“What is the secret to success for an athlete?” When someone finds out I’m a sport psychologist, frequently, especially if they are a weekend warrior kind of athlete, they will ask this question. My hesitation to answer comes from multiple sources. One, there is no “Holy Grail” for anything so there is no one secret to success. Two, there is no secret to success, success is a result of so many things, making it impossible to narrow down to one. And three, if I could answer that question, I’d be famous. But, IF I had to pick one element of performance that always impacts the outcome, whether athletic or other, it would be focus. Keep in mind there are countless factors that influence focus, but at the end of the day, focus drives outcome.
There are many problems with focus and having great focus. The first is that we suck at it. Yep, we do. Our brain is actually designed to be terrible at focus so if you suffer from poor focus, you are not alone and certainly normal. My focus litmus test is asking about meditation. The majority of people will answer something to the effect of, “I have tried, I’m just not very good at it. I keep getting distracted.” Well, welcome to the human brain. We are designed to become distracted at everything and anything for survival reasons. However, we do have the ability to train our focus by working on it and developing strength there. The problem is that working on your focus muscle is terribly tedious, boring, and failure-filled work. So, most people don’t.
Think about focus as simply where your thoughts are. Did you notice I said “simply”? I know it is not simple in practice but what if we thought it about that way for a minute. Focus defined relates to “image clarity,” as in a camera lens. Think about that for a minute, what is it like to look at an image that is out of focus? It is not enticing or fulfilling, more like frustrating and irritating and usually, I want to look away from a fuzzy picture. When your thoughts are without focus, they don’t keep your attention either. Our thoughts are “fuzzy” when they are on their own, unmanaged, and random. Working to focus thoughts is, well, work, but changes everything about the thoughts.
Great focus is a result of practice (it is a muscle, after all). One way to work on focus is to have clear goals and objectives to focus on. The second and most important part of the “training” is understanding you will become distracted but that it is the recovery from distraction that builds the muscle. Let’s start with practice. I say focus is a muscle because the more you practice it, the better you become. Many people say their focus stinks and simply write it off as such. But that is not the truth! You have to work on your focus in order to improve it. It would be like trying to learn to play the violin and after your first unsuccessful attempt saying you just can’t do it. Is that the truth? No, you just haven’t practiced enough to learn it, become competent at it, and eventually become good at it. Practicing anything requires intention so start to become intentional on where your focus is directed. You are always focusing on something…is it the right thing though?
Goals are a great tool for sharpening focus. Have a bunch of goals and different types of goals to lean on, such as long-term, short-term, monthly, weekly, and daily. I especially like daily goals and the idea of setting a goal each time you are working to build a skill. Use your long-term goals to help craft your short-term goals. Tell the people you work on this skill with what you are working on so as you feel your focus stray, perhaps they can help bring it back to the day’s goal. Use the goal like an anchor…as you drift away, let it pull you back. The more you practice this, the better you will become.
As adults, we have very little capacity for when things go wrong. Children wipe out or make a mistake and before they can dry their tears, they are at it again. Adults make a mistake and act as if Chicken Little has descended upon them! We lose countless moments when we are focusing on a mistake. If you begin to expect that mistakes will happen, they will not disrupt you as heavily. I know it sounds simple and that it is not. Thoughts take time and during a competitive event, there is no time to lose. Have you ever experienced this as you make a mistake: “I can’t believe I did that again. What was I thinking? How could I mess that up again? So-and-so over there is watching and now I feel like a fool. I’m sure I’ve disappointed so-and-so. I don’t deserve this.” If you go back and read this aloud, it takes about 5 seconds. How much of your competitive or performance event has been lost? The faster you recover from the sky falling, the better your results will be. We have countless opportunities every day to practice focusing. Make it a game to start focusing on your focus. Even if you put just a little effort into it, the changes can be big!
With as many thoughts as we have each day (estimates are between 50 and 70,000), keeping track of them all is not possible. But what if the thoughts related to an outcome you are working on were more focused? Imagine what having 10% better focus would achieve in your world. It would be amazing, most likely. If you developed a program to build your focus muscle, you would build it. Imagine a focus “gym” where you went each day to intentionally work on it. People with well-defined bicep (arm) muscles don’t get that way by not working on it or only working on it once a month. And once they get those beautiful arms, they don’t stay that way for long if they stop going to the gym. So, I think I have hammered the “you have to work on it” part of the program enough.
A big difference between working on having great “guns” and great focus is measuring success. Go to the gym and lift weights for a few weeks and you will see in the mirror and feel in your clothing a difference. Developing your focus muscle arrives differently. You tend to notice an “after the fact” effect. You will finish an event or a meeting or a project and upon reflection say to yourself, “Hmm, that didn’t take as long.” Or, “I felt laser focused or tuned in as I was performing that task.” These reflections are key so don’t discount them or write them off as less important as a bulging bicep! When you notice them, acknowledge them, celebrate your success, and then go back to work at the focus gym. Focus is a muscle. Build more muscle. Perform better in any area of your life.