Elite athletes seem to have the focus of a rock. Nothing can shake them. Distractions or just a general short attention span are however a major problem in society.
I know this for a fact. I leave for home after a long hard day fully intent on doing what I need to do. Then I hit traffic with dumbasses that skip red lights, sit for ages behind green lights, change lanes without indicating, drive like lunatics, drive glacial speed, drive in the emergency lane, or quite simply push in illegally to avoid lines. Then I get home and realize I have no food. I also have no money. Also there are 10 days until payday.
So I crawl back out to my car, battle with more idiots on the road to the shops, get something cheap, crap and barely filling for tonight and crawl back home. I shovel it down my throat and it’s already 8.30pm. Just as I’m about to do something useful my bed and the internet have a competition to see who can summon me the best. “Coooome to meeeee. Look at my warm and lovely blankets and pillows! My friend the internet is here with all those cats you like to watch…” Then before you know it the clock strikes 10.30pm and you need to rush to close your eyes so you can squeeze in enough sleep for tomorrow. And so goes the next day. And the one after that. And then all the other days until you are dead.
In reality if you ate properly your grocery bill would be less. If your job does not pay enough for you to afford groceries like my current job does then change! Apply for something else. These days promotions are like truthful politicians, they only exist for a rare few moments and are revealed only to a handful of people. Rather change companies than wait for what does not really happen unless someone dies and the boss doesn’t have friends or family also looking for a job.
Earn your TV and internet time minute for minute with exercise. Do you really need to spend 3 hours on Buzzfeed looking at fails and cat videos?
- Plan ahead. Get groceries on the weekend.
- Make sure you have enough sleep every night, not just some nights.
If you can do these things you are already going to improve your focus before spending any time on practicing it. The important thing is to have consistent focus. You can’t look like you’ll shatter glass with your thoughts one moment then look completely lost the next. Inconsistent focus means inconsistent performance. A professional athlete will have a high level of QUALITY focus. (I mean professional not in terms they get paid but in terms they are serious about what they do).
A professional athlete is:
- Able to switch focus on and off as required
- Not distracted by other’s performance or their own distractions
- Able to remain fully focused on the task in the face of competition-specific distraction
- Able to regain psychological control following unexpected events
But what is focus? A dictionary entry may tell you that it is “The center of interest or activity”. So what you are doing is diverting the majority of your conscious brain power towards a specific task. In computing terms you will want more of the machine’s problem-solving skills to go towards the task you want done the most. It is putting energy behind the most important task at that point in time. If you try running too many programs at once or taking on a single large task for which the computer is not suited, you can come up with all sorts of errors or the computer may freeze.
Your brain is a complex biological computer. It uses bioelectrical impulses to send and store information. You need to treat it in a similar fashion. A brain can be programmed as easily as a computer in some instances. Focus is something that needs to be trained like any muscle.
When you see a professional athlete out there on the field it seems they are hardly working at all. They spot gaps you never even saw. They seem to move and flow instinctively and make snap decisions. This all comes from many hours of focused training. The illusion of effortless work is from movement intention and trained response.
When actors do an improve scene it is not all as unplanned as you may think. They set out within certain boundaries and work from there. Movement intention is the plan to do a scene about a newsroom. You have your players decided out beforehand with a rough personality guide. The scene is set as a newsroom with the already preconceived ideas of what is expected in a news broadcast. Their movements and characters will be based on the scene, the expected responses and actions of someone in such a scene then finally what their character may be expected to do based on their personality.
Trained response comes from their ability to make snap decisions and judgments then take action. It’s all about quickly adapting to a changing scenario. This response is naturally trained in every session. Each person is given many tools to carry out a job. These are like files stored with useful information on a computer. A well-trained individual will have done mock-tests of their skills throughout a season where they are encouraged and rewarded for taking risks and showing initiative. Because it’s not about the amount of skills you have to offer, it is the ability to recall these skills on demand. That is why improv theatre looks so fluid.
The actors have been taught various acting techniques in their career. They have life experience of many everyday scenes. Then in practice their teacher encourages them to be “experimental” and push the boundaries of what is possible in human emotion, action and reaction. Combine those together and you get someone who in an instant can visualize what may come next in an improv scene.
The same happens in soccer for example. A player learns ball handling, avoiding other players, fitness and accuracy. With playing practice games they can come to see patterns in play that will require certain responses. All of that leads up to that fantastic goal they eventually score in a tightly contested match.
Focus is trained in every session regardless of what you are doing. It is the whole reason behind a successful session. Each time you do a task you need to focus on JUST what is at hand. Yes you may need to focus on multiple items at once. A soccer player may be required to have a good idea of the location of all the players on the pitch. BUT the player is still thinking of soccer, not of the Candy Crush game they didn’t finish before the whistle blew.
So here are some focus-related tips to look out for:
Choose to focus on what is relevant
Many people feel exhausted in the day. When they are at work they worry about not spending enough time with family. When they are with family they worry about doing more work to look after their family. They are never in the now. No wonder they are so tired, their mind is always travelling! You would not run 50 tabs in Internet Explorer at the same time. It is too much to process therefore nothing gets done. Your mind is the same way. When you are at work, BE AT WORK. Not just in body but in mind too. Same thing for home too. When you spend time with friends, actually enjoy their company. Put away your damned phone and actually talk to another human being. Stop being like a cat who wishes to go outside then cries to be inside when finally let out. Your social media is like a drug you use to make you feel self worth. Each status update is a cry for someone to notice you. Every comment is a pat on your back. Rather prioritize and actually enjoy REAL human interaction and validation. Pick what is important in this moment that will actually make you a better person and focus on that.
