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What is Focus?

In the last article we spoke about being “in the zone” or in the ideal performance state, and a key aspect to being in this zone is focus and concentration. In this article we’ll look at what it means to actually focus, how it can improve your performance and some techniques to use that can help you do so; so that you can find yourself in the “zone” more often and get more out of your efforts while you’re there.

We’ve all been there, trying to focus in a crucial moment, but simply cannot get our full attention to a task we need to complete. We are distracted by the opposition, nerves, other factors outside of sport, etc. Our performance suffers due to such a simple principle we’ve been taught our entire lives; but have we? Can we really focus as we ought? Is our performance suffering because of it? How then can we improve this? These are questions every athlete needs to ask themselves.

What does it mean to focus?

Another word for focus is concentration. Focus can be defined as the centre of interest or activity, having a clear vision of what is required and how to accomplish the task while blocking out external stimuli. If an athlete lacks the ability to focus and concentrate, their efforts won’t be applied effectively to the task, or they won’t be able to get the maximal potential out of their efforts. As we well know, at the top of the sport, where high performance and marginal gains come in to play, when an athlete can’t get 100% out of their effort, they could well lose to a weaker athlete who is able to do so.

This ability to focus is in all intents and purposes high performance! If we can get into the zone and optimal performance state, and focus on the task at hand, there is no doubt we’ll get the best out of our efforts. We will as a result improve the characteristics of mental toughness and become a much better athlete.

Nate Koch by Drew Kaplan

There are also many types of focus that are used in everyday life, as well as in sport, namely:

  • Broad/external – broad noticing may things outside of ourselves; ex: assessing a situation.
  • Broad/internal – broad but directed internally; ex: planning.
  • Narrow/external – focus externally on a specific action; ex: executing a technique.
  • Narrow/internal – focus internally, on preparation of what is to come; ex: relaxation techniques.

The main concern is not our ability to focus but the many factors preventing us from doing so! These factors are mainly from outside of ourselves and we can label them as uncontrollable factors. Examples include anxiety, making a mistake, fatigue, negativity in a team environment, opponent, etc. The extent to which these factors have an influence on the athlete is directly related to the extent we allow it to. The more we think about it, the more it controls us. If we look at it as an uncontrollable factor, we have no need to focus on it, we need to shift focus back to the controllable, namely ourselves and our own performance.

Jim Taylor calls it prime focus, which is to focus only on the factors that are immediately influencing, or relative to the performance. When in prime focus, you are consciously making this decision, so it is quite different to being “in the zone’, but the characteristics present themselves similarly, as with this prime focus come automation of other decisions and blocking out external stimuli.

Max Dornbach by Jean-Marc Weiser

Let’s not be pretentious, it’s not easy to really focus! It takes consistent practise over time to improve levels of focus, but it can be done. Luckily for us, as being in the zone is an autonomous and unconscious effort, focus is largely as well. Most external stimuli is blocked out by the unconscious, we aren’t even aware of it!   It is not necessary to make a conscious effort to block out external stimuli, but rather by focusing on the task at hand that will be accomplished unconsciously.

Some techniques that can be used to improve focus can be:

  • Using pre-race rituals and routines, find a routine which gives you optimal focus and experiment with it.
  • Using key words/phrases, find words or phrases that increase your focus and use them.
  • Setting process goals for each training session or each action.
  • On/off techniques, this technique means to focus on a set action and then back of completely, and then repeat. Like a cricketer facing each ball individually.
  • Study yourself, look at where you lost focus and why, and then try to address what went wrong so you can better focus next time.

For more techniques on how to get into the zone or ideal psychological state, please see last week’s article:

We must remember that as being in the zone, focus is as much of an individual thing. We all do it in different ways, and through trial and error, you can find out how to focus at the most optimal way for yourself.

I hope you can see that the ability to not only get into the zone, but to be able focus as well is an essential tool for any athlete to possess, and could separate you from winning or losing!

Matthew de Freitas

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2 thoughts on “What is Focus?”

  1. Radwin Lynch

    This is so important and aspect of racing that is overlooked. So many athletes are totally distracted at the wrong time. And this detracts from consistency and best performances. I think I will be sharing this article to my cycling fraternity.

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