Sometimes I wonder how we ever get anything important accomplished with the number of distractions that face us each day–checking e-mail, chatting on the phone, your “must see” TV show, the book you just can’t put down, etc. Each of us has a favorite distraction or two that diverts our focus from the task needing our attention.
It’s the same in athletic competition. Athletes have certain situations that can draw their attention away from important and relevant performance cues. In some sports it may be a preoccupation of what the judges think of their performance. Some athletes are overly concerned about how their coaches, parents, or spectators view their performance. Others can’t wait to see the draw in a tournament and either believe their opponent will be an easy win or a disaster waiting to happen. Then there are those who complain about environmental conditions–it’s too hot, too cold, too windy, too something.
Can You Control It?
The first step in making any change toward improved performance is to recognize what is getting in your way. Until the problem is identified, it is pretty difficult to find solutions. Often athletes don’t realize that their preoccupation with certain events interferes with their performance. Shouldn’t an athlete care about what judges, parents, and coaches are thinking? Yes, there is a time for attending to others comments, but when competing, the focus needs to be on one’s performance, not what others are thinking. We can only control our thinking and behavior, not that of others.
What Is Relevant?
What is important for athletes to focus on are the relevant cues to their performance. In many sports the cues are equated with striking balls, the positioning of opponents and teammates or a target. In other sports cues may revolve around keeping a certain pace or an acute awareness of one’s own body position. Anything else is a distraction.
Try this technique to help you understand this concept. Extend your arm out in front of you and hold up the first finger of that hand. Focus intently on your finger so that you can see every detail. My hunch is that while your attention is on your finger, you can still see objects in the background although they might be blurry. Now if you reverse the focus to see objects in the background clearly, your finger becomes blurry.
Imagine the relevant cues in your sport are like your finger, and the objects in the background represent your distractions. When you focus on the important cues, the distractions don’t disappear. The judges, parents, or coaches are still there, and the wind is still blowing. When you choose not to attend to them, they fade into the background, become less interesting, and less important. On the other hand, when you choose to attend to the distractions, they become more prominent making it difficult to fully concentrate on important cues. The challenge is to attend to what is important to your performance on a consistent basis–not the distractions.
Do You Play in the Past or Present?
I noticed that attention to line calls was a common distraction among the professional tennis players. While the rules allow a player to challenge an official’s call, several players seemed to continue to be distracted for several points afterwards. It was noticeable as they would scowl at the official and continue to look at the mark on the court each time they passed it. The focused athlete understands that the last point is over, and it is what it is. The mentally tough athlete will accept it and refocus to the next point. Lingering in the past is a common distraction.
It seemed that many of the players that were distracted by line calls were also distracted by their own missed shots. Often I heard remarks such as, “Why can’t I hit the ball today?” with a very loud voice followed by slumped shoulders and an occasional dropped racket. This was after a point lasting 15 to 20 shots, and the player already had won four or five games in the set. It seems to me that she was doing something right! Getting overly upset about mistakes imprints the error on the player’s mind. When that continues, confidence can decline. It’s important to be fair with yourself and acknowledge the successful shots in order to build confidence.
Many athletes have favorite distractions. Some are more concerned about what others are thinking. Some may think they are being treated unfairly. It’s helpful to recognize your typical distractions and move them to the background as unimportant to your performance.
When in doubt as to where your attention needs to be, ask yourself the WIN question–What’s Important Now? Remember, the “Now” part of the question is critical. Attend to what you can control, refocus to the present, and concentrate on the process. Above all, be your own best friend and have fun!
If you have questions about this article, mental skills training and/or the WIN Method, please contact Sharon at email@example.com.
What’s Important Now?
- Each of us has favorite distractions that divert our attention
- Identify your distractions as a first step toward improved focus
- If it is not relevant to your performance, it is a distraction
- Allow the distractions to fade into the background
- Accept past performances and refocus to the present
- Use the WIN question—What’s Important Now?