Definition of "focus": A centre of interest or activity. Close or narrow attention; concentration. A condition in which something can be clearly perceived.
When sportspeople consider the attributes of their mental state that are most important to them, the ability to focus is often high up on the list. However, there is more to being focused than first meets the eye so this needs some discussion.
There are two types of focus to consider. The first is about having your mind on what you are doing, being aware of your environment, and feeling generally “switched on”. You might call this an “easy focus”. For many people, this is enough and having an easy focus and general feeling of openness is what makes them perform optimally.
For some people, they need to go a stage further to achieve peak performance. This could be called an “intense focus”. In this situation, the sportsperson uses a great deal of concentration, control and visualisation.
In the case of using an easy focus, it is the subconscious that is being used to concentrate naturally and determine the best course of action at any time, and the sportsperson is barely aware of these complex activities that are happening behind the scenes. An easy focus also promotes relaxation. In the case of using an intense focus, the sportsperson involves their conscious mind far more in their visualisation and decision-making.
Either approach is absolutely fine. You just need to decide which of these methods works best for you. You may even decide that you need to use a mixture of these approaches within your sport. For example, in golf some people find it best to use an easy focus for the long game (making driving and iron play feel easy and flowing) and an intense focus for the short game (visualising every inch of their putts and intently controlling their stroke).
You can probably tell which type of focus is being used by someone by looking at the rhythm and style with which they play their sport. For example, Ronnie O’Sullivan must surely be using an easy focus to play his snooker so quickly and effortlessly, whereas Jonny Wilkinson appears to be using a very intense focus when kicking for points in rugby.
When using an easy focus, you need to watch out for becoming tired and losing your sense of presence in your environment. When using an intense focus, you need to measure yourself on how deeply you are visualising and how aware you are of your movements.
In hypnosis, there is a very powerful trick called presupposition. “I don’t know if your eyes are going to close now, or in a few seconds”, says the hypnotist. The presupposition is that your eyes will close; it’s just a matter of when, so sure enough it only takes a few moments for your eyes to feel heavy and start to close.
In sport, looking beyond what you are about to do is not considered good form because it stops you focusing on the present situation, but every rule has its exception and presupposition is a fantastic exception at that. Let’s take an example:
A golfer is preparing to hit an iron shot into a green. She starts thinking about how the ball will roll towards the flag when it lands. She pictures it landing and breaking left to right like a putt, and figures that a low shot with a bit of left to right spin would allow this to happen. She has focused right in to the landing area and is imagining a precise degree and direction of spin for the ball. At this point, it hasn’t occurred to her that she could miss the green altogether. She has presupposed that she will hit the green and is more concerned with the difference between two excellent shots (the one that hops and spins like she wants, or the one that fails to take the break but is still on the green).
Synonyms for “focus”
The following phrases can act as synonyms for “focus”. You may find that one or more of these phrases generate an instinctive reponse in you, thereby allowing you to achieve focus with ease:
Attentive, fascinated, clear, intent, precise, undisturbed, aware, in the present, in the moment, in the process, applied, mindful, grinding, focused within, focused on myself.
Ideal focus levels
Typically your focus needs to be close to maximum (10 out of 10) during a competition, but it is unhelpful to be fully focused on a competition days before it, or days after it. Being overly focused at a time when the event is not under your control can create stress, and it also stops you getting on with the rest of your life.
During the preparation stage, you should aim to ramp your focus up from zero, so that it reaches 10 as the competition starts. When the competition ends, other than to objectively analyse your performance, your focus needs to reduce back down to zero so that you are not dwelling on the past.
Methods for becoming focused
Here are some of my favourite approaches that people have used for becoming more focused:
- Imagine you are a rock star. This can really fire up your imagination and help you to change the way you feel and behave. Rock stars stand tall, they know they are like no one else, they don’t care what anyone else thinks of them, they even wear shades so you can’t read their emotions, and they let loose! This method also increases trust and relaxation. Some people I have worked with have taken inspiration from this, and have begun to imagine they are an actor or other famous person in order to create an entire persona that gives them the focus, trust and relaxation they desire. Rambo, you know who you are!
- Imagine you are showing someone else how to do it. Before making your play, explain everything to them and then demonstrate it perfectly! This method also increases trust.
- Imagine you are acting in a film: the camera is on you and sees your movements, but it doesn’t see the results, so you need not fear the results (from The Inner Game of Tennis by W. Timothy Gallwey). This creates an easy focus on your movements without being concerned about the outcome, so it is also promoting trust.
- This one switches on your senses, and also helps you to relax as a nice side-effect. Simply pick five things in your environment that you can see, five you can hear, and five you can feel. Then repeat the process choosing four things, then three, then two, and finally one – this takes a bit of time, but at the end of it you will find that you are very much at one with your surroundings.
- Impersonate a player that you admire (also from The Inner Game of Tennis by W. Timothy Gallwey).
- Imagine there is a crowd supporting you, simply amazed by your skills and they can’t wait to see what you will do next. This also promotes trust.
- Visualising (or even better, simulating) what you are about to do is an excellent way of developing an immersive and intense focus.
- Credit yet again goes to W. Timothy Gallwey in his book The Inner Game of Tennis for this brilliant piece of insight: he says that good concentration is actually fascination. He even goes as far as saying it is love! When you are fascinated by something you are completely focused on it and nothing can take your attention away from it. In your sport, if you can be fascinated by what is in front of you then you will also be focusing effortlessly.
- “Next play only”. To avoid dwelling on the past, or projecting into the future based on how well you have played so far, simply focus on the next play only. This is also known as “staying in the present”.
