Why Athletes Lose Focus During Games

Athletes need to be focused to perform their best. Learn all the main distractions athletes face and why they cause them to lose focus during games.

Strong focus is a key characteristic of all high level athletes. To play your best, you need to be able to control your attention.

But this is not at all an easy thing to do. Which is one of the reasons it’s so difficult for athletes to consistently compete at an elite level.

There are many distractions you face as an athlete, both internally and externally, that will work to destroy your focus. And more often than not, they’ll succeed.

It can often feel like this happens at the worst possible moments, too. Like that crunch time play in a big game…the situation where you need the most focus is typically the situation where you lose your focus the easiest.

With focus being so critical to you as a player, what I’m going to do in this article is break down the main distractions athletes face, along with some tips you can use if you struggle with staying focused during competition.

Top Distractions Athletes Face

In order to manage your focus better, you need to gain a deeper understanding as to why you’re losing focus in the first place.

To help, we need to look at all the distractions you will face before and during games.

You may struggle with focus during practices, as well. But we’re going to focus on competition, since that’s where strong vs poor focus has the greatest impact.

And in truth, the distractions you experience during games will be similar to those you experience during practice. Especially the internal distractions.

There are two types of distractions that will work against your focus as an athlete: internal and external distractions.

Internal Distractions

While it may be easy to blame external noise for you losing focus, and those may be the easiest to point out, in my experience working with athletes, it’s the internal distractions that have the greatest impact on their attention.

Internal distractions are all about your thoughts; what’s going on inside your head.

Here are some of the main internal distractions you may experience:

  • Negative thoughts/thoughts of self-doubt.
  • Thinking too much about the outcome.
  • Worrying about a past mistake.
  • Being afraid of making a mistake.
  • Worrying about what your coach, teammates, parents, or anyone else is thinking.
  • Overly confident thinking (assuming it will be an easy win).
  • Thinking too much about the score.

Have you experienced any of these kinds of thoughts during a game? If you have, then you know how easy it is for them to distract you, keeping your attention away from the task at hand.

External Distractions

In addition to internal distractions, there are also many external distractions you’re faced with during games. What’s interesting about these, however, is that they can also be thought of as triggers.

Because external distractions often lead to unhelpful thinking, which is an internal distraction.

Here are some of the main external distractions you may face during a game:

  • Poor weather conditions.
  • A bad playing surface.
  • Outside noise.
  • Poor officiating/bad calls.
  • A coach who yells a lot.
  • Rude and obnoxious fans.
  • Loud mouth opponents.
  • Frustrated teammates.

Have you experienced any of these, or ones similar? If so, then you know how easy it is to lose your focus when there are external distractions present during games.

Tips to Refocus Yourself During Games

When we further examine both internal and external distractions and how they cause you to lose focus during competition, what becomes apparent is the role your thoughts play.

It is truly your own thinking that is causing you to lose focus. Yes, even if you’re experiencing external distractions, your own thoughts are to blame.

Think about what happens when a coach yells at you, for example. Immediately you will start thinking about them, and you may even start having negative thoughts about yourself as a result of their yelling.

You see, the external distraction serves as a trigger, but it is your own thinking as a result of the external distraction that leads you to lose focus.

Knowing this, your goal needs to be to take control of your thinking whenever you lose focus. That’s where your attention needs to be placed.

Because we know that if you can stop thinking about the distraction (no matter if it’s internal or external), you can then begin thinking once more about whatever it is you need to be thinking about at that moment.

To help, there are three tips you can use.

Use a Thought-Stopping Phrase

Imagine your negative/distracting thoughts are like a stampede. Your job is to quickly build a wall that will stop the stampede from trampling all over you. This wall is going to be a thought-stopping phrase.

A thought-stopping phrase is something you repeat to yourself whenever you notice unhelpful, negative, or distracting thoughts.

You repeat the phrase and it works to stop the stampede in its tracks.

There are three elements of a strong thought-stopping phrase: letting go, recentering, and refocusing.

The first part is letting go. This is where you remind yourself to let go and forget about whatever it is that’s distracting you.

The second part is recentering. What I mean by this is bringing your awareness back into the present moment. A great way of doing so is taking a deep breath.

The third part is where you refocus your attention onto what you want to be thinking about (focused on).

Here’s a simple example of an effective thought-stopping phrase I’ve used with athletes: let it go, take a breath, focus on the next play.

Simple, easy to remember, and effective. That’s what you should aim for when creating your own thought-stopping phrase.

Set Clear Objectives

To make it easier for you to manage your focus during games, you want to have something clear and concrete to focus on.

Just telling yourself to focus more in the present moment isn’t going to do much good. Especially if you’re dealing with an obnoxious fan or can’t stop thinking about the mistake you just made.

You need something specific to focus on. That’s where objectives come into play!

Objectives, also known as cues, are targets you set for yourself going into the game that you will focus on. These are not complex things, but rather simple aspects of your game you need to pay attention to.

Objectives give you something concrete to focus on. But they also serve another purpose…putting you in the best position to succeed.

Your objective should be an aspect of your game that, if you do really well, will put you in the best possible position to play well.

Here are some simple objectives I’ve seen athletes use:

  • Focus on my follow through.
  • Focus on good contact.
  • Watch the ball all the way into my hands.
  • Lock onto my target.
  • Focus on soft touches.
  • Stay low in my defensive stance.

Once again, you want your objectives to be simple, and easy to remember. Then, during games, your job is to focus on them.

Use Positive/Productive Self-Talk

Negative thoughts and thoughts of self-doubt are a major distraction athletes face. Knowing this, a strong solution is to focus on applying more positive and productive self-talk.

The reason I say productive self-talk and not just positive self-talk is because some athletes don’t like the idea of always speaking positively to themselves, especially if they just made a mistake.

That’s fine, but you better make sure you’re speaking productively to yourself and thinking in a way that will help you perform well moving forward.

To actually apply more positive and productive self-talk in the moment, you want to know what to say. This is where a self-talk routine becomes helpful.

A self-talk routine is where you create a list of statements and then reread them to yourself every day.

This does two things: first, it helps you memorize the statements, making them easier to repeat in the moment when you’re having negative thoughts.

Second, it works to reframe your natural thoughts patterns, leading to you having less negative and unhelpful thoughts in the future.

Mental Coaching for Poor Focus

The three tips outlined above are a great place for you to start in terms of improving your focus.

By understanding what distractions you’re faced with, you can be prepared to counteract them and refocus yourself on the game.

However, there are deeper reasons, such as the beliefs you have going into a game, that may be leading to your poor focus in the first place. If that’s the case, then you need a more personalized approach.

With one-on-one mental coaching, I will work with you to identify what’s causing you to lose focus during games, and then create a custom action plan to help.

To learn more about mental coaching, please fill out the form below, or schedule a free introductory coaching call.

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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The Mentally Tough Kid course will teach your young athlete tools & techniques to increase self-confidence, improve focus, manage mistakes, increase motivation, and build mental toughness.

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