How To Stay Mentally Focused During Games
To perform your best, you need focus.
You must have the ability to center your attention in the present moment. While there is no doubt that focus is incredibly important to your success as an athlete, it’s not always the easiest to display.
Since there are many distractions pulling your attention in all different directions, it can be extremely difficult to retain focus.
One small lapse in attention can result in a costly mistake. Allowing your mind to become fixed on worrying about other people's opinions or negative past experiences for one second can spiral into self-doubt.
Focus is a fragile trait, one that is worked upon by many forces at once. Which is why, learning how to stay mentally focused during games is a much needed skill for you to learn.
Major Distractions During A Game
Working to stay mentally focused during games requires an understanding of the major distractions which present themselves during competition.
In a performing environment, you do not have the luxury of drowning out the noise through headphones or merely shutting a door. You are exposed, all at once, to many different forms of distraction.
Each one adds to the difficulty of you remaining mentally focused throughout a game.
Distractor #1: Fans
There’s no denying the impact fans can have on focus. From taunting by the opposing fans to worrying about impressing friends and family, onlookers prove to be a tough opponent to your attention.
One of the reasons fans are so hard on focus is the difficulty you have in replicating them during training. You can’t really simulate the feeling of having your parents come to watch you for the first time in a while, desperately wanting to impress them.
Or try to replicate the one fan of the opposing team who has such a shrill voice that every time they scream it sends chills down your spine.
The only real way to face these distractors is during a game.
One of the reasons fans are so hard on focus is the difficulty you have in replicating them during training."
Distractor #2: Your Opponent
Of course, during competition you have an opponent. Depending on the sport you play, this may include one other person or thirty five. No matter how many people there are, the fact remains the same, your opponent can easily cause you to lose focus.
A major reason for this comes from intimidation. Worrying about how big or more talented the opposing team looks will quickly eat at your focus.
If it’s a team you’ve historically performed poorly against, this will also distract you and make it very difficult to place your attention in the moment. All you’ll be thinking about are the many times you’ve failed in the past.
The opponent can also be a source of trash talk, working to get in your head, leading to your emotions running high and losing focus of what matters.
Distractor #3: Playing Conditions
Another major distractor can be the conditions of the field or court you’re playing on.
In college I was the third baseman, and that meant I had to play a lot of the game close to where the infield dirt meets the infield grass. This creates what’s known as a lip.
Now, most of the fields were not the greatest, which meant the lip would vary in size. This led to many instances where I was more focused on how the field was than worrying about my own responsibilities as the third baseman.
Playing conditions can also involve the weather. If it’s an overly hot day or abnormally cold, it’s easy to lose focus, concerning yourself with the temperature.
Playing conditions, while outside your control, are going to largely impact your ability to stay mentally focused during a game.
Distractor #4: Your Own Mind
Now we turn inward to find the last major distraction during a game, your own mind.
There are many ways your mind can result in a loss of focus. One you may experience is anxiety. If you are worried about what may or may not happen during the game, this takes you out of the moment.
Fear of failure is another distractor, resulting from your mind being preoccupied with fears of making a mistake. Both anxiety and fear of failure will lead to self-doubt.
When you struggle with low confidence, it will be difficult to stay mentally focused, as you will continually doubt yourself and your skills.
Negative self-talk is another huge distraction caused by your own mind. The more you speak down to yourself and allow that negative voice to take over, the more difficult staying mentally focussed will be.
3 Tools To Stay Mentally Focused During Games
As you can see from the four major distractors listed above, there are many options for you to lose focus during a game.
However, if you want to perform your best, and do so consistently, you must learn how to block out these distractions and stay mentally focused.
Focus is a skill, just like anything else. As you put these tips into practice each game and training session, you will be cultivating the skill within yourself. Making it easier and easier for you to stay mentally focused.
While it may seem impossible at times to stay focused and drown out the noise, always remember your mind is yours to control. Even though it’s difficult to tame, what goes on between your ears is within your power.
So, if you want to take back control and learn how to remain focused throughout competition, begin using these three tools each game and practice to train this ability within yourself.
Even though it’s difficult to tame, what goes on between your ears is within your power.
Tool #1: Focus On Your Breath
Everything starts with your breath and focus is no different.
There are two ways breathing helps to master your breath. The first way is by proactively training yourself to be able to concentrate.
Have you ever tested to see how long you can actually remain focused? I mean fully immersed, with all your attention being placed in the moment on what you’re doing. No thoughts or external distractions can break your concentration.
When you stop and think about it, you realize how difficult being focused really is. So what you can do is proactively improve this skill through a practice known as mindfulness.
