As a coach, I deal with the wonders of mindset, attention, and focus all the time. On the tennis court, a student will sometimes say things like:
“I was SO not focused on that shot!” me: Where was your focus?
“I’m just not focused today” me: Where is your focus?
“I don’t have ANY focus!” me: What if you always have focus, even if you feel unfocused or focus-less? You are always focused on something. What are you focusing on now, on that shot that you did not like? on not having focus? on other thoughts? Where were you literally directing or placing your attention?
You always have a focus, but it just depends where it is, or where your attention is resting. Another way to think of focus is to call it attentional focus. Attentional focus in sport refers to the process in which the athlete allocates mental resources to cues, stimuli or states. Where your attention rests or lands is where your focus is. Your focus might be internal, as in attending to thoughts, or feelings, or your focus might be external, meaning we are attending to cues outside of ourselves, such as sounds in the environment. It could also be broad or narrow, as in when we see the whole field as a quarterback, or when we are laser focused on hitting the catcher’s mitt with a pitch. Nideffer’s model is great for understanding this.
What is focus anyway? Think of focus as the place or the point where you are placing your attention. If you point a flashlight, where it shines on would be the focus of your attention. In mindfulness, we talk about bringing our attention to the breath, or resting our attention on the breath, or observing when our attention drifts away from our breath, and re-setting it and starting again. This is a way we can train ourselves to focus better, by focusing on the breath.
Focus is an essential component to success in sport and in life, because being able to focus well means that you can attend to the relevant cues and concentrate on the important critical tasks that allow you to have a better chance of achieving your goals. Here are a few simple exercises to get started on strengthening your ability to focus:
So the next time you think you are not focused, pause. Take a deep breath if you need it, or a 4-7-8 set of breaths. Then turn on the focus flashlight and redirect it gently back to shine on what you would like to be attending to at that moment. And just shine on!