Post No.: 0518
Generally, everyone is focused when awake – but on what?! Focus can be narrow or broad, internal or external, or on the past, present or future. The television might be one’s intended focus in one case but a distraction in another. A ‘noise’ just depends on whether we want to hear or focus on it (e.g. whether we want to hear someone talking or not, or a dog might be barking to try to warn you of something thus shouldn’t be shushed – woof woof!)
So when we tell an athlete to focus during a match – we need to clarify on what precisely? Some people define focus as the breadth (being more aware of one’s surroundings) and concentration as the depth (just concentrating on e.g. the ball). To help one to either focus or concentrate, it helps to literally remove any physical distractions from the current environment; just like if those biscuits are constantly tempting you – remove them from the room and get them out of your sight. (Drool!)
Distractions can also include mental thoughts about the past or anticipated future, and both negative and positive thoughts of the past or future are distractions – negative thoughts can lead to being over-cautious, hesitant or anxious, and positive thoughts can lead to being over-confident, complacent or impatient. One should ideally be focused on the present in order to perform optimally.
Focus is normally conscious and is better than being distracted. But even better than focus is the state of flow – when the unconscious mind is solely and optimally focused on a present task at hand. Flow is characterised by being fully immersed in and consumed (in a good way) by an activity – the merging of action and awareness, the focus of attention without distraction, a lack of self-consciousness, and the feeling of being in control of one’s actions and environment. Both the challenge and your ability to master it must be relatively high and matched for it to occur. Flow is that state when time flies by yet felt like it was standing still; when the difficulty level of a task feels intense yet effortless and relaxed because it’s personally optimal for one’s skill level.
The task therefore usually needs a clear goal and plan of action (i.e. no confusion). It needs to be something done with intrinsic motivation (is something one enjoys doing for its own sake rather than for some external reward), something one is competent at doing or plays to one’s strengths (hence relies on practised or skilled intuitions), and something one is drawn to doing or one knows why one is doing it. The task must also afford a sense of progress and swift, clear and consistent feedback. It’s a time of heightened productivity – when distractions cease to have an effect on you. It’s when you’re ‘in the zone’. At the end, you may feel drained yet intensely satisfied and somehow energised.
During flow, one’s focus is external (hence there’s often a lack of inhibition) and on the present task at hand (e.g. on the actual game rather than on the clock). For skilled players, an awareness of, and focus on, the self (e.g. on one’s technique when the play is happening) is associated with impaired performance. Self-focus or ego during the moment therefore prevents flow. Ego is all about ‘me’ – a self-obsession about ‘me looking good’ or ‘me not looking bad’ in the eyes of others and about ‘me being right’ or ‘me not being wrong’.
Ego is about constantly judging one’s opponents too (and even one’s own teammates) as good or bad, in order to ultimately compare them to ourselves – but we cannot control what they do. When things go wrong, the ego holds onto past glories, feels bad, blames others, places oneself as the (sole) victim, makes sore excuses and/or justifies the outcome (e.g. ‘I let them win’). Ego also constantly looks to the future, for desperately wanting to win or prevail so that our egos can look good and feel good in the limelight. This means that ego piles on the pressure and makes us fear failure because our self-concept is tied heavily to results and we don’t want to look bad in front of others.
Meanwhile, during flow – self-awareness dissolves, our inner dialogue and therefore inner critic are silenced and there are no thoughts about ‘me’, about ‘how I look’, whether ‘I might fail’ or ‘will I be the hero or not?’ Ego can possibly drive us during training but you don’t want ego to surface during a game. Athletes who are ‘in the zone’ also fully accept everything that happens and respond accordingly. During flow, there’s no resistance to anything that happens – no judgement, objection or wondering ‘this isn’t right’, ‘this is bad’ or ‘why is this happening?’ Such thoughts knock us out of flow.
Motivation, trust, cooperation, teamwork and support are words associated with the state of flow. Finding ‘the zone’ is more conducive in an environment that has a good team culture and where players can enjoy themselves. A bad team environment is a mental distraction. Happy athletes usually perform better – so find out what makes them happy! Coaches can help promote flow by praising every good moment of play (e.g. praising good efforts and smart decisions, before, during and after a game) regardless of the current result or position – this also places the emphasis on the process rather than the outcome. (Read about athlete-centred coaching in Post No.: 0434 too.)
In any context – praising and rewarding good efforts, technique, good decisions, playing the moves with the higher percentages of success, good tactics, planning, training then following on the pitch what was taught or practised, teamwork, commitment, discipline, perseverance and learning – i.e. the process or the things we actually have direct control of – will yield positive results in the long run.