Mindfulness helps you stay mentally focused during games through training your ability to control your attention. It’s a practice that needs to be performed daily, just as you train your physical skills each day.
Repetition will build the skill within your mind, which will then be carried over into competition. There are a few different ways you can practice mindfulness, which you can learn about here. It’s important to choose a practice that you can be consistent with.
This form of training is a long-term approach. But what can you do immediately to help stay mentally focused? You can use the concepts found within a mindfulness practice and apply them in the moment.
You see, mindfulness is a state, one that is obtained through bringing your awareness completely into the present moment. We use breathing to make this happen. So, in the moment, if you turn your attention to your breath, you’ll improve your focus by becoming more mindful.
When you feel your attention begin to wander during a game, concentrate on your breath. Don’t worry about being focused or ridding yourself of any distractions. Just focus on taking deep breaths, and you will become more focused as a result.
Tool #2: Use A Self-Talk Routine
The reason turning your attention to your breath works so well is due to the idea of substitution. You are not eliminating distractions, but rather substituting them for something more positive that helps you focus in the present moment.
In addition to breathing, this concept can also be applied to the thoughts going on in your head.
Self-talk refers to your internal dialogue. The words you repeat to yourself every second of every day. In moments where you’re feeling distracted, your internal dialogue is full of all sorts of unhelpful thoughts.
Just think about what happens when you see another team that appears intimidating. What kind of thoughts begin flooding your mind? To put it plainly, in order for you to view another team as intimidating, you must be thinking thoughts that they are intimidating.
The same holds true when you’re distracted by your own mind. When anxiety or fear are causing you to lose focus, anxious and fearful thoughts are to blame.
If you want to be more mentally focused during a game, mastery over your thoughts needs to occur. Now, you are going to have one difficult time seeking to eliminate thoughts. That’s just not how it works.
The mind does not work with subtraction, only addition and multiplication. You don’t want to multiply the distracting thoughts you’re experiencing, but rather add positive ones. These will counteract the negative thoughts and increase your focus.
You want to come up with a mantra (a saying) to repeat whenever you’re losing focus. Make it something that boosts your mood, makes you feel confident, and brings your attention back into the present moment.
For example, your mantra could go something like this, “I am focused in the moment and confident in my skills.”
Aim for simplicity. The goal with a mantra is to take control of your self-talk and remind yourself where your attention needs to be placed.
Tool #3: Set Goals For The Game
Goals provide us with direction in our lives. By setting a target for what we want to accomplish, immediately we are giving our minds a focal point.
While goals are typically set on a larger scale, such as a month or a whole season, you want to use this same idea going into each game.
By setting goals for yourself during a game, you provide your mind with something to focus on. That target serves as your north star throughout the performance. But you must be careful the goals you set aren’t actually working against your ability to focus.
Outcome oriented goals will lead to worse focus. They are centered around the results of a game. You never want your mind focused in the future, as that takes your attention away from the present moment.
Also, outcome oriented thinking is one of the main contributors to performance anxiety, fear of failure, perfectionism, and many other mental game challenges. So, if you’re not careful, you can actually negatively affect your focus by setting goals.
However, if you set process goals, the complete opposite is true.
Process goals revolve around what you must do in the moment, (the actions that are within your control), to perform your best.
Setting these types of goals centers your attention in the present, as that is where the process takes place. If you’re focused on process goals, you cannot simultaneously be worried about the future.
When you set process goals, aim to set them on both the physical and mental sides of your game. The physical side involves your mechanics and the actions you must perform. The mental side involves attitude and focus.
During a game, as you feel yourself losing focus, bring the process goals you set back into your mind. This will get your attention back on track and help you stay mentally focused throughout the game.
To perform your best, and to do so consistently, you must learn the skill of being focused.
During a game, many distractions present themselves. From external ones, such as fans, your teammates, and playing conditions, to internal ones such as fear and anxiety, distractions are abundant.
What you must do is have a toolbox full of ways to control your attention. By focusing on your breath, using a self-talk phrase, and setting process goals, you will improve your chances of staying mentally focused during games.
Take these tools and put them into practice for yourself. And remember, you aren’t seeking to eliminate distractions, but rather learning how to control where you place your focus.
I hope you enjoyed the article, and if you have any questions please feel free to reach out to me.
Thank you for reading and I wish you the best of success in all that you do.
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Eli is a sport psychology consultant and mental game coach who works 1-1 with athletes to help them improve their mental skills and overcome any mental barriers keeping them from performing their best. He has an M.S. in psychology and his mission is to help athletes and performers reach their goals through the use of sport psychology & mental training.eli's story
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