Tuesday, December 18, 2012


“Focus!”  This utterance must rank as one of the most frequently offered bits of sports exhortation you are likely to hear at a sporting event.  Participants, parents and coaches alike all seem to toss this pabulum out as some sort of magical panacea as a goad for better performance.  And, indeed, we all seem to know what it means: play has gotten messy; errors are piling up; the score is going in the wrong direction; the mental chatter is whiney and disjointed.  Gone is the kind of effortless, effective clarity of vision that comes with excellent play.  We are mired in slop.  So, with this encouraging imperative, we are trying to right the ship, get back on track and home in on the matter at hand.  The problem, though, is that this simple injunction “focus!” begs the very question: “On what?”  When we frame the question this way, we realize that at least one true thing about focus  is that we are always putting our attention somewhere, and that when play goes sour, it represents an attentional shift rather than a loss of attention.  In short, it’s not that we are not focusing, it’s that we are putting our focus on an improper resting place.
    Try this thought experiment.  Imagine that one of your senses has suddenly become more acute by a certain factor.  Imagine, say, that you were all of a sudden miraculously invested with the smelling capacity of a dog.  Now, imagine performing an important task like writing a paper, preparing an important report or playing a competitive sport event under these circumstances.  You would constantly need to tune out the incredible number of smells bombarding you and pulling for your attention and bring it back to the matter at hand.  You would constantly struggle to filter out the prominence of the smell data from the other, more relevant data that you needed to notice in order to perform your best on that task in that moment.  I hope you get the analogy: it is more apt to say that a player who has lost attentional focus has really lost his or her attentional filter.  Now, I grant you, encouraging a player to “Filter!” rather than “Focus!” is decidedly less glamorous, but perhaps more apt.  Secondly, focus is that rare sport skill that is both a skill and a state of mind.  We rarely say “I was really in a backhand state of mind,” when our backhand is particularly hot, but we do say, “I was really focused,” to describe being in the zone.  Nevertheless, the more we treat focus as a skill, and therefore, practice it, the more likely we are to reproduce that glorious state of mind that good focus produces, that state of mind in which our highest potential emerges.  In the remainder of this post, I will offer you some suggestions of how you can more consistently have the kind of focus which is the bedrock of excellent performance.

  1. Garbage in-garbage out.  Someone once told me that a famous dictum of computer programming is “garbage in, garbage out,”  meaning that any problem, no matter how small, with the code that creates a program will surely result in a poorly running program.  Such words prove equally true for mental focus.  When you are putting your attention on the distracting inputs so readily available in sport competition--bad calls, ambient noise, spectator’s heckling, personal animus toward an opponent--you are adding garbage to what could otherwise be better cognitive code for your program.  The answer here, well-known to all top athletes, is to learn to focus on inputs that are useful and contribute to good performance: sticking to a strategy, picking up cues of your opponent’s bad play for you to capitalize on, an encouraging mantra, keeping your emotional thermometer even-keeled.
  2. Change the channel.  As I said above, when we are playing in a way that feels unfocused, our attention has shifted from more valuable inputs to less effective ones.  The first skill here is to have mindful awareness of the very fact of the attention having strayed.  That is, you have to first notice that your attention has wandered in order to shepherd it back to an input of your choosing.  Here, it is useful to have a mental picture that helps you visualize this change.  I have offered the image of using the TV remote to change the channel as a useful rubric, but you can generate an image that works for you.  Secondly, re-focusing rituals are always helpful: taking a stroll about the court; re-tying your shoes; taking some deep breaths.  As you do these rituals, tell your mind what you want it to focus on for the next point.  The point here is that you are being intentional with your attention.  You are directing it rather than chasing it, its master rather than its slave.
  3. Practice, practice, practice.  If, as we are arguing, focus is a skill just like any other--though, perhaps, more valuable than any other--then it follows that the way towards better focus is to practice better focus.  Mindfulness meditation, breathing exercises and physical disciplines like yoga, tai chi, qi gong are all excellent ways to hone attentional capacity.  But everyday life also offers endless opportunities to practice.  Start noticing attentional drift in your daily life.  Start practicing ‘one-mindedness’, that quality of immaculate concentration on one thing.  As you practice being aware of your attention and focusing it, you will be able to do it better in competition.  Secondly, practice better focus when you practice your sport.  Whatever form of practice you are engaged in, put your attention on it.  That sounds simple, but we are all too accustomed of going through the motions, deleting a bucket of range balls, slopping our way through a drill, dogging it.  What we are doing in these instances is strengthening the ability to be unfocused rather than honing attentional capacity on the whetstone of one-mindedness.

More and more people seem to decry the barrage on attention that modern life entails.  Cell phones, text messages, televisions in every conceivable public space, social media all corrode our ability to maintain sustained thought on one thing at a time.  There is no doubt that our attention is being increasingly bifurcated and that the bifurcations are bifurcating.  But, much as I myself incline to nostalgic arguments about the good old days, sages from Seneca to Siddhartha have been pointing out that the human mind is rather more like a puppy than a laser beam, but that like (wo)man’s best friend, it can be trained to sit.  Wise men like these argue that our supreme cognitive challenge is to cultivate a tranquil cognitive landscape that successfully navigates rocky shoals with the kind of equanimity that enables right action.  We know the stories of Earl Woods fiddling with coins in his pocket or dropping a ball on the green as young Tiger was putting.  Jack Nicklaus talks of his pre-shot crouch as so focused that someone could have blown a fog horn near him and he wouldn’t have heard it.  What these examples make clear is that if we want to float & sting with the gods, we must first master the fun house of our own mortal consciousness. The stakes are high, the rewards inestimable.