As the pressure rises during competition, you can easily get distracted. Your adrenaline flows, and your body’s cognitive, emotional and physiological responses are heightened. Your neurons bounce around, looking for something to latch onto.
Yet achieving peak performance involves being able to focus attention on the challenge right in front of you, not the distractions all around you.
At one time or another, most athletes have been told to “focus.” But most coaches never teach their players how to do that, and as a result the command often leaves the player even less focused.
The technique below will help set the stage for more engaged and focused performances.
Counterproductive thinking happens when you see yourself in trouble, panic and reflexively try to think yourself out of the trouble. Imagine, for instance, a batter stepping into the batter’s box worried about failing to advance the runner. As he steps into the box, his mind is racing with counterproductive thoughts, which increase not only his anxiety but his heart rate, breathing and muscle tension. His mind and body are not present, and his potential for a successful outcome decreases.
Grounding, a technique used for years in clinical psychology, is an excellent focusing strategy for athletes, because it allows for a quick transition from distraction back to the task at hand. The key to grounding is that it brings your focus from uncontrollable wandering thoughts to controllable experiences in the present by matching your senses to their environment.
Here are five simple steps to help you regain focus.
- Take a deep breath. Exhaling slowly helps to calm the body.
- Pick something to look at. Ensure that the object will be available to you when you perform—e.g., it could be a foul pole in baseball or the boards in hockey. Gaze long enough to say to yourself, “I see the foul pole and I am ready.”
- Listen for an easily identifiable, recurring sound that can bring you into proper focus. Do not judge what you hear, but rather use it to bring yourself into the present moment. Say to yourself, “I hear the crowd and I am ready.”
- Feel your body. The easiest way is to do this is to “ground” your feet. Making a purposeful connection between your feet and the ground allows you to feel a sense of stability. Say to yourself, “I feel my feet on the ground and I am ready.”
- Take another deep breath. One of the best things about breathing is that you can breathe only in the present moment, neither in the past nor in the future.
Performing these steps in this sequence gives your mind something to focus on, thereby limiting the potential for counterproductive thinking to take over.
Let’s look again at the batter from the above example. As he steps into the batter’s box this time, he takes a deep breath, pauses to view the foul pole, notes the crowd noise and plants his feet firmly, before taking another deep breath. He is ready.
Like all skills, grounding must be practiced regularly to work, but with a little effort, you will learn how to focus when you need to.