Why You Need to Be Process Focused as an Athlete

As an athlete

When you show up to a game, what’s your goal? Is it to win? Play your best? Dominate the competition?

All of those are fantastic goals…but my question to you is, how do you get there?

What do you need to do to put yourself in the best position to achieve goals like that and get the outcomes you want?

Everything that leads to the outcome you want during a game (or even by the end of a season or career) is known as the process. And that’s what you truly want to be focused on each and every day.

Especially during games!

In this article, I’m going to discuss what it means to be process focused as an athlete, why it’s crucial for you to focus on the process, and a way you can help yourself be more process focused.

What it Means to Be Process Focused

When you are focused on the process, you are focused on all the small elements that lead to the outcome you want.

An example I love to use when working with athletes is the difference between a completed puzzle and puzzle pieces.

Of course you love when the puzzle is completed, and you get to see the beautiful picture you’ve created, but what does it take to reach that end goal?

You have to focus on every single piece, no matter how big or small. Only after focusing on the pieces do you get the completed puzzle you’re after.

The same goes for your game. We can say that any outcome is like the completed puzzle, whether that be getting a hit, making a basket, scoring a goal, winning the game, or even winning an award.

All of those are the outcome — the completed puzzle.

But what are the pieces that lead to the outcome?

That is what you want to focus on during practices and especially during games. By doing so, you put yourself in the best position to get the outcome you want.

Importance of Being Process Focused

There’s a clear reason why you want to focus on the process rather than the outcome: it puts you in a better mindset and in the best position to succeed.

A lot of times when I talk to athletes about being more process focused they resist in the beginning because they feel like it means they can’t want to win or that they’re not allowed to want to play their best.

The truth is quite the opposite. In fact, for you to be process focused and honestly put in the required level of attention needed, it should come from an overarching desire to attain an outcome.

We use that goal as motivation. But instead of focusing on the outcome and trying to force it, you recognize what you want and then turn your attention onto the process that will help you get there.

By becoming more process focused, there are many benefits you can expect and many ways it will improve your game, including…

  • Decreased anxiety & fear: two of the main impediments to peak performance are fear of failure and performance anxiety. Both of these mental blocks are caused by outcome-oriented thinking. So, the more you can focus on the process, the less fear and anxiety you will experience.
  • Improved effort: when you are too heavily focused on the outcome, a lot of times you aren’t giving as much effort as you should be to what you’re doing. Whether it’s during practice or a game, being process focused will ensure you are giving optimal effort to the task at hand.
  • Greater consistency: when it comes to being a consistent player, you want to focus on being consistent with your approach and your mindset. You cannot control the outcome, so focusing on that form of consistency will only hold you back. Process focused thinking helps you be more consistent because you are paying attention to the elements you can control.
  • A better ability to manage mistakes: when you make a mistake during a game, you want to move on as quickly as possible. If you’re hung up on the outcome, this will be difficult. By being process focused, you allow yourself to move on quicker from the mistake because you refocus yourself onto the process. In other words, you ask yourself, what’s important now?
  • Decreased perfectionism: setting too high expectations for yourself, such as, I need to play perfectly, will cause you to play tight and often timidly. Turning your attention onto the process will help you let go of those expectations and demands to be perfect and allow you to simply focus on what you need to do to put yourself in the best position to succeed.

How to Be Process Focused

Knowing now the importance of being process focused, what can you do to make sure you keep your attention centered on the process and not on the outcome?

There are a few tips and tools that I use with athletes to help them develop more of a process focused mind. It’s a skill, just like any other. And so working on developing it takes effort.

But the more you work at practicing and playing with a process focused mind, the easier the habit will become.

Tip #1: Use a Good Goal Setting Technique

This first tip will help you be process focused when it comes to your long-term goals. Whether they’re goals you’ve set for this season, or even goals that will be accomplished a year or two from now, it’s important to shift your focus onto the process.

A way you can do this is through something known as a goal setting breakdown. This is a way for you to use an outcome based goal to motivate yourself to turn your attention onto the process.

And by going through the breakdown, you can feel confident that the work you’re putting in is truly putting you in the best position to reach your goal.

I’m going to show you an example of a goal setting breakdown for a yearly goal. This same principle applies if the goal is a couple years away, or even just a few months away.

  • Step 1: Clearly define your large goal.
  • Step 2: Break it down into quarterly or monthly targets.
  • Step 3: Set weekly goals that are leading to the achievement of your step 2 goal (make sure these are process focused).
  • Step 4: Set daily goals that will accomplish your weekly goal (be sure these are process focused).

By going through a breakdown like this, you take a large goal and turn it into specific, process focused activities for you to do each day. Taking your attention off the outcome and placing it onto the process.

Tip #2: Use Objectives for Practices & Games

When it comes to staying focused on the process during practices and games, you want to be sure you are giving yourself something concrete to focus on.

It’s easy to say, focus on the process, but it’s a lot more difficult to do so.

To help, you can set objectives for yourself. These objectives are things that are 100% in your control and part of the process.

They are a way for you to center your attention in the present moment.

Now, while you want to set objectives for yourself for both practices and games, they will vary a bit between the two.

Practice objectives need to be focused on improving. They will likely have more to do with what specific parts of your game you’re wanting to work on that day.

Game objectives will also be focused on the process, but they will have less to do with wanting to improve, and more to do with putting you in the best position to succeed. Think of these like a key that unlocks peak performance.

Here are some examples of practice and game objectives to give you a good idea of how to set some for yourself:

Practice Objectives:

  • Focus on my footwork.
  • Work on keeping my hands inside the ball.
  • Practice being quicker with my release.
  • Work on my backhands.
  • Focus on having explosive starts.
  • Work on having soft touches today.

Game Objectives:

  • Stay balanced throughout my swing.
  • Watch the ball all the way into my hands.
  • Let the ball travel.
  • Follow through on every shot.
  • Feel confident and relaxed.

Tip #3: Stay Present While Competing

During games, it’s easy to allow outcomes to creep into your mind. Whether you just made a mistake, your team’s winning, or you’re losing, it’s natural to begin thinking about outcomes.

However, the more you do so, the less attention you’re giving to what you’re doing. Not to mention the increased chances there are of you feeling fear or anxiety as a result.

So it’s important that during games you keep your focus centered in the present.

The objectives discussed above will help with that by reminding yourself of your objective for that day. But there’s another tool you can use to keep you focused on the present: your breath.

Being process focused involves keeping yourself present, since the process is taking place in the present moment. So the more present your awareness is, the better.

To keep your awareness centered in the present moment, you can turn your attention onto your breath.

Focus on taking deep breaths and using something known as count breathing. Count breathing is where you breathe in for a certain count and out for a certain count.

It’s a great way to not only calm yourself down, but also ensure you are keeping yourself focused in the present moment, which means you are more focused on the process.

Final Thoughts

Outcomes are everywhere in sports. But focusing too much on outcomes will only distract you and increase your chances of playing with fear, anxiety, and perfectionism.

It’s important that, as an athlete, you adopt a more process focused mindset. This means you are focused on the pieces that lead to the outcome.

And the great thing about being process focused is that it actually increases the chances of you getting the outcome you want.

To help you be more process focused, there are three tips you can follow: use a good goal setting breakdown, set objectives for practices and games, and focus on staying present during competition.

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 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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