• Henrik Hjarsbaek

Focus during the game

As an elite athlete there are a multitude of things that can act as disturbances during a game or competition. Not only do you have to put a lot of work into perfecting your craft, you also have to deal with all the other aspects in your life that affect you. Education, family, friends, romantic partners and self-doubt can push your focus away from the things that are important to you in your sport.


We cannot control these aspects, as we live in a world that places demands on us as individuals. However, we can control how we handle these demands. I have said this to my clients a thousand times and I will probably said a thousand more, because it is central.


Develop your mental focus


As an athlete is important to have a very selective memory. I say selective because it’s important not to dwell on past failures or mistakes, but it is still very important that we acknowledge and learn from them. If you focus too much on past actions, positive or negative, you will just spend time on aspects that have already unfolded. It is just not that important to your development. The most important thing for you to focus on is your next action, your next game or duel, because this is what you have influence on. It is not a coincidence that the legendary coach Bill Belichick is known for the line “We are on to Cincinnati”. He knows not to dwell on mistakes and he sure knows how to acknowledge and learn from them.


If you focus too intensely on a positive aspect, it can give a false sense of security. I relatively often encounter clients that express the following:


“I know how to do this, so I do not need practice that.”


No matter how true that statement might be, it can lead to a problematic situation, e.g. if the thing that you are very good at speaks to the deficiencies of your opponent. To reach the highest heights, no matter the sport, you simply cannot rest on your laurels and you have to learn from your past. If you dwell on it, whether it is a positive or negative aspect, you will halt your development in that area.


The negative mindset during the game


In my line of work, I often encounter athletes that have a great difficulty in breaking free from their negative mindset, especially during competition.


It does not matter what sport you play, because the principal problem is the same across the board. Whether it is the football player that cannot put an own goal behind her/him or a quarterback that cannot move on from the previous play where he threw an interception, it does not matter. Doubt will creep in and it will affect their performance.


For some athletes, it is an aspect that they are not conscious of, at least not in the beginning, and it can often feel like an impossibly steep hill to climb. But it is not nearly as difficult as they think. It is simply an example of the athlete’s knowledge of themselves and their mental makeup not having been properly developed yet.


“I competed against this guy that was just dirty and talked trash constantly, pinched, kicked, and elbowed me every time we were in a duel. It got to me and my focus changed from the game to getting revenge on this idiot. I ended up committing a pretty severe foul and got sent off. We won the game, because we were ahead by three at the time. So he should not have been important to me, my team was winning, but he absolutely became my focus. I have had this experience a couple of times now.”


This is one of my “favorite” examples from one of my clients. Mostly because it gives me the opportunity to point out what focus can do to you and how insignificant things can influence your performance. But also because it excellently exhibits what your focus can do to you as an individual. In this situation, the team did not suffer a loss in the win/loss column, but the athlete lost an opportunity to better his or her self. For a young athlete, improvement should be the main focus. In this case, to improve mentally by learning how to handle the challenges posed during a game.


We see this focus in a lot of the elite of the elite athletes across all sports. This focus is best described as almost manic. These athletes are extremely focus on their goals, both personal and team based, but with a singular focus on improving. Just imagine how much money that athletes like Cristiano Ronaldo and LeBron James spend on their body and their mind, and their attention to detail during training. No detail is too small or insignificant on their journey to become the absolute best athletes possible.


Sports psychology: focus and preparation


As an athlete, you have to become aware of your goals, learn to not dwell on negative actions and learn to keep your focus on the thing that is most important to you – your athletic development. Sports psychology and mental training can help you a lot in this regard. The best way to do this is by having clear but smaller goals that help you keep focus. Maybe, you want to work on improving your positioning on the field. Then, when you lose a duel, accept the loss, learn from and turn your focus back to the aspect, in this case positioning, that you decided to work on. The important things is not what you have done, you cannot influence that aspect, but that you focus on your development, improvement and your next action.

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