Improve Focus in Youth Athletes
Young athletes need to be focused in order to play their best, but also to enjoy themselves as much as they can while playing.
When there's a lack of focus we see a drop in performance. And when there's a drop in performance, it's easy for frustration to form and enjoyment to quickly vanish.
Knowing the importance of strong focus for youth athletes, in this article I'm going to discuss the main challenges of poor focus and a simple strategy you can use to improve focus in your young athlete.
Main Challenges of Poor Focus
When examining the impacts of poor focus on a young athlete, there are three places we need to look: in-game performance, anxiety/fear, and long-term improvement.
In Game Performance
To perform well, you need focus. This is as true for a twelve year old player as it is for a twenty-two year old player. High level play requires strong focus.
What the athlete focuses on will vary based on the sport and their personality. But simply put, they need to be as focused as they can be on what they're doing in the moment.
When focus is fragile, shooting from one thing to another, performance level drops.
Now, for youth athletes, winning every game should never be the main priority. At their age, the most important thing is development and having fun.
So when I say focus lowers in game performance, it's not so much about winning or losing the game (though I get it, that does play a part), as much as it is about having the young athlete feel good about the way they played and have fun doing so.
Getting distracted by coaches, fans, the other team, or anything else will only keep them from playing their best and lead to more mistakes. Mistakes that can easily cause frustration and them losing their composure.
Fear and Anxiety
Another form of poor focus involves a youth athlete's thinking. Both before and during a game.
If they spend too much time thinking about what may or may not happen, this can form sports performance anxiety. Since their focus is fixed on the future, they grow worried over what will happen in the game.
The same is true for fear. If the young athlete thinks about making mistakes and how much they want to avoid making mistakes, they can form fear of failure and find themselves holding back during games.
As a mental performance coach, when I work with an athlete on fear or anxiety, we spend a lot of time examining what they're thinking about and focused on before and during games.
The more they focus on the outcome, the greater the chances fear and anxiety will form. Both of which lower performance, but also take the fun out of the game.
This form of poor focus happens on a compounding level.
When a youth athlete struggles with focus during games and practice, it makes it tough for them to make the kind of improvement they want.
Growth requires focus. It means you know what you want to work on during practice or training and you keep your attention on that.
I was working with a young baseball player yesterday and we were talking about the importance of practicing with a purpose. Without that level of focus, improvement will be limited.
And once again, tying this all back to helping young athletes have more fun, seeing yourself progress is fun. Feeling like you aren't moving forward is frustrating.
A key differentiator in terms of growth is focus.
Strategy to Improve Focus in Youth Athletes
To improve focus, we need to see it as a trainable skill.
Much like improving a swing or a shot, focus is a skill that can be trained through the use of specific tools and techniques.
In fact, focus is one of the six fundamental mental skills that build mental toughness in young athletes.
It's important to first view focus as trainable because the principles of consistency and repetition are so crucial to its development.
As with any skill, it takes time to improve focus. But if consistent work is put forth, focus is a skill that can be trained and improved in your youth athlete.
Training focus involves three parts:
- Creating a refocusing strategy.
- Training the skill of controlling attention.
- Becoming more aware of distractions.
Creating a Refocusing Strategy
Part of the repetition involved in helping your youth athlete improve focus will take place during practices and games. This is where they must work on refocusing whenever they're distracted.
To refocus when they are distracted, they need a strategy that will help. This is the first strategy we need to put in place, since it is one of the most difficult to apply.
Refocusing is hard...but what can be even harder is remembering to apply a refocusing strategy in the moment. But a refocusing strategy is exactly what will help them refocus in the first place.
The strategy involves creating what is known as a thought-stopping phrase.
Focus is directly tied to what the young athlete is thinking about. So, to refocus and manage distractions, they must change their thinking. That's where a thought-stopping phrase comes into play.
A thought-stopping phrase is something simple they can repeat to themselves in the moment to refocus.
An example is: stop, breathe, be present.
It's important that the young athlete memorizes their thought-stopping phrase. That way, it's much easier and more natural for them to repeat in the moment.
What you can do is have them review their phrase each day, and especially before practices and games. Then go back and ask them after practice or the game if they were able to use the phrase when they lost focus.
Training the Skill of Controlling Attention
To be focused, a young athlete needs to have their attention centered on what they're doing. This means they need the skill of controlling their attention.
But managing attention is hard for any of us, especially younger athletes. That's why it is a skill that needs to be trained.
To train controlling focus, it's best for the youth athlete to set aside some time each day to practice. A great way to do this is with a simple breathing exercise.
What they can do is set aside about three minutes a day, sit down, close their eyes, and begin count breathing. Where they breathe in for a count of five, for example, and breathe out for a count of five.
As they breathe, the goal is to focus fully on the counting. If they begin to think about something else, that's okay, just tell them to quickly return their attention to the counting.
This is a fantastic way to provide time each day to practice controlling attention.
Becoming Aware of Distractions
The third part of training focus in youth athletes is helping them recognize and be aware of distractions.
There are two reasons this is important. First, the more they are able to recognize that they are distracted, the more they can apply their thought-stopping phrase.
Next, the more they can be aware of potential distractions, the more prepared they will be, and as a result, the less impact the distraction will have on them.
To build this awareness, an exercise you can have them do involves writing times they become distracted, and how they will respond differently next time.
If they spend time after every practice and game looking back and thinking about all the times they were distracted, their awareness of distractions will rapidly improve.
Strong focus will help your young athlete not only perform better, but have more fun while playing.
But focus is not easy to control, especially with all the distractions that are present within sports. Which is why focus must be something that is trained!
By using the three part strategy outlined above, you can help your youth athlete build stronger focus.
Now, I mentioned earlier that focus is one of the six key fundamentals of mental toughness in young athletes. The others include confidence, managing mistakes, calming nerves, goal setting, and having fun.
If you would like to learn more about how you can help your young athlete build all six fundamentals, then click here to learn about the Mentally Tough Kid Course.
Thank you for reading and I wish you the best of success in all that you do.
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Please contact us to learn more about mental coaching and to see how it can improve your mental game and increase your performance. Complete the form below, call (252)-371-1602 or schedule an introductory coaching call here.
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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