Practice Eye control
If you are decided in what you will focus on, your eyes should follow suit. By practicing to keep your eyes on the task you already avoid most of the distractions that could trip up your focus. So you are trying to study and someone is playing that movie you like in the lounge. The second you look at the screen is when you are trapped. Like Medusa, do not look! If you choose to look at the distraction it becomes and interruption. It turns your productivity to stone. The important thing here is CHOICE. I am not saying that you will not have distractions. Sometimes no matter how hard you try you will be painfully aware of what is around you. But the choice is to not look. Some MMA fighters walking out the tunnel to the ring have the hats snatched off their heads by fans. They don’t even flinch. If they choose to walk on without changing stride then they have taken away no energy that should be used on their opponent. If that guy had to look at the twit who snatched at his head, then they have chosen to let it affect them. One day after you have been vigilant in practicing eye control, you will realize the outside distractions simply no longer existed in your mind. Someone will ask you, “Wow did you see that guy dressed funny in the crowd?” and you will reply, “What crowd?”
Accept poor performance
You will make a mistake. There will be a fault in your performance. Even a gold medallist will say, “I messed up here and there.” You have to acknowledge the fault in the moment and move on. If you pretend it didn’t happen at all then it will repeat. If you obsess over it then you are no longer in the game and more mistakes will be made. So learn to move quickly. Accept something happened. Shake it off. Aim to focus back on the basics for a second or two to refocus on the game (likely a reason for the mistake) then find a quick solution to fixing it if you can. This entire process happens in about 5 seconds or less. When the event is done that is time to really chew over the specifics of your performance.
Establish a routine
The right trigger, like Pavlov’s dogs and the bell, can really help move you into the right physical and mental state. Some people use the time when they kit up to establish the mindset. “I am getting dressed. I am putting on my armour. I am getting ready for this battle. Ok body, time to do your job.” Simple, easy and effective. As explained earlier, establish a warm-up and preparation routine. A routine allows you to slowly progress from a fun, light-hearted person into a warrior. The progression is a mental one more than a physical one. Yes a warm-up is useful for a game. But the switch over from ‘chilling on the bench’ mentality to ‘let’s compete’ is the main idea. Use self-talks, a warm-up, visualizations, and team chants, basically anything that works for you. Experiment in training with what works. There should be a build up in the routine. Start it slow and end off with a bang. By the time you have gone through your routine you should be chomping at the bit, ready to take on the challenge.
Create key words
Often performance can drop in a team. People get tired, mistakes can happen. Things are even harder when you are on your own. Key words are those performance focus-points and motivational boosts of NOS as described in the motivation chapter. These are not long sentences. It is not a speech. It is the sometimes breathless word said either to yourself or to the team. “I’m with you.” “I’ve got you.” “Let’s do this.” “We can take this.” “Gain the ground.” All of these are examples of motivational things that can be said. Short and sweet with no room for interpretation, negativity or energy wastage. In rowing we used technical phrases to cement focus on specific parts of the technique. “On the legs.” “Finish strong” “”Drive the legs” “Quick hands.” Now each sport can come up with the same kind of thing. If you are a well-oiled machine of a team or athlete, hearing these phrases can help in performance, not annoy you. However be careful with the timing of the keywords and make sure you are not coming across as a coach on the field of play.
Focus only on what you can control
Remember the extent of your control in life is very limited. Under ‘Fortifying Yourself’ I discussed how you only have some things you can prepare for. Write down a list of what you are able to directly influence. Your personal performance should be one of the few things. The weather, the field of play, the opponents, the equipment, spectators and even something as silly as the noise level is all something you have zero control over. You need to come up with strategies for the most likely scenarios to face you on the day. Outside of that then there are still many unexpected events that can occur. Mid-game equipment failure or a team mate suddenly injured and taken off the pitch are utterly unforeseeable. Yes you may have done all your equipment checks or learned injury prevention but it certainly does not stop it from happening. Focus on what is within your control, stay calm and move on.
Learn to love the pressure
In sports and life you will feel stressed, pressured, tired and sore. That is existence. Sport just amplifies the everyday. You are an oxidative creature, meaning you need oxygen to function. When something is getting a little hairy, stop the adrenalin rushing through your veins. Stop yourself for a second (ok well don’t stop moving, in some sports that will be the end if you do that.) Take a deep breath, close your eyes, shake out your thoughts and if you can shake out your shoulders as well. Pressure can make you strong or it can make you crack. You can be an eggshell or you can be a piece of coal. Either you crumble or you become a diamond. Learn to love the pain. Learn to love the pressure. Make them your friends and you will never be alone in live. Walk hand in hand with them, acknowledge their existence. Work with them. Just do not make pressure and pain become your masters as that is when you will fail.
Focus is about 2 things only, breathing and choice. You must feed your brain with oxygen. You must make sure you are breathing well and not tensing up your shoulders. Give yourself a second to make a choice. This choice is the most important part of focus you can have. You decide what you will spend your energy on. You decide on how you will react to a situation. You set your routines; you design your key words. Choice is what makes diamonds under pressure, not a heap of collapsed athlete.