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 "From Fuzzy to Focused: Enhancing Sports Performance by..." 
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Post "From Fuzzy to Focused: Enhancing Sports Performance by..."
From Fuzzy to Focused: Enhancing Sports Performance by Improving Concentration Skills
by: John Ellsworth

At some point in our lives, we've all had the opportunity to look through the lens of a camera. Depending on where the lens is set and what we want to see, the image may be blurred, slightly out of focus or may be crystal clear ready to snap the perfect moment in time. The clarity of the resulting photograph will ultimately depend on how we focus the lens of the camera. If we focus on images in the distance, they will not photograph well. However, when the focus is on what is closer in range, the result is a laser-sharp impression.

In sports, the mind is very much like a very refined lens of a camera. Some athletes have better focusing mechanisms than others and are able to focus with better precision. These are the athletes, who often describe their experiences as feeling extremely connected in the present moment. They are able to focus on the present moment – let go of the past (including mistakes, errors) and fears of the future –even during stressful moments of play or when the stakes of performance are high.

Concentration, or focus, as I prefer to call it, is the ability to stay in the present moment rather than dwell on the past or fear what can happen in the future. Most athletes encounter focus problems during crunch-time such as during a face-off, tip-off, an at-bat, or during the execution of a free-throw. The following is a good example of how focus related issues can impact performance in sports.

Case Study - Focus and the Athlete

Paul could hit a ball in a straight line further than any batter in the league. His competitors knew it, which is why they would always try to psych him out while he was warming up. ""You know we're gonna strike you out!"" They'd say. With the bases loaded, Paul would step into the box and prepare for the pitch. The ball came toward him and the crowd was cheering – ""Strike him out!"" Paul had been here before. His team was depending on him. He had struck out last time he was up against this pitcher. He swung and missed. ""Strike!""

Paul's nerves were a mess. Now his teammates were yelling at him to score the guy on third. The game was riding on him. The future of his team was on his shoulders. He swung again. ""Strike two!""

With now two strikes, Paul needed a hit, but more importantly, the team needed the run. I'm going to let them down, thought Paul. The negative thoughts started to creep in. I've got to get this hit or the loss will be on my shoulders, Paul nervously thought.

Beads of sweat were mounting on his forehead. A heckler in the crowd shouted, ""STRIKE OUT THIS GUY!"" Paul could feel his temper rising. The pitcher took the sign. There was the wind up, the pitch…then Paul's swing. ""Strike Three! You're Ouuuut!""

Focus-Related Distractions

A lack of focus often starts with distractions. These distractions can be both internal or externally based. Some common distractions are:

Internal distractions…

• Negative self-talk (e.g. ""I always strike out with this pitcher.)
• Negative beliefs (e.g. using negative self-labels about performance)
• Internal thoughts (e.g. ""I wonder what I'll eat for dinner tonight?"")
• Worries (e.g. ""Will she think I'm cool if I don't win this competition?)
• Emotions (e.g. anxiety, nervousness, anger)
• Dwelling/Forecasting (Focusing on past mistakes or future outcomes)

External distractions …

• Crowds (e.g. Hecklers, Opposing Team)
• Weather (e.g. Snow/Sleet, Rain, Excessive Heat, Sun in strange position)
• Equipment Failures/Problems/Issues
• Media (e.g. Flash photography, cameras, etc.)

Focus related performance issues are curable. But as with any problem the first step is to identify whether or not you do indeed, have concentration related issues. Sometimes focus issues can disguise deeper issues or can be combined with other mental toughness challenges such as perfectionism, composure, confidence and many others. (A free assessment is available on my website if you would like to have a better understanding of your mental toughness skills.) Most athletes suffer from some form of concentration related issues in performance. The key, of course, is to find out which one (or more) is hindering you from your best performances.

Symptoms of Focus-Related Issues

1) Distracted by Crowds, Hecklers, or Opposing Team Psych-Outs

Hecklers, and even opposing teams often use shouting as a form of mental psych-outs, but in some cases it can trigger emotional flares as well. Athletes need to learn to recognize the warning signs of emotional trigger points to redirect themselves into the present moment and away from the distraction(s).

2) Dwelling on Mistakes or Errors

Athletes are programmed to win and for some athletes a loss can be taken very hard. They may hold on to mistakes which will present as flashbacks during times of stressful performance. For sports parents and coaches, this can be a major issue, especially if you demand top performances from your athletes. Your job in working with the athletes to help them accept that mistakes will happen.

3) Peformance Suffers During Imperfect Weather/Environment Conditions

The weather and environment are factors that athletes can't control. Problems with equipment, rain delays during a golf championship or a temperature issue with the pool during a swim meet can become focus-busters. Athletes must learn to overcome environmental and weather distractions in order to maintain optimal performance.The key is to be aware of what it is that you can control.

4) Places Negative Self-Labels on Performance

At the heart of mental toughness training is the process of instilling athletes with positive beliefs and attitudes about performance. Thoughts and beliefs such as ""I always miss this shot"" or ""I can't make this putt from this angle"" are negative self-labels that will reduce focus on the task at hand.

5) Demonstrates Unusually Strong Emotions

Pre-performance jitters or temporary frustration over a bad call are all part of normal emotions for athletes. Trouble arises when an aggressive opponent leads to a flaring temper (e.g. fist-fights or shouting matches) or when an athlete plays defensively, or not up to his or her potential, to protect a score, position or rank. Strong emotions, whether extreme anxiety or a raging temper both impact concentration by internally distracting the athlete from accomplishing the athletic task necessary for a great performance.

6) Worries About How He/She Will Stack Up Against Competitors

All athletes are motivitated by the prospect of winning. Of course, most athletes enjoy the thrill of competition, and the fun and challenge of performing with others. For some athletes, however, focus can become blurred when they worry too much about how they may be perceived by their competitors or what the outcome will be at the end of the competition.

Overcoming Focus-Related Performance Issues

Refining focus to improve performance varies from athlete to athlete and is based upon the factors which are impeding concentration. Likely, however, focus can be improved with some simple strategies.

First, start by focusing on the process, rather than the outcome. For example, a batter who trusts in his ability to execute the skills necessary without thinking about them performs at a higher level. Essentially, mastery of the skills becomes almost automatic. Similar to the ease in which we brush our teeth giving little thought to the task because we have mastered the skills necessary.

Next, recognize that even great athletes will make mistakes. Instead of expecting a perfect performance, give yourself permission to make mistakes. This will allow you to more easily move past a mistake and quickly regain focus on the task at hand. A momentary error in concentration is by far better than lasting minutes of distracted focus!

Finally, perform in the present moment. You can certainly learn from past performances. The time to take a journey down memory lane is not appropriate while in the heat of competition. Recalling mistakes at any time does little to support a keen zone focus. A zone focused state is possible if the athlete is centered in the present moment.

While you certainly should be preparing for future success, performing for the outcome while in competition takes the focus from the present moment. Since the future is a changing dynamic, the outcome correlates to choices you make in the present moment. Focus well on the present moment and you, not your distractions will control your destiny.

""Learn from the past, but plan for the future by focusing exclusively on the present.
That's where the fun is.""
~ Donald Trump

About The Author
John Ellsworth brings a multifaceted approach to the mental aspects of sports and health. Combined with his expertise in clinical and applied sports psychology, John has extensive experience coaching, teaching, and consulting with serious athletes of all ages. For more information visit:

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[Note: Due to a size limitation, the title, above, had to be abbreviated. Apologies to the author and - Admin]
This article was posted by permission.

Tue Feb 22, 2011 11:25 am
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