off if they are into their performance. But if you give the distraction energy or attention, you’re no longer focused on your routine. You want to recognize distractions quickly as they come into your mind. Only then can you refocus on the task at hand and not let the distraction cause a critical miss.
One more tip: If there’s a potential for external distraction in your sport, prepare yourself mentally for what’s to come. Practice in conditions (or distractions) that match what you will face in competition. I know it’s hard to simulate the pressure of the Olympics, but prepare yourself for distractions present in competition that you wouldn’t usually experience in practice.
Distractions can be a major challenge with execution success. The most important factor is to know the difference between internal and external distractions and what to do to eliminate them from derailing your success. With the right strategy and pre-execution routine its quite easy, with practice, to eliminate the ones that keep you stuck. You can take a proactive step on your own to boost your focus and concentration.