How Eliminating Distractions Can Increase Mental Toughness
DISTRACTIONS ARE EVERYWHERE
Sometimes I wonder how we ever get anything accomplished with the number of enticing distractions that face us every day--checking email, phone messages, the newest episode of the must see TV show, etc. Everyone has their own favorite distractions when they’re in the mood to procrastinate, and it works the same in athletic competition. There are certain common situations that take an athlete’s attention away from important and relevant performance cues.
Here’s my working definition of focus, in the athletic context: your ability to attend to relevant cues in your environment, maintaining that attention throughout the contest.
CUES AND ATTENTION
Let’s break this down. First, what’s a cue? Anything that happens around an athlete that is relevant in the present moment. So your coach shouting at the ref while you dribble the ball upfield is not a cue. But the defender moving toward you is. General examples of cues are striking balls, the positioning of opponents and teammates, or a target. For sports like track and field, cues usually revolve around keeping a certain pace or your body position. Again, what’s the same for all cues is that they are relevant in the present moment. This should remind you of WIN. We’ll talk about that a little later.
Now that we know what cues are, why don’t athletes always focus on them? Difficulty focusing stems from two common problems: an inability to identify the applicable cues, or a difficulty in maintaining focus on those cues for a period of time.
“I can’t believe I just missed that shot, I make it all the time in practice.”
“If I lose this round I’m never playing this sport again.”
“I always mess up a shot from this angle. Whatever I do, I can’t go too high.”
How often do you find yourself preoccupied in the middle of a game like that? Even though you’re technically thinking about your sport, the attention to past events has compromised your focus and likely your performance as well.
MAINTAINING FOCUS WITH AN EMOTIONAL DISTRACTION
Even if you’re competent at maintaining focus on a cue, picking the right cues to focus on can be difficult. I worked with an athlete, Jasmin, who had an overly involved father. He would get completely caught up in the competition and consistently shout some pretty horrible commentary during the game, even making derogatory remarks when his daughter made a mistake. When I watched her perform, all I could see was how many times Jasmin would look up at him in the stands. It was a habit, a learned reaction, and her shoulders would slump almost every time she looked at him. Out of all the action on the field (and the yelling in the stands) his voice was the cue she had chosen to pay attention to.
Telling herself to “just focus” wouldn’t fix it-- she needed to change the shape of her thoughts when she played. Athletes become mentally tough when they are able to shift their attention from distractions to performance-relevant cues. I’m going to repeat that one. Performance-relevant. It isn’t enough to be thinking about playing in general, or how you played a week ago, or who your opponent is as a player; you need to be asking yourself, “What’s Important Now?” to be focused on the correct cues.
I advised Jasmin to do just that. Even though her father was technically offering her advice and feedback, it wasn’t beneficial to her-- and it wasn’t part of the actual gameplay. A minute spent thinking about what her father said was a minute of attention lost, and a bar of performance lowered. Every time she heard her father, I had her ask herself a almost stupidly simple question, like “Okay, where’s the ball?” “Where’s teammate X on the field?” “Let’s focus. How much time is left?” These little questions helped Jasmin redouble her focus to the game instead of getting caught up in her dad’s response.
Paying attention to other’ comments, which you can’t control, will be detrimental to your playing. This is especially an issue when the “other” is a parent, as your emotional energy will also be compromised as you try to focus on them. It’s critical that this energy remains within! The key principle here is to attend to what you can control: your effort and your execution.