Mental X’s and O’s: How Athletes Can More Effectively Focus

“Just focus!” –Literally every coach you’ve ever had in every sport you’ve ever played.

We have been told to focus so many times. By coaches, parents, teachers, ourselves. We forget though, that this is a skill we can improve at, not something that just comes to us. I can’t count how many times I’ve worked with a client who laments that they can’t focus, but is baffled when I ask if anyone has ever taught them how. What you want to focus on depends on what you are trying to achieve, and many times we are really good at focusing, just not on the right things. We get overly focused on irrelevant cues that overwhelm us with unhelpful information. Or maybe we pay attention to internal cues like unhelpful thoughts that take us out of the moment. Or maybe we are too concerned about our knee that’s been sore rather than the footwork that keeps us steady.

Have you ever been driving and gotten lost? And when trying to figure out where you are, you instinctively turn down the radio? It’s not that Beyoncé is giving you the wrong directions (Beyoncé would never steer you wrong, tbh), but your brain is trying to minimize input so you can concentrate on decision making.

The challenge on the football field is that you can’t just turn down 65,000 screaming people. It’s no wonder that playing in Seattle is notoriously difficult- Paul Greisemer and Jon Niemuth, the architects behind that stadium, designed it expressly so the sound would be directed back down toward the field (for perspective: the field ended up being about as loud as the deck of an aircraft carrier with jets taking off and landing). Seattle’s stadium leads the league in false-starts by opposing teams; because you can’t hear your quarterback most teams have to use silent snap counts. So not only are audibles, well, not audible, the noise is incredibly distracting. As Colts head coach Chuck Pagano said in September when preparing for the Seahawks, “When it gets rockin’ and that stadium shakes, you can’t hear yourself think.” When asked about minimizing false starts, he went on to add, “It’s focus, laser focus…Get off on the snap count. Very, very simple.”

Ah, yes. Simple, but not easy. Though they were leading 15-10 at the half, the Colts went on to lose that game 18-46.

Now, lots of stadiums are loud, and silent snap counts are not uncommon. Silent snap counts are challenging however, because in order for everyone to be on the same page, you have to pay close attention to the signal caller. Or signal motioner, as it were. Once the signal is made everyone starts the count and you have trust that everyone saw the signal and will go when they are supposed to- if they don’t it’s a false start (too early) or missed coverage (too late). In other words you are in a loud environment, so you have to rely on non-verbal communication. Which requires you to focus. Which is difficult because it is loud.

So what are we really talking about when we talk about focus? The words “focus” and “attention” are basically interchangeable. Researchers tend to use “attention” or even “attentional focus” because why use one word when you can use more? Attentional focus is the ability to concentrate on the appropriate things (AKA selective attention) for a period of time, the ability to change this attention in different contexts (AKA situational awareness) or in response to different demands (AKA attentional flexibility). To recap: are we paying attention to the right things given the context and demands, and can we sustain this attention over time?

I know this sounds like a lot, but the good news is we can get better at it with practice. Let’s get back to that loud stadium. What are the relevant cues? It’s tempting to focus on the crowd, but that won’t help us make a play. We know we should be looking at motions from our QB (because remember, this is Silent-Snap Sunday), the play clock, and the play we are running.

What is really interesting is that Dr. Bell and Dr. Hardy (2009) have shown through their research that we should be focusing on the outcome we want to achieve, rather than what our bodies are specifically doing. For example new QBs might be overly focused internally- on their own body- like finger placement on the laces, elbow position, or follow through. But once you know the basic mechanics, it’s more useful to think about where you want the ball to end up. Trying to get the ball to a specific yard line/hash mark on the field or paying attention to the trajectory/arc of the ball is more effective than focusing on the different parts of the throw. I was watching the Amazon series All or Nothing: A Season With the Arizona Cardinals and the quarterbacks (plus a cornerback) play a game called Trash Can Toss where they have to throw the football from a distance into an industrial trashcan. On the surface this looks like a meaningless game and a good excuse to make your teammates wear embarrassing outfits on game day, but given what we know, we see it can actually help improve selective attention. Nice work Cards!

Situational awareness is interesting because so often athletes get overwhelmed when it’s “The Big Game.” Remember the scene from Hoosiers when the coach has the team measure the distance of the hoop to the court.  This helps the athletes remember that this court is no different from any other court they have played on even though it’s a championship game. A coach I used to know when I was in undergrad was on the ’88 Olympic field hockey team, and she would use a spot on her stick to focus on any time she got overwhelmed by the size of the crowd. Substitute the Big Game or crowd size with weather (a la Buffalo), bad calls (referee strike), or rowdy fans (I’m looking at you Philadelphia) and it’s the same thing- we are overly concerned about the situation, rather than the job we have to do.

In addition to the context of the game, situational awareness can refer to what is happening during the game. A good QB will be able to read a developing play and take advantage of dropped coverage or see a double covered player and check down to a different receiver. Aaron Rogers is particularly effective at knowing when an opponent is trying to make a substitution, quickly running a play, and forcing a penalty of too many men on the field- an excellent use of situational awareness.

Have you ever taken a really important test and been exhausted afterwards and thought to yourself, “But I wasn’t even doing anything!” You weren’t doing anything thing physical, but your brain was working hard- mental focus takes energy! It takes work to build up mental endurance, just as it does physical endurance. During drills, don’t just go through the motions. Think about what specific things you should be paying attention to. Is it ball placement? Your opponent’s weight shifting? Audibles? All of the above? Keep in mind the importance of an external focus (the outcome) over an internal focus (your body movements). In addition to Bell and Hardy’s work other researchers have found that an external focus can help decrease our anxiety (Muellen at al, 2012), produce smoother more reflexive movements and quicker reaction times (Wulf et al, 2001), improved oxygen consumption and better movement efficiency (Schucker et al, 2009), improved muscular endurance (Lohse & Sherwood, 2001), and increased accuracy (Zachery et al, 2005).

Since these effects have been shown in both novice and expert performers, this can be useful to both players and coaches. Instead of trying to nitpick and correct the mechanics of a skill, pay attention instead to the desired result. When we aren’t playing well, we often start to over-think what we are doing, rather than what we are trying to achieve. In a Peanuts cartoon published in April 1998, Snoopy asks Woodstock about the mechanics of flying. Snoopy: “When you take off, do you push with your feet? Or do you flap your wings first?” Woodstock tries to take off and falls off the dog house with a thunk. Snoopy says “If you think about it, you can’t do it.” I would argue that Woodstock is simply thinking about the wrong thing.

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In Jim Afremow’s book “The Champion’s Mind” he uses the analogy of money. If you have $100 worth of focus, what are you spending it on? Are you wasting your focus dollars on how you dropped that last pass or how cold it is? Dr. Afremow reminds us to spend our focus dollars efficiently- spend them on the performance that is happening right now. To take this analogy a little further, I would add that each time you work on improving your focus, every practice drill you take advantage of, every day you make focus your priority, you are putting focus dollars in the bank. Build up your focus savings. Put it in a 401K . Earn interest on it. You will need it for a rainy day, like, say, in Seattle.