Focusing too directly on results or records won’t necessarily mean that the right type of effort, technique, tactics, etc. will be fostered – it might instead encourage the blaming of others for any failures. (This is a typical scenario when winning is the focus, such as on the TV show The Apprentice, which doesn’t bring the best performances out of people (or hopefully that’s not their competent best!) because it’s far more typically about which team does ‘less badly’ than the other rather than who impresses the most! But the main business here is show business and that means it’s about the drama, which is what attracts the viewers.) It might also encourage cheating, or the reliance on luck because some outcomes are out of our control (e.g. the results of all the hundreds of other matches in the league every season).
Especially in low-scoring sports like football/soccer, a team really can play well but lose, or play badly yet win, all because of a rogue few seconds within 90 minutes, and – although they still need attention and correction – such moments shouldn’t be read into too much otherwise we’ll ignore all the good, and genuinely bad, which would be detrimental in the bigger picture. A striker may miss some shots but we should recognise the good efforts of that player getting into a lot of decent shooting opportunities in the first place. Also understand that there’s never a problem with trying too hard (effort should never be punished) – the problem is trying for things that have a low chance of working i.e. making bad decisions.
So you can perform well and still occasionally get a negative result due to bad luck, but if you keep performing well then you’ll likely come out on top more often than not in the long run. If you perform poorly but get a positive result then you’re just relying on luck, and that’s not sustainable in the long run. So even though the odd game or few won’t reflect it – in the long run, your results will reflect your efforts and decisions.
Of course it’s not that – at the professional level at least – winning isn’t important or ‘it’s the taking part that counts’, but if we care about winning then winning is counterintuitively better fostered when we aren’t directly focused on hoping to win whilst we’re playing. We’re better off being mentally focused on the present moment than on the potential future result because it’s only the present moment that we can actually control. (It’s like you don’t make a million dollars in business by focusing on the million dollars – you focus on the day-to-day tasks that’ll likely get you there.) Whether the previous match was won or lost, it cannot be changed – we can only affect what’s happening right now. And it doesn’t matter if it’s 3:0 or 0:3 – we want to see players giving their best until the final whistle. We affect the future through our present decisions and actions, and we should never forget that.
Simply, if your mind is thinking about ‘we must win’, it’s not thinking about ‘there’s a nice pass to a teammate I could make’. The present is the reality and the anticipated future is just a dream/nightmare/fantasy or otherwise not the reality but something that only exists inside our heads. Do the right things and make the right choices right now and the right result will more probabilistically become reality.
So it’s not just the taking part that counts, or only about winning – but giving your best. (As an aside, if anyone thinks that they can technically give more than 100%, such as ‘giving 110%’, then why not give 111% or 5,000,000%?(!) If a player can apparently give more then what they were giving before wasn’t actually 100%. Giving more than 100% will result in injury or burnout!) Mindfulness or being mentally in the present, calmness under pressure, and optimism, can all be trained too.
Plan, practise, play, review, then repeat – the more prepared we are for something, the less worried we become about facing it. It’s like when you’re satisfied with your revision and understanding of a subject, you feel more assured about passing the exam. Preparation in sports includes practising skills, knowing the game plan (this plan must be realistic too), analysing the competition, getting enough sleep, a good diet, being reminded that one has the furry skills to succeed, reviewing past successes, both as a group and individually; and based on all this – a belief in future success!
Preparation breeds valid (rather than hubristic) confidence. Any focus on failures should only be done as learning opportunities. And success can be defined in many ways (e.g. personal development, improvement or other things more under one’s control), which means that something can still be gained even when one is likely to lose against a stronger opponent.
Just about all results in sports (and in life in general) are the culmination of the things within our control and the things outside our control. The best chance of a desirable result occurring is when athletes focus on what they can control – especially the things they’re good at – and managing their attitudes towards what they can’t control (e.g. expecting some mistakes or bad refereeing decisions to happen, accepting them when they do, and using them as a reminder to focus back on one’s game plan and strengths).
What we can do is plan and be prepared for each and every possible scenario/eventuality, and once we’ve made those plans, it’s time to let go of thinking about the uncertain future to focus our efforts on executing those plans and what we can control for certain now. We can also study great opponents, and our own teammates, to learn from them and thus inform our own training and strategies.
Woof. We must also never forget to recognise and praise all the people involved in one’s team who allow us to give our best – from the dinner staff and kit cleaners to the board members and fans. With a single piece missing, the entire group falls.