Athletes often misunderstand the concept of focus. Most of them believe it has to do with channeling all attention to a particular thing for a prolonged period. As a matter of fact, Hana Mandlikova, a former Australian Open tennis winner said her game improved when she started taking out ten minutes a day to stare t the tennis ball. Although she believes that was what helped her improve her game, I can tell you that with the complexity of the tennis game, it probably didn’t help much.
Before I go further to define focus, allow me to introduce a term to you. Everything inside of you, including physical responses, emotions, thoughts as well as the things outside of you such as sounds and sights which may require focus is referred to as Attentional field.
Prime focus has to do with your ability to focus on only signs or signal related to performance. This means that all your attention is directed to only the signs that can help you perform at your top level. The cue relevant to your performance depends on your type of sport. It includes timing, score, tactics your opponent etc. while in a competition, prime focus helps you to channel all your external an internal focus to the competition at hand.
For instance, a quarterback in a football game has to initially channel all attention to the game internally order for him to determine the best possible game play to suit the current situation. After that he has to move towards the center. At this point (as the huddle breaks), he has to observe the defensive alignment and as this happens, he is expanding his focus externally. He drops back to pass the ball after the ball is hiked. The routes off the receivers is his next point of focus, after he finds one in enough space to receive the pass, he narrows all attention to that person after which he passes the person the ball.
On the other hand, if the irrelevant cues for your performance are what you focus on in your attentional field, it is referred to as “poor focus”. This implies that the signs that will distract you from performing at your best are what you focus on. Harmful cues are generally of two types – interfering cues and irrelevant cues. Interfering cues include anxiety, negative thoughts, thought of your next opponent after the one you are facing etc. while irrelevant cues include what you must accomplish after the competition, what to have for dinner etc. they are the things that just distract you from focusing 00% on the completion at hand.
Identifying the various focus styles of athletes is one of the most important developments I have observed in recent years. This has to do with the athlete’s preferred manner of paying attention to specific cues. Generally, there are some cues which athletes would rather focus on than to focus on some others. All competitors have a particular style that works for them in sports and this style is easily observed when they are under pressure. These focus styles are the external and the internal.
First, let’s start with the internal focus style. Athletes that adopt this style usually have all their attention on the competition or even training. They think about only the sport and as such, they keep their focus narrowed to the sport. Activities from the immediate surrounding easily distracts them and if for any reason they start thinking of activities that are not related to the sport, they get distracted and usually, they find it hard to regain focus.
The second one is the external focus style. The competitors that adopt this style usually perform better when the channel all their attention to the sport before the competition or training. Most of the time, their focus is extended to activities that are not of their sport. If they don’t, there is a high probability that they will think too much and begin to develop anxiety and tension towards the sport. It is important that whenever they are not performing, they have to take their mind off the sport.
Many trainers are against the whole concept of external focus style. The popular belief is that for an athlete to perform well in a sport, he has to focus all attention to the sport and it is only by doing this that such athlete can excel in the sport. However, too much concentration for some athletes can cause them to become anxious and under perform. They usually perform at their best when they think less about the port and just allow their natural abilities to take charge.
Identifying Your Focus Style
Bearing this in mind, it is important that you identify your own focus style. Do you perform well in sports when you focus all attention to the sport while of the court/field? or do you grow anxious when you think too much about the sports?
Call to mind the previous competition you have excelled in. were you thinking more of other things than the sports or were you focusing completely on the sports. Call to mind also, the times when you have performed below par. Ask yourself the same question. If you pay close attention to your performances, you will discover that you tend to perform better when adopting a particular focus style and you perform poorly when you adopt the other.
In order to perform at your best, you have to know and understand your focus style. This can help you go a long way in competitions. More often than not, when athletes are under pressure, they often adopt the wrong focus style and it ends up distracting and or interfering with their performance. For instance, athletes who perform better with the external focus style can turn to the internal focus style while under pressure. When they do this, they tend to find themselves thinking too much. This could be detrimental to their course.
You have to establish a technique of reversing back to the appropriate focus style whenever you find yourself tilting towards the wrong focus style under pressure. From the example stated earlier, when such athlete realizes that he is paying too much attention to the internal cues, it would be wise for him to take a look at his surrounding to help him take his mind off the sport.
If you wish to fully comprehend your focus style, there is a tool I have developed and it can be useful to you. A Mag-Lite® is a flashlight with an adjustable beam. It could be adjusted to illuminate a narrow area or a wide area. Whatever you wish to focus on, you can adjust the beam of Mag-Lite® to focus on it.
The beam of the Mag-Lite® should be narrow all the time for athletes who wish to focus internally. The beam should be focused on only thing related to the sports. The idea is to illuminate the things you want to focus on and block out every other thing.
On the other hand, the beam of the Mag-Lite® is widened by athletes who adopt the external focus style. They do this while doing other activities and when they are about to start the next drill, they narrow the beam. The whole idea is to take your mind off the sport for the duration of the breaks you get or in between drills. After the breaks, you are to focus the beam back to something that concerns the sport so as to enable you perform better.
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