Focus for Sport And Performance

Focus for Sport and Performance
“Focus for Sport and Performance” – A Critical Mental Skill

Intro: Focus for Sport And Performance

Focus is arguably one of the most crucial components of sporting and non-sporting performance. High-performance realistically isn’t possible without it.  Because of this, it’s one of the areas of mental performance we work on the most. Focus is what the f is Metuf stands for. One quick and simple way to measure your current levels of focus is to complete one of our Mental Toughness Questionnaires here. Focus for sport and performance can be measured and improved.

As Sport and Performance Psychologists our clients often ask us for ways to become more focused, stay focused or refocus after. But to understand how to improve focus, we first need to understand exactly what it is.

What Is Focus?

In psychology, ‘focus’ is defined as mentally attending to something while tuning out any other irrelevant incoming information. And like every other mental process, it plays an important role in helping keep us alive. Our survival is ultimately aided by our ability to attend to stimuli and extract information from our social and environmental surroundings. The ability to focus is a mental process that is present from birth, indicating it’s something we’re hardwired to do. It plays a vital role in virtually every life domain.

Focus In The Performance Domain

There are many different types of focus. But the two most relevant to performance domains are Focused Attention and Sustained Attention. During focused attention, we attend to a target stimulus for a given period of time, allowing us to rapidly detect changes and react/respond in an appropriate way. We might focus our attention on an external sensory stimulus, for example, something we hear, see, smell or feel, and in doing so can formulate a quick and immediate response to this stimulus if required.

The performance domains where one might need to engage in focused attention are those where individuals are required to respond with speed and accuracy. For example racquet, ball and combat sports as well as emergency service work (e.g. police officers, paramedics), security and defence work.

Sustained attention, or what is commonly known as concentration, is where we focus on a task for an extended period of time. Complete attention is given to the task until it is over. Any irrelevant sensory information is filtered out. This type of focus is crucial for long-distance and enduro-sports, musical and theatric performances or surgery. Basically, anything that requires an individual to concentrate for a prolonged period of time. A swimmer (left)) requires focused attention whilst on the blocks followed by sustained attention during the race.

Because focus plays such a large role in high-performance across the sporting and non-sporting performance domain, it can be valuable to learn about the different ways we can enhance and improve our focus, starting with mindfulness. Focus for sport and performance is not identical to the kind of focus that might be required in the classroom for example.

Meditative Focus 

The benefits of meditation extend beyond the general health benefits it’s commonly known for. In the performance domain, meditation is commonly used to bring our attention to the present moment, and focus our mind on the task at hand. Meditation is in no way the production of more positive thinking or a way to stop thinking altogether. At the end of the day, thoughts are something we have only some influence over.

Every single moment of the day we’re thinking, whether we want to or not. The purpose of meditation is actually to heighten our awareness of the present moment, including any external experiences (sensory stimulus) and internal experiences (such as thoughts), and to observe them without judgement. Or as little judgment as possible. This heightened awareness allows us to focus on the task at hand and fully engage in what we are doing, in spite of everything going on around us.

Focus for Sport And Performance: FAM and OMM

There are many different styles of meditation. Focused Attention Meditation (FAM) and Open Monitoring Meditation (OMM) are two of the most common in performance settings. During Focused Meditation, the individual attends to one single target and is aware of their wandering mind so they can bring their focus back to that target. Attention may be drawn to a visual stimulus, sound or any other sensory experience, and practising this form of meditation can improve our ability to filter out irrelevant sensory information and maintain attention to a single thing (Yoshida et al., 2020).

Open Monitoring Meditation on the other hand is where an individual observes any private experiences they have. These include thoughts, feelings, bodily sensations, urges and cravings. The aim of this exercise is to watch these inner experiences come and go without struggle or judgement. This heightened state of awareness increases our presence in the current moment. It allows us to attend to the task at hand and again, fully engage in what we’re doing. 

There has been some research into the effects of these types of meditation on attentional control and thought processing, with Focused Meditation resulting in more specific, solution-based problem solving, and Open Monitoring Meditation promoting broader thinking and the development of new ideas (Lippelt, Hommel & Colzato, 2014).

Screen Time And Sleep

Aside from the benefits of meditation on our cognition and focus, sleep also plays an important role in these mental processes. We know that sleep deprivation can severely impact our decision making, alertness, memory, learning and reaction time, as well as our mood states and stress regulation.

One of the biggest causes of sleep disruption today is screen time, particularly its proximity to bedtime.

