How Focusing on What You Can Control Will Change Your Game

Do you focus more on what you can control or what you can't control as an athlete? Learn how to focus on what you can control and how this will take your game to the next level!

What would you say is the biggest mental block you face during games?

Do you worry about what’s going to happen? Do you think a lot about how you don’t want to make a mistake? Do you spend a lot of time thinking about the other team or the official’s call?

Do you know what all of the examples I just outlined have in common? None of them are 100% in your control.

When I’m working one-on-one with an athlete, the majority of the mental blocks we work through are caused by them focusing too much on things they can’t control.

By getting them to focus more on what they can control, their mindset improves, and as a result, their performance level significantly increases.

The same will happen for you if you learn how to let go of what you can’t control and put your energy towards what you can control. And that’s exactly what I’m going to show you how to do by the end of this article.

What’s in Your Control as an Athlete

Before we talk about how you can focus more on what’s in your control, we need to get specific about what actually is in your control as an athlete.

For example, you may think how well you perform is in your control. However, the outcome of a game or performance is not fully in your control due to external factors.

Let’s say you’re a tennis player. It’s just you out there, no teammates or anything else. You against your opponent. In this situation, why is the outcome not in your control?

Because your opponent is not in your control. Neither is the condition of the court or the line judge. These three external factors, along with many more, are the reason the outcome of the match is not 100% in your control.

Let’s go with another example, except this time we’ll use an individual sport where you aren’t going directly against an opponent. So, pretend you’re a golfer.

In golf, no one is hitting the ball back to you, so it would seem that the outcome is a little more in your control. However, there are still many external factors that can impact your play. These include course conditions, the wind, and surrounding noises.

So, it’s clear that the outcome of a game or match is not 100% in your control. Of course you can and will influence it, but what we’re after are things that you can completely control. Meaning, you can make sure they happen.

To give you a good idea of what these are, here’s a list of the main things that are in your control as an athlete:

  • Attitude
  • Effort
  • Preparation
  • Focus
  • Work Ethic
  • The process
  • Your reactions
  • Training
  • Your pregame routine & warm up routine
  • Nutrition
  • Your approach
  • Your evaluation
  • What you’re thinking about
  • Self-belief

Can you think of any more? When it comes to what’s in your control as an athlete, the bottom line is, you must be able to make sure it happens.

You can make sure you are prepared to play, have a good approach, and evaluate yourself well after the game. But you can’t fully control what actually happens during the game.

The more you focus on what you can control, the better your performances will be. Doing all the things that you can control well and giving them your full effort and attention is what gives you the best chance to get the outcome you want.

Focusing instead on what you can’t control, will only hold you back.

What Happens When You Focus on What You Can’t Control

Spending too much attention on things outside your control leads to many mental blocks. These mental blocks are what truly cause you to underperform during games.

If you’ve found yourself performing better in practices recently than games, your focus may be a major reason why this is happening.

During practice, you’re likely focused more on the process and not so worried about the outcome. It’s okay to make mistakes in training, so you pay more attention to what you’re doing.

During games, however, you want to perform well. So naturally you worry more about making mistakes or how the game’s going to go. Both of which are outside of your control.

Knowing that focusing too much on what you can’t control causes you to underperform, let’s take a look at the specific mental blocks it leads to.

Sports Performance Anxiety

Anxiety in sports is defined by worrying about what’s going to happen. Since you can’t control whether or not you’ll make a mistake (since making the mistake is in the future), all you can do is worry about it.

That’s where we see sports performance anxiety form due to your attention being fixed on things you can’t control.

Our minds desire control. It makes us feel safe. Now, if you can’t fully control something in the moment, what you can do is worry about it. This worry feels like control to your mind.

However, this worry will only cause you to underperform.

Sports performance anxiety causes you to play tight and often timidly. Think about it like this, if you’re worried about making a mistake, what’s your goal going to be?

Not making a mistake.

And if you don’t want to make a mistake, do you think you’re going to be playing aggressively and full of confidence…or are you going to play timidly and play it safe?

More than likely you’re going to play it safe. This is where athletes often find themselves playing with their foot on the brake. All due to their attention being too focused on what they can’t control.

Fear of Failure

The fear of failure in sports means you are afraid of making a mistake. More specifically, you are afraid of what’s going to happen if you do make a mistake.

Think about a mistake you’ve made recently. Was the mistake anything to fear, or was the consequence of the mistake what you feared?

Many times the consequence of making a mistake will be coach yelling at you, feeling embarrassed, getting benched, or your stats dropping.

With the mistake happening in the future, once again, it’s not something you can control.

By focusing on what may happen and how much you don’t want that to happen, your fears increase, and the result is you playing timidly.

This is very similar to what I explained happens when you play with performance anxiety. Since you are afraid of making a mistake, your mind will work to keep you from making a mistake, which typically looks like you holding yourself back.

