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What is focus and how do we improve it?

2017 Canada Games009

Focus is one of the most important aspects of performance. The ability to focus is a skill that can be learned through deliberate and intentional mental training.

But what is focus?

Focusing, simply put, is the act of paying attention to particular elements of what we perceive. Energy follows the mind, so whatever we focus on we’ll give more energy to. An ideal focus state is one that is directed to relevant aspects of the performance at hand, which frees the performer to unleash their abilities (known and dormant). An ideal focus remains strong and unwavering throughout the whole performance or training session.

Evidently, we all face moments of distraction, moments where our ideal state is shaken, or broken. Distractions can be understood as focusing on something that doesn’t help enhance our performance. We can be internally or externally distracted. Some common determinants and indicators of distraction include rushing, frustration, fatigue, fear, and complacency. But we can also be distracted by what may feel like positive states such as extreme joy and confidence.

Four critical errors that often occur when we are distracted include our eyes not being on task, mind not on task, being in the ‘line of fire’ (being in the way of something or someone moving or hitting something or someone that is in your way), and finally, problems with balance, traction, and grip.

Self-triggering is an effective way to refocus when distracted and a way to avoid the four critical errors that commonly occur when distracted.

The first step to refocusing is to have an awareness of the state you’re in, to catch that you are distracted or that you are in a state prone to distraction. You can do this by periodically saying “self-trigger” throughout your performance as an intentional check-in. Then if you notice you are primed for distraction (rushing, frustrated, or fatigued) you can repeat “self-trigger” to refocus your attention to the task at hand.

To enhance the refocusing moment you can say to yourself (or a teammate) “eyes and mind on task.” Saying “self-trigger” or “eyes and mind on task” will help bring the athlete back to the moment with heightened focus, awareness, and mindfulness.

Overall, the goal of focus training is to understand the demands and opportunities of the performance context, know ones ideal personal performance state, create performance plans to help direct the performers focus, and have tools such as self-triggering in place when re-focusing is required. Having these performance pieces in place helps create performance consistency and growth.

Author: Dr. John Coleman (PhD), Sports Psychology Consultant and High-Performance Coach

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What distractions do your athletes commonly face? How do you help your athletes stay focused?

How do you use the self-triggering technique with your athletes and team?


Christine – Figure Skating – Barrie – 20 years

“…I have my skater do relaxation exercises during the off-ice warm-up, Then I have him/her visualize the entire program. I have the skater see him/herself performing the routine, looking for potential problem spots and ‘seeing’ ways around the potential problems. If he/she is weak on a certain jump, for example, and there’s a possibility that it will not go well, the skater gets to decide in advance if he/she is going to attempt it at another spot and if so, where. We do this at least twice before the on-ice warm up. It helps with nerves and focus.”

Jenna Westaway – Track and Field – Guelph

“…As a coach working with varsity athletes, the understanding and applications of ‘focus’ are paramount. The athletes I work with have a lot on their plates, and thus a lot going on in their minds. Exams, training, social life, living away from home, jobs, mental well-being; so much to juggle.

How do I keep their focus, when so much is happening in life? Upon arrival to a training session, I ask athletes to leave their many other commitments in their gym bag. I encourage them, as they tie up their running shoes, to consider the acronym W.I.N. “What’s Important Now?” At training, the workout is important. At school, academics are. When hanging out with friends, listening and sharing are important.

If an athlete is overwhelmed by the difficulty of a workout, I encourage them to complete a big out-breath to re-centre themselves. Breath can be a great self-triggering technique, because it simplifies thought and brings an athlete back to a mind-body connection.”

Tristyn Kaitt – Soccer/Hockey – Perth – 15 years

“…usually the distractions are each other in a group environment. Typically, we like to plan the session in such a way that it is in constant motion, giving very little time for the athletes to get sidetracked. However, if they do, we give them an immediate task to draw them back into the learning moment.”

Art Hughes – Soccer – Hamilton – 12 years

“I know first hand how I have tried to make players understand how a simple sleep pattern can improve overall performance in sport. It is harder at the older age groups because of the age and especially after school ends as they tend to stay up later and then show up to training and or games already yawning. They have come to understand through experience that just cutting back an hour can improve greatly. It also makes it easier for the training side as most coaches have the knowledge of what the levels each player is capable of, when the sleep issue is a factor it also complicates the training already set forth and prepared. Simply eating healthy and proper sleep helps keep the player attention clear and makes it easier to deal with other issues that may arise and clear them up before the distraction can lead to injury or violence outbursts.”

Nancy Leo – Race Walking – North York – 12 years

“…I coach masters race walkers. It is primarily a distance sport and athletes can get distracted or lose focus in a long race. Mainly, they start thinking about how much further they have to go and how much heart and muscles are straining.Negative thoughts creep in, like I don’t think i can keep going or maintain this pace. I like them to replace the negative thoughts or crowd them out with some sort of mantra. When i competed, I would focus on where i was in the race and keep repeating in my head: working on 7 (km), working on 7, until i completed km #7 and then I’d say: 7 is done. Working on 8.There was no room for negative thoughts when i did this. I’d also remind myself that i had done this in training and I could handle this race.”

Sandra O’Dell – U15 Girls’ Soccer – Muskoka – 4 years

“…Cell phones are frowned upon at training sessions and games as they are a huge distraction for our players. When we are at tournaments we even collect them during most hours so that team bonding and focus are more productive.”

Augustino (Gus) Badali – Bowling – Kingston – 50 years

“…A coach is responsible for their athlete’ (s!) Preparation is based on the individuals abilities. Mental game development and focus are treated as one and the same, i Mental game is a preparation beginning with short, mid and long term organization. Focus is the present and reflects on what will happen in the next “3 to 5 seconds”! As a bowling coach the most important part of the delivery and release may very for each individual. A simple experience; hold a pencil 6″ from your eyes for 5 seconds – (watch the result!)”

Stephen Catania – Soccer – Toronto – 11 years

“…Social media, relationships (family and personal), educational (homework, where to attend next, what to study), and personal issues. I find these to be what distracts my athletes most. However, environmental issues such as the practice field, weather conditions and current events can play a role as well.

What I find works to help athletes stay focused is making the warm up portion of the practice competitive, such as a cross bar challenge. This tends to get them thinking about soccer and the execution of the basic movements. However, in a game situation sometimes a really motivational pep talk or calling over one of the players to the sidelines to “invite them to the game” as it were tends to get the message over positively.

In terms of self triggering, again informing the players of where they are, what their purpose here is sometimes ignites a spark.”