Electronic device usage prior to sleep can have a significant impact on sleep quality. Research has shown that individuals who use their mobile phones right before sleeping experienced a decline in both focused and sustained attention the following morning (de Oliveira et al., 2020). To enhance your sleep quality and reduce the impact of screen time usage on your focus the following day, it is ideal for athletes and performers not to be on their phones right before bed. One way of giving yourself the greatest chance for a good performance is through switching off any electronic devices as early as possible before sleeping.

Flow And Focus for Sport / Performance

The word Flow is also thrown around in the sporting world when we talk about focus. Flow refers to a state where an athlete or performer is fully and completely immersed in what they’re doing. What we know about flow is that in this state physical performance is heightened, because the individual is completely present, attending solely to the task and filtering out any irrelevant information. The benefits of flow on performance extend across the sport and performing arts domain (Swann et al., 2012; Martin & Bhattacharya, 2013; Csikszentmihalyi, Montijo & Mouton, 2018).

Based on Flow Theory, individuals who struggle to get focused or stay focused are probably experiencing one of two things – they’re either experiencing anxiety or boredom. The two variables at play here include the individual’s skill level and the difficulty of the task they have been asked to do. If an athlete’s skill level is relatively lower than the difficulty of the task, this often creates a lot of anxiety for them disrupting flow. On the other hand, if an athlete’s skill level is relatively higher than the task difficulty, this often leaves them feeling bored and struggling to engage in the task as they’re not challenged. To create an environment where flow can occur, skill level and task difficulty need to be roughly equal. 

Flow and Focus are very closely linked

Matching Skill Level and Task Difficulty 

Matching skill level and task difficulty can be particularly tricky in a team or group setting where you have individuals of varying skill levels and experience. For athletes in a group training setting where the prescribed sets or drills are too “easy”, creating artificial constraints on performance or setting artificial thresholds for success to increase difficulty can help in keeping them engaged. For example, if a boxer is asked to spar against a less experienced opponent, setting higher point thresholds or introducing artificial rules to make the round more physically and mentally demanding might aid them in entering a state of flow. 

Throwing a minimum of three strikes per combo, only leading with a feint or a double jab, or starting a combo with anything but a jab are some artificial rules that can be introduced to increase the difficulty of the round and help the athlete engage in the task where their experience level isn’t matched. For a swimmer hitting well below the times they need to be hitting during an endurance set, introducing a more difficult breathing pattern or a higher dolphin kick benchmark off each wall might introduce some additional physical and psychological constraints to a relatively easy set. 

It is important for athletes and performers to shift their thinking from what they can’t get out of a session to what they can get out of a session. Through enhancing task difficulty in an artificial sense we can help them to better engage in the session, and this will increase the chance of them leaving the session feeling as though they’ve gotten something out of it.

Narrowing Your Focus

Sometimes we underestimate the value of setting objectives or targets for the session we’re about to do or the week of training we’re about to commence. Narrowing our focus to a small selection of focus areas when we train (and even compete) is an attentional style that promotes concentration and helps us filter out all the irrelevant information around us.

I often find that athletes, particularly those on the younger side, struggle to engage during training and even on game day because they don’t know what to think about. They’re often trying to focus on too many things at once, which can lead to a lot of overthinking. For players who just can’t get their head in the game, this is most likely the reason why. Particularly during the development stage where athletes are trying to learn a whole range of new skills, it can be difficult to see them engaged in what they’re doing because they’re having to think about and remember so many different things. Trying to focus on so many different skill areas isn’t always the most efficient way of working towards progress, and it can often be hard for us to physically see our progress and use this as motivation to keep going. 

Focus Goals

To see more engagement on the field, narrowing their focus might help. Focus areas can be changed on a daily, weekly, fortnightly or monthly basis. Choosing one, two or three areas of focus or ‘focus goals’ can help athletes know what they need to attend to. They can then bring their attention back to these if it wonders and then stay engaged in what they’re doing. Clarifying these focus goals ahead of the session, week or month also allows them to take ownership.

Focus goals allow athletes to recognise their progress more clearly and take accountability for their efforts during training and on game day. There is no real excuse for not knowing what the objectives of the session or game are. Increased accountability is a large part of the philosophy of my primary superior Gareth’s approach.

Do You Need Help With Your Focus?

It’s clear that focus is an integral part of any performance arena. If you’re an athlete or performer looking to develop some of these ideas further please get in touch by completing our Contact Form here. Focus for sport and performance can be improved and qualified psychologists are the ideal teachers.