This is where you will play not to fail instead of playing to succeed.


One of the main things outside your control is the outcome of a game. I’ve mentioned this many times already, the reason being, the outcome is one of the easiest things to focus on.

When you start a game, your goal is to win. It’s to play your best, and sometimes it’s even to play perfectly.

When you think too much about the outcome of the game, your stats, or what others think of you, you may react by trying to play perfectly.

But here’s the thing…mistakes are going to happen.

Demanding perfection from yourself going into a game is setting yourself up to fail. Instead, you want to focus more on the process and aim to do all the little things well.

It’s tough to let go of trying to be perfect when your mind is too focused on non controllables like the outcome of the game.

Identifying What’s in Your Control as an Athlete & Learning How to Focus on That

Now that you know the importance of focusing on what you can control, and the negative impact focusing on what you can’t control has on your game, it’s time to identify the top aspects of your game that are in your control.

Then, we’re going to outline a strategy you can follow to make sure you are focusing on what you can control moving forward.

Step #1: List Out Everything That’s in Your Control

This is an exercise I love to do with my one-on-one coaching clients. It helps you get a clear picture of what’s actually in your control as an athlete.

And a lot of times you realize how little focus you’re giving to what you can control, and how much time you spend thinking about what’s not in your control.

What you’re going to do is make a list of everything that’s in your control. Aim for at least 10 things. I know it may be tough, but the more detailed you can get, the better.

When you’re outlining your list, think in terms of your physical play and also in terms of your mindset, focus, attitude, and anything else mental. Something else that’s always good to think about is your preparation.

Here’s a sample list of 10 things that are 100% in an athlete’s control:

  1. Pre game routine
  2. Mental preparation
  3. Focus during the game
  4. Mechanics
  5. Training & quality practices
  6. Attitude
  7. Self-talk before and during the game
  8. Post game evaluation
  9. Effort during practices and games
  10. Reactions to mistakes

You see how the list is a mixture of mental and physical aspects that go into a performance? Also, notice how all of them are in my control, meaning I can make sure they happen.

For example, I can make sure I stick to my pre game routine and I have good mental preparation for the game. I can also make sure I have good effort during the game and I perform my post game evaluation.

So for yourself, take some time and list out 10 things that are 100% in your control.

Step #2: Rank Your List & Create an Action Plan

Now that you have your list of 10, it’s time to rank them. Go through your list and rank them from 1-10, with 1 being something you focus on a lot and 10 being the one you don’t give much attention to.

You want to rank your list so you have a clear picture of what you’re already focusing on during practices and games and what you need to work on giving more attention to.

The second part of this step is where you create an action plan for the bottom five. Your action plan will describe how you will focus more on that element of your game that’s in your control.

For example, if one of my bottom five was reaction to mistakes, I would create a strategy for handling mistakes better. It may look something like this…

After a mistake, I will take a deep breath, tell myself to let go of the mistake, and focus on the next play.

Another example is attitude. I may say…

I will focus on getting myself into a better attitude before games by using a good mental preparation routine.

All you’re doing is taking something that’s in your control and creating a strategy for how you will focus on it more and use it in a better way to elevate your game.

Step #3: Set Objectives for Games

This last step will help keep you focused on what you can control during games.

Performance objectives are targets you set for yourself that are part of the process and 100% within your control. By setting objectives, you give yourself a concrete target during games that you know is something you can control.

This makes it easier to keep your attention fixed on things that will help you play well, rather than hold you back.

For games, you want to set a mental objective and a physical objective.

Your mental objective will have to do with your mindset. For example, you might set a mental objective to focus on having a good attitude no matter what happens during the game. Because you know that attitude is one of the things you can control.

Your physical objective should involve your technique or mechanics, but you want to make sure it’s simple and something you can control.

For example, you might set a physical objective to keep your eye on the ball. Simple, yes. But also effective since it keeps your attention placed on the process and off the outcome.

So moving forward, to focus more on what you can control, you want to be sure to set performance objectives for games.

Final Thoughts

Learning to focus on what you can control is crucial to your success as an athlete.

When you focus on aspects of your game outside of your control,  you hold yourself back. This kind of focus leads to performance anxiety, fear of failure, and perfectionism. All in all, it causes you to underperform.

Instead, when you begin focusing more on what you can control, your game will be elevated. You will be giving more attention to the process and reducing mental blocks that do nothing but hold you back.

To focus on what you can control, you first must outline the top 10 things you can control as an athlete. Then, rank them and get to work on creating an action plan for the ones you don’t do so well with right now.

Lastly, set performance objectives for games to keep your attention fixed on the process and what you can control.

If you have any questions about this article or any other sports psychology topic, please fill out the form below. Thank you for reading and I wish you the best of success in all that you do.

Contact Success Starts Within Today

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 Straw

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.

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