Concentration is THE KEY to athletic excellence. If you want to compete at your best, then you need to learn to control your focus both before and during your performances. When you concentrate on the right stuff, you stay calm, confident and will play to your potential. When you allow your concentration to drift to the wrong stuff, then you’ll get nervous, be flooded with self-doubts and play way under your capabilities.
So how do you develop this master skill of mental toughness? First you have to understand what concentration really is. Athletes who choke and those who perform at their best both focus really well. The issue is, what they focus on is very different. You’re always doing a good job of concentrating. The key is, what are you concentrating on?
CONCENTRATION IS THE MENTAL ABILITY TO FOCUS ON WHAT’S IMPORTANT AND LET GO OF EVERYTHING ELSE.
You have to learn to go into a competitive situation and keep your concentration on those things that are important and let go of all of the internal and external distractions. This means that you have to develop an awareness of where your concentration is and when it shifts away from what is important. The mental muscle that is concentration has two parts: First, be aware of when you lose your focus, when it drifts away from what’s important; Second, you have to immediately bring your concentration back to what’s important.
The thing that hurts most athletes isn’t necessarily that they lose their focus. What hurts them is that after they lose their concentration, they do not immediately bring it back to what’s important. It’s the extended break in concentration that does the real damage to your performance. If you get distracted, but immediately bring yourself back, then there will be little to no negative effect on your performance.
This mental skill of recognizing when you drift and immediately bringing yourself back needs to be developed and fine-tuned so that you can do it automatically, without thinking. The only way that you can master this “recognize and return” skill is through consistent practice. Use the following exercise to develop winning concentration:
Pick a ball, puck or some object from your sport (you can also use a trophy or medal) Place the object 4-5 feet away from you. Sit comfortably with your feet flat on the floor. Allow yourself to pick one specific spot on your object and put your eyes gently on that spot. As you focus on that spot, allow your breathing to remain relaxed and even. As you inhale and focus on the spot, feel your breath coming in. As you exhale and feel your breath going out, repeat a word or phrase to yourself. This word or phrase is called a “concentration cue.” It can be anything you want like “ball,” “loose,” “focus,” “let it go,” etc. As you do this your mind will naturally wander. You will get distracted either by your thinking or noise/movement around you. Whenever this happens, quickly recognize that you have lost your focus and bring yourself back to your spot, breathing and the concentration cue.
Do this part of the exercise for two minutes in an environment free from distractions.
Next, take your object and place it on the top, center of a TV set. Turn the TV on with low volume on a channel you would never watch. Sit where you’d normally sit to watch TV and then put your focus back on your spot and breathing. As before, when you inhale you want to feel the breath coming in and as you exhale, feel the breath going out as you repeat your concentration cue to yourself. Every time that you get distracted by the sound or images from the TV, catch yourself and bring your focus back. Do this part of the exercise for about 1.5 minutes.
Regular practice of this two part, 3.5 minute exercise will help you systematically build your concentration muscles. Remember, if you can learn to control your pre- and during game concentration, you’ll increase your chances of playing your best when it counts the most.