References

de Oliveira, M. L. C., de Nogueira Holanda, F. W., Valdez, P., de Almondes, K. M., & de Azevedo, C. V. M. (2020). Impact of electronic device usage before bedtime on sleep and attention in adolescents. Mind, Brain, and Education, 14(4), 376-386.

Csikszentmihalyi, M., Montijo, M. N., & Mouton, A. R. (2018). Flow theory: Optimizing elite performance in the creative realm.

Lippelt, D. P., Hommel, B., & Colzato, L. S. (2014). Focused attention, open monitoring and loving-kindness meditation: effects on attention, conflict monitoring, and creativity–A review. Frontiers in psychology, 5, 1083.

Marin, M. M., & Bhattacharya, J. (2013). Getting into the musical zone: trait emotional intelligence and amount of practice predict flow in pianists. Frontiers in Psychology, 4, 853.

Swann, C., Keegan, R. J., Piggott, D., & Crust, L. (2012). A systematic review of the experience, occurrence, and controllability of flow states in elite sport. Psychology of Sport and Exercise, 13(6), 807-819.

Yoshida, K., Takeda, K., Kasai, T., Makinae, S., Murakami, Y., Hasegawa, A., & Sakai, S. (2020). Focused attention meditation training modifies neural activity and attention: longitudinal EEG data in non-meditators. Social cognitive and affective neuroscience, 15(2), 215-224.

Team Unity and Culture

If you are part of a team (sporting or otherwise) and you’re not actively trying to improve the unity of the group then you’re missing a trick.

Team Unity
Team Unity – The U in Metuf (Mental Toughness Training)

In the world of team sport, we often talk about team unity as playing a vital role in success. But how important is unity to sporting success and how do we go about developing it?

Creating a Winning Culture 

Coaches often talk about creating a “Winning Culture” as the key to success in team sports. When we talk about a winning culture, we’re usually referring to a team environment that fosters the best outcomes (that is, “winning”). But if we were to pull apart the training environment of a team with consistent success what would this look like? You would likely see a group of individuals with shared values (despite varying individual values), working towards a common goal and supporting each other to flourish in their own individual roles. Teams that are well known for establishing a winning culture place an emphasis on characteristics such as work ethic, honesty, ability to take on feedback and having a positive influence on the people around them, and through these factors a sense of unity is easily established. Without unity, it is arguable that a team limits their opportunity to get the results they want, as the nature of the team sport ultimately requires individuals to work together towards a common goal. 

Process Goals In Team Settings

In an effort to develop team unity, it is important firstly to separate outcome-based goals from process-based goals. Sure, working towards establishing a ‘winning culture’ sounds good and might motivate players (initially), but placing such a large focus on results doesn’t guide anyone on the team to work on the processes that contribute to those results. With every outcome goal, there need to be process goals to complement it. Of course, it’s only normal to think about what outcomes we want out of the season, but we want to place a larger amount of focus on how we plan to give ourselves the best chance of getting those results. 

Because how many factors contribute to the end result of a game? You’ve got your team, the other team, the officials, the spectators, the weather – all of these factors in some way contribute to the end result of a game. Let’s say 40% of the outcome is determined by your team, 40% the other team, 10% the officials, 7% the weather and 3% the spectator’s presence. Winning is therefore something we have less than 50% influence or control over. So why spend so much time focusing your efforts on it? 

Processes (the things we do to get those results) on the other hand are something we have a lot of influence over and are the things we should be encouraging team members to focus their efforts on. Players who are asked to work towards these kinds of goals often leave training feeling empowered because they’re focusing their efforts on things that are within their individual reach. Some process goals you might want to set for your team to increase your chances of getting that win, might include communicating in a compassionate way, showing support for team members through verbal (spoken words) or physical (handshake, pat on the back) signs of support, and being authentic, genuine and respectful in your interactions with others (through tone of voice, choice of words, body language and eye contact). These communication process goals are one way of increasing the chances your team will get the outcome they want. 

Having a Shared Vision

Integral to team sport success is having a shared vision. This is often outlined by the leader (e.g. coach) and should include the details of his or her expectations, and the role each individual on the team will play. The perspectives of each member around what they value in a team setting should also be heard, including what they’d like others around them to be doing to promote their best performance. You as the coach might want to ask some questions to initiate a discussion around what attributes are to be brought to training to help produce the best results for the team. For example, “What do you want to accomplish this season, and what will it take for us to get there?”, or “What would you like others to be saying about us at the end of the season?”. 

