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Super Six: Methods to sharpen athletes' mental focus

Super Six: Methods to sharpen athletes' mental focus


The following is a chapter excerpt from the new book: Total Athlete Development: 70 Competition Tested Ways to get Mentally Tougher, Physically More Dominant, and Be the Best Leader for Your Team. Excerpt by permission of Championship Performance Publishers.

When things go wrong on the field, it is critical that athletes have the ability to refocus their attention where it needs to be. In American culture, people are bombarded by stimuli everywhere in their environment. Some athletes are so adept at doing various tasks that they can study, listen to music, talk on the phone and work on a computer - at the same time. 

However, when athletes learn how to focus on one thing at a time, that singular focus will help them in the long run. For instance, if an athlete is in class, ask him or her to see how long they can concentrate on what a speaker is saying without letting their mind wander. Being able to listen without thinking about what's next in your day or what you will eat for dinner can be quite a challenge for most people. 

In sports, there are two types of focus. 1) A single pointed focus on the "small picture" of guarding the opponent. 2) A double pointed focus on the "big picture" of guarding the opponent and knowing what is happening all around.

Each person has different ways of paying attention. However, focusing skills can be learned and mastered with practice. When the mind starts to wander, there are methods to bring attention back to the present moment.

Sometimes, athletes lose focus and concentration when they think about the past or ahead to the future. In sports, athletes need to pay total attention to their present circumstances. Being able to re-focus concentration is the key skill here. Athletes must mentally let go of distractions or mistakes, encourage themselves and move on. 

Recommendation: Here are six techniques to re-focus on the present moment. The recommendations are addressed directly to athletes.

1) Keep eye control. Notice where you look. Make sure you are looking at the ball or the player you are guarding, depending on the situation. For example, a sprinter must notice where his or her eyes are focused when they run.

Sport psychologist Ken Ravizza once worked with the U.S. Olympic Field Hockey team.  Many of the team members had never played in front of more than a few hundred people. Thousands would be watching in the Olympics. To help them control their eyes and ears, Ken had them “make friends with the field.” This entailed walking around the empty field, getting comfortable with it, and picking out two or three focal points that they knew would be there once competition began and the place was rocking. 

2) Control your mind and body. Calming words can help refocus attention. Words such as "calm," breathe" or "focus" can help you pay attention and direct attention where it needs to be. 

3) Blink your eyes. To release emotional tension and to help refocus, rapidly blink your eyes five or six times. Then squeeze your eyes shut and open them wide four or five times. Inhale deeply through your nose and exhale out of your mouth.

4) Remember to breathe. If something has caused you to lose your concentration, take a moment to consciously breathe into the solar plexus area (above the waist) or the area just below the navel. This will help you re-center yourself and get your body in awareness.

5) Visualize and imagine. Visualize in short segments what you want to do in certain situations and imagine yourself doing it perfectly. (This can be done in breaks in the action). Make the images brief so you can keep your focus. These short visualizations are a way of keeping you in the present moment and helping you concentrate and pay attention to detail. The idea is to be conscious of your personal process so that you can change it if it isn't working for you.

6) Listen to visualization recordings. (These are recordings of you speaking about what you plan to accomplish at a particular event or contest. They usually are set to your favorite background music. Sit in a comfortable position. The more you can focus on what is being said, the more you can visualize what you want to accomplish. This will help you later stay focused during the actual competition.

Kay Porter, Ph.D.

Coaching Focus Mindset

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