How to get an athlete to focus

Have you ever heard a coach tell an athlete to focus?

We hear coaches say this word over and over to a young athlete, yet what does this word mean? More importantly, what to coaches want the young athlete to do?

All sports have cues, but just telling an athlete to “focus” does not assist the athlete. One should be specific: what do you want them to do? What should they focus on? For the younger athlete, the ability to stay focused on the present moment is a key to successful performance.

Focus is the ability to attend to internal and external cues in your attentional field. In order to understand the word focus we must first understand attentional field. This refers to both internal and external. So your thoughts, emotions and physical responses will be internal and the sights and sounds are external. You can focus on any of these.

The young athlete’s primary focus should be on performance cues that will help one achieve optimal performance. Each sport has performance cues related to technique, strategy, opponent, score, time, and many others. An athlete must be able to adjust their focus throughout the performance as needed. However, athletes need to be taught what these cues are and how to attend to them.

So a coach should state, especially for younger athletes, what the cue is to focus on.

In baseball, the batter will focus on the release of the ball from the pitcher. The batter should first look at the head and shoulders of the pitcher and then as he starts his motion, look for the actual release of the hand.

This is a skill that is taught. An athlete shouldn’t be looking at the shadow produced by the sun or the unnecessary motions a pitcher may have. Coaches should be particularly aware of the differences between information (useful within the context of the game, a here and now solution to the problem) versus data (not useful within the game but useful during practice for further skill development).

In a game/competition, only information should be conveyed to the athlete in a simple and concise way. If data is given to the athlete at this time it will only lead to confusion and a loss of focus.

Athletes have to have an understanding of exactly what cues are important to focus on and when.

Practice should be a time to enhance their understanding and knowledge of the cues. Coaches need to be explicit so there is no confusion.

One should avoid the “focus” command and tell the athlete exactly what cue(s) to enable a young player to have a successful performance.

Focus for an advanced athlete or performer could be the problem as well. Some performers tend to over focus and this is why his or her performance will suffer. They are in their heads too much.

Recent literature states that for skilled athletes/performers this should be a holistic process goal approach.

Those utilizing this approach that focuses on global aspects of a skill will have more effective focus strategies than a part process goal.

A holistic goal approach for a skilled athlete in the above scenario to this could be stating “motion.”

So the next time you think about the word “focus,” think first about what you want the athlete to do. provides commenting to allow for constructive discussion on the stories we cover. In order to comment here, you acknowledge you have read and agreed to our Terms of Service. Commenters who violate these terms, including use of vulgar language or racial slurs, will be banned. Please be respectful of the opinions of others. If you see an inappropriate comment, please flag it for our moderators to review.

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