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How Elite Athletes keep Focused

To be a winning athlete, the mental game is equally as important as the physical one.



When pro-level athletes step up to the mark what are they thinking? What went through the minds of Michael Jordon, Aaron Rodgers, Clayton Kershaw, Usain Bolt as they “stepped up to plate”. 

What we see, from the stands or the sofa, is the physicality of the professional athletes. But under the hood, away from our eyes is the mental strength which is equally as important and the training of which is just as rigorous. 

Where distraction lurks, tempting, seducing the athlete, failure awaits. Why? Because the mind has the power to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory as easily as any physical injury. 

To win this tug of war, the professional athletes train to control their minds. They are able to focus when it matters, control emotional mayhem, and arrive at a state of calm whilst “Rome burns” around them. 

When do you start to develop a winning mind? Early is the simple truth; according to sports psychologists. But in reality, every moment of every day is a good time to start and to practise.


The skill of Focusing

This is the ability to know where and when to put your attention, being able to shift from one plan to another very quickly at an almost subconscious level. 

Train with distractions. Tiger Woods’ father use to shake keys or drop coins when a young Tiger was practising his golf swing. 

Use your concentration as a spotlight. This spotlight will show you on a TV screen, as part of the overall event. When a distraction occurs, the spotlight is switched off, the TV screen goes blank. How quickly can you imagine switching the spotlight back on? 

The aim is to minimise the unknown and the effect of a surprise. Whatever occurs, you will be prepared to continue your planned responses. 


Failure will happen

Sometimes, no matter how much you prepare, failure will happen at some point. If you are not in control, then some of the emotions associated with failure could get out of control and lead to larger issues. Having a high emotional investment and allowing it to become out of control leads to anxiety, which in turn leads to “choking”. 

If a player becomes too focused on the speed of a return or delivery, then the timing of the shot will be out. Focusing on a highly technical skill while trying to execute that skill will lead to a deterioration of that skill. 

What should your response be? Understanding that your skill sets do not desert you overnight. You haven’t left them in the locker room. Switch on the spotlight and see yourself on the TV set as part of the game.   


Pro-athletes and their coaches

As individuals we feel better when we engage in routine, in skills, that we can execute well. Who likes to tackle something that’s going to go wrong? Why bring on that feeling of failure. 

But if you can’t face up to practicing your week skill sets or you struggle to identify them, then that is a time to talk with a sports coach. Exceptional players/athletes don’t become exceptional but avoiding poor skill sets. They have been brave enough to face them down. They have deliberately worked on their weaknesses in order to improve their all-round game.   





This will mean that at times you will be asked to reach deep in side and experience extreme discomfort; to simulate a physical pain that you will experience in competition. Your debrief would then include how to understand this experienced pain level and how to handle that mental challenge. 


The Flow State

The best performances usually come when you’re thinking of nothing at all. There are no barriers between what you are thinking and what you are doing. Everything flows together. 

A golfer who wants to impress may start to swing faster and faster, just to hit the ball further. Tension will creep into the shoulders, the thighs, but the golfer will try to swing faster still. 

An athlete may say hello to a competitor before the start of a race, not necessarily to make new friends but to ease the tension before the off. This can be related back to the spotlight effect. If that spotlight is swinging back to face you, turn it off or around by taking an emotional break. 

Elite athletes, whether amateur or professional, have a higher level of mental skills and a better ability to use them consistently under pressure. When flow states occur, peak performance tends to follow.


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