It will be important for you to lead this conversation to ensure the brainstormed goals are both attainable and within your team’s influence (or control). That is, they are process-focused. Winning might pop up in the conversation which is fair enough, considering sport is often result-based, but exploring what exactly this might look like could prompt some discussion around what attributes are to be brought to training by each team member to help achieve this outcome. For example, “To give ourselves the best chance of winning we will need to have effective communication; what does this look like?”, or “To give ourselves the best chance of winning we will need to create a positive environment at training so individuals can push themselves; how can we do this?”.

Understanding Your Role

The trickiest thing about working in a team setting is that you basically have a group of individuals with different experiences and roles trying to work together towards a common goal. In a team setting it is vital each member of the team understands their own ability, role, the expectations and limits of their role and that of the others around them. Team members need to be able to make judgements around when to rely on others and when to step up and perform, and without an understanding of these fundamentals you’ll have multiple individuals trying to perform the same role on the field or worse, no one jumping in to do anything at all. 

It is also important for individual players to separate the team outcome from their individual roles to evaluate their own performance. For the team to progress individual players need to progress, so it is important for players to recognise any progress they have made, examine how they contributed to the team outcome and highlight areas that need to be improved on an individual level. For example, how was your footwork, passing and communication regardless of the fact that we won/lost the game? The team outcome is not a reliable indicator of their individual performance, so it is important for individuals to reflect on their own performance keeping in mind that there are many things outside of their influence that may have contributed to the outcome of the game.

Culture, Atmosphere and Communication

For team unity to flourish it is well known that the team atmosphere needs to be a positive and cohesive one. A positive and cohesive team culture is made up of a whole range of factors, including player attitudes, team motivation, ensuring every team member feels valued and empowered, and most importantly team identity. Team identity refers to the distinct characteristics of the team the make it unique, and it flourishes when each team member takes pride in their membership in the group. Individuals also need to place the values of their team above their own individual values in working towards that common goal to establish a sense of cohesiveness. 

Effective communication is also a huge part of establishing that positive team atmosphere. Open communication needs to be able to occur without fear of disrupting the relationship between coaches and players or the players themselves. One way individuals can provide feedback in a group setting without damaging those important relationships is through solution-focused feedback, as opposed to problem-focused feedback. Solution-based feedback involves highlighting what individuals could be doing instead, or should start doing differently. Problem-centred feedback on the other hand is where the problem is highlighted, and individuals are told not to do those things again. Pointing out what players have done wrong and asking them not to do it again might seem helpful, but in actual fact, this can lead to a lot of overthinking on their end around NOT making the same mistake. Keeping the feedback solution-focused helps guide their thinking towards how they can do that skill better, which indirectly prevents them from making the same error again. Helping players solve the problem rather than just highlighting the problem is one way of making them feel supported in their development, and this kind of feedback should extend to between-players to foster an environment of camaraderie and ensure team members feel supported by each other.

Respect 

Finally, it is important to distinguish liking our team members from respecting them. In the sport and performance domain, respect plays a huge role in fostering an environment where team unity can flourish. Individuals might differ in their approach to the work and what they value, but agreeing with or liking the approaches and values of everyone we work with isn’t necessarily required for unity to thrive. Respecting them, however, is.

Respect is defined as demonstrating a high regard for someone or their ideas regardless of their differences and in order to create an environment where individuals push themselves beyond their limits each day they need to feel valued and respected by others around them. We can choose to communicate with others whose ideas we don’t like with complete disregard, or we can choose to show our appreciation for the strengths in those ideas and offer alternative ones. The team environment needs to foster non-judgement to allow individuals to take risks and step outside their comfort zones on an individual level as they work towards that common goal.

Forget About Winning To Build A Winning Culture

The take-home message from this piece is that in order to establish a winning culture, we should forget about winning altogether. Rather the focus should be on establishing supportive environments for team members where they feel valued and empowered to achieve their individual best for the good of the team, and the goal of their work should be more centred around the journey rather than the destination. That is, focusing on the here and now, what we can be working on that is within our influence to give ourselves the best chance of success later on, rather than working with success at the forefront of our minds. In the performance world, we often see the best results achieved by those who don’t focus on results at all. 

References

Yukelson, D. (1997). Principles of effective team building interventions in sport: A direct services approach at Penn State University. Journal of applied sport psychology, 9(1), 73-96.