Focus For Sport and Performance

How important is focus compared to all the other mental skills required for consistently high performance? Provisional Psychologist Madalyn Incognito addresses this question and more in this great feature article.

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

Focus for Sport – How Important Is It?

Obviously, as a growing group of sport psychologists and performance psychologists, we do a lot of work around focus and attention. But how important is focus compared to all the other mental skills required for consistently high performance?

Focus is arguably the most crucial mental skill of them all. High performance really isn’t possible without it.  Because of this, it’s one of the areas of mental performance we work on the most. One quick and simple way to measure your current levels of focus is to complete one of our Mental Toughness Questionnaires here.

What Exactly Is Focus?

In psychology, ‘focus’ is defined as mentally attending to something while tuning out from 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 surroundings. The ability to focus is a mental process that is present from birth. It plays a vital role in virtually every life domain.

Focus In The Performance Domain

There are actually several different types of focus. But the two most relevant in the work we do are Focused Attention and Sustained Attention. During focused attention, we attend to a target stimulus for a given period of time. This allows us to rapidly detect changes and react/respond in an appropriate way. Good examples from major sports would be:

  • Cricket: The batter watches the ball and has to adjust their shot based on the bounce of the ball off the pitch.
  • Tennis: The speed that a player can react to a volley whilst focusing on the incoming ball.
  • Baseball: Too many examples to list.

Sustained Attention

Sustained attention, or what is commonly known as concentration, is where we focus on a task for an extended period. Complete attention is given to the task until it is over. Any irrelevant sensory information is filtered out. Think long-distance and enduro-sports, musical and theatrical performances, and even surgery. Basically, anything that requires an individual to concentrate for a prolonged period of time. A swimmer 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 domains, it can be valuable to learn about the different ways we can enhance and improve our focus.

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. Basically, this practice helps us get better at focusing our minds on the task at hand. Meditation is not about positive thinking nor about changing thoughts. At the end of the day, thoughts are something we have only some influence over.

“As our clients know it’s better to just accept your thoughts and get on with the job.”

Every single moment of the day we’re thinking about something. The purpose of meditation is actually to heighten our awareness of the present moment. This includes any external experiences (sensory stimulus) and internal experiences (such as thoughts) observing them without judgment. Or as little judgment as possible!

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.

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 experience a decline in both focused and sustained attention. 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 by 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. This is because the individual is completely present, attending solely to the task and filtering out any irrelevant information.

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 anxiety. On the other hand, if an athlete’s skill level is relatively higher than the task difficulty, this tends to lead to boredom. 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. By 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 when 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, narrowing one’s focus can help. Choosing one or more areas of focus or ‘focus goals’ can help athletes know what to attend to. They can then bring their attention back to these if it wanders and 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 used by our founding sport psychologist Gareth J. Mole. This style of sport psychology can be confronting at first. But it is vital as part of the performance enhancement aspect of what we do. The coaching side as opposed to the counseling side.

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. Your focus 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.

Author: Madalyn Incognito

Madalyn is passionate about improving sporting performance through psychological practice and research and she was ultimately motivated to pursue a career in performance psychology as a result of her own experiences growing up as an athlete, where her eyes were opened to the ways in which one’s mental state can impact on their performance, and how psychology can be utilised to improve performance across a range of competitive settings. Madalyn’s first-hand experience inside the pressure cooker of High-Performance Sport combined with ongoing learning and practice as a provisionally registered psychologist means that she was the obvious choice to join the Condor Performance team at the start of 2021.

One thought on “Focus For Sport and Performance”

  1. I like the distinction between focused attention and sustained attention. It alludes to how we can make better use of this resource for key moments in our relative field of performance. I imagine this helpful for how to structure our goals and training so that we are spending mental energy in the places where it counts the most. Much like how you mention focus goals, our attention is normally somewhere, and we can practice placing it on aspects that we know are important for us to perform. Great read, thanks Maddy.

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