- The following sequence works well in situations where you have a range of options for your next play and you have a few moments to consider them: clarity –> intent –> do it. For example, when taking a penalty in football, “clarity” is where you assess your options for the shot (length of run-up, body position, direction and speed of shot etc.). Make sure that you think of at least two options that are within your abilities. “Intent” is where you select your approach for the shot. It should now be very clear in your mind because you actively selected it from a range of possibilities. “Do it” is simply the stage where you take the shot with trust, handing its execution over to your subconscious. This approach can be used in any sport where a particular aspect of the action is totally under your control. For example, goal-kicking in rugby, bowling in cricket, serving in tennis, and all shots in golf.
These techniques for becoming more focused tend to be behaviour-based or use acting / pretending. The behaviour-based methods should be highly effective, since we have discovered that changes in behaviour lead to the fastest changes in how you feel. The acting / pretending methods are likely to be very effective for a short period, but due to the incongruence you will start to feel (it’s not natural to pretend for long periods), you would do well to explore the behaviours that this pretending is leading to so that you can understand why it is effective for you.
To stay in the present, stay in the process
For many people, when they talk about being focused, the first thing that comes to mind is “staying in the present”. To them, this means not looking back at what has happened and not looking ahead either.
Looking back over past mistakes can be counter-productive because it creates stress about something you can no longer influence, and it takes your energy away from focusing on what you are supposed to be doing right now.
People can also be tempted to look ahead. For example, halfway through a round of golf, a player will often start calculating the score that she is heading for based on her score up to that point. This is known as “projecting”. If the golfer is not happy with her projection then she may become stressed and start trying to force a different outcome to happen; this can lead to a loss of trust and she will also stop enjoying herself.
Many sportspeople find it extremely difficult to stay in the present – after all, it’s only natural to think about moments past and what may happen in future. It’s all part of being human. Our minds are too sophisticated to be restricted to the present 100% of the time. And yet, we know that staying in the present is highly desirable for a successful sporting performance. The answer to this conundrum is simple: instead of trying to stay in the present, just stay in the process.
What this means is that you need to have processes for the actions you make in your sport, and then you need to stick to these in a competitive environment. For example, in golf this means having a detailed pre-shot routine such as the following:
- As you approach your ball, assess the yardage, wind conditions, your lie, etc.
- Select your club
- Visualise the shot in detail
- Take a practice swing and visualise the ball flight again
- Take your grip
- Place the club behind the ball and step into your address
- Look at target
- Waggle and feel the shot you have visualised
- “Let it go” (hand the shot over to the subconscious and allow it to make the swing)
The importance of staying in the process goes up a few notches when you are under extreme pressure. At times like this, your process is your mainstay . It’s what you rely on to get you through the moment of intense pressure. In fact, you might say it’s all you have.
Sometimes staying in the process is the only thing that can get you through moments of intense pressure.
Solo skydiving and the necessity of process
I will never forget my first solo skydive. I had never tried a tandem jump, a fixed line jump, or any other method of exiting an aeroplane except via a set of steps onto a baked airport runway in some far off destination. But here I was, after one day’s training in an aircraft hanger, about to throw myself out of a plane several vertical miles above the Wiltshire countryside.
The training had been very thorough, and has consisted of drill after drill after drill. It had covered every stage of the jump: moving to the door of the plan, exiting the plane, getting into the skydiving position, checking altitude, pulling the chute, checking the chute, and steering down to the landing area. And it covered every eventuality including parachutes failing to deploy, tangled parachutes, landing in trees and on buildings, and even landing on moving cars.
I had been taught a set of processes and had been tested on these time and again, and I had proved that I knew how to react to any situation that might occur. BUT I HADN’T ACTUALLY JUMPED OUT OF A PLANE YET! As we spiralled upwards into the deep blue sky, this fact weighed heavy on my mind. Would I be in control of my actions when I was hurtling through the air at 120 miles per hour? Would I be able to get out of the plane in the first place? It’s not normal to throw yourself out of a plane. To bring myself to exit the plane, I would have to override and overcome one of the most basic human instincts: fear.
By the time we had climbed to 15,000 feet, all the other trainees had deserted me: they had already jumped. I watched with amazement at how gravity seemed to whip them straight down out of the plane door. I had expected to be able to watch them floating away for a second or two, but they were instantly yanked into the depths below as if their jump suits were made of metal and the earth was some kind of super-powered magnet.
Now the rear of the plane is empty except for me and my two instructors. It’s my turn to jump. My main instructor, Fran, signals me to the door. Here are my [thoughts] and actions…
[OK, here we go. This can’t be happening]
I shuffle over to the door and put my legs out so that I’m sitting half out of the plane.
[Well, my legs are out but surely I’m not going to jump?]
I get fully into position.
[No, no, this is not happening]
I look to my right and shout “check in!” to my second instructor Gary.
[Hey, did I just do that?]
I look to my left and shout “check out!” to Fran.
[I’ve still got time to pull out]
I look forwards, push my head down [NO!], push up hard and away from the door, and I’m out of the plane. I see the plane spin away above me, quickly getting smaller. [I’M OUT!]
Look at what happened. I was terrified! I had a huge amount of negative self-talk, zero confidence, and no determination whatsoever. But I did make the jump successfully! And the only reason for this was that I had a process drilled into me. I was on automatic. No sooner had I shuffled over to the door, it wasn’t really me that made the jump. It was just a process. I felt so out of control, but the process was unstoppable because each step led to the next one so inexorably that I couldn’t help but jump out of the plane. The jump was inevitable from the moment Fran had signalled me to the door.
So the moral of the story is that when you are under intense pressure, you had better have a process ingrained into you, something that you can do no matter how fast your mind is racing.