6 focus-boosting techniques used by elite athletes

Rid yourself of distractions with these focus-boosting techniques used by elite athletes

From making that match point serve count to stepping up to the penalty spot when all eyes are on them, how do athletes cut out all the distractions during those vital moments? We’ve examined the data to bring you six focus-boosting techniques used by elite athletes.

The ability to handle pressure, shut the world out and really focus is a trait shared by all great athletes. But it’s not a genetic trait they were born with, the result of career-spanning good luck or because they’re physically superior. Being able to remain focused on goals is a learned skill – or set of skills – anyone can benefit from.

The scientific name for it is Attentional Control Theory, or ACT. It’s your ability to choose what you pay attention to and what you ignore. The theory suggests that anxiety impacts your mental abilities, which in turn affects your ability to ignore irrelevant information and shift your priorities accordingly.

The good news is that research proves that training it will improve your competitive performance. Here's how...

Focus-boosting techniques

Only focus on what you can control

The American Psychological Association advises writing two lists. The first list should contain all the factors you can do something about yourself, such as how you respond to a mistake or how much sleep you get. The second list – you guessed it – contains the factors you don’t have any control over. These might include how your teammates respond to an error or what people might say if you fail a final rep. 

Forget everything on the second list. Don’t think about it during practice and don’t pay attention to it when it’s game time. It’ll only hold you back when it matters most. 

Of course, fogetting about what's not important is easier said than done, but the more you chastise yourself for focusing on things you can't control, the less you'll find yourself doing it.

Treat training like the real deal

Research shows golfers who use familiar pre-performance routines are less susceptible to distractions during games. Make your training sessions mirror competition as much as possible. It will normalise approaching those big moments and help channel your focus for when you need it most.

If you listen to a certain song before practice, for example, listen to it before you play for real. If you’ve got a morning race, make sure you’re training at the same time of day so you're used to it.

When it’s time to compete you’re much more likely to feel the same way you’ve done hundreds of times before, rather than having a new, nerve-wracking experience to process.

Train with distractions

Once you’ve identified what distracts you, tackle it in training. Get used to it until it’s no longer a problem.

When UFC fighter Benson Henderson was getting ready to fight MMA superstar Nate Diaz he knew Diaz’s patented in-fight trash talk presented a serious issue to him.

The then lightweight champion told Inside MMA, 'I actually have a hard time with that… we’ve been having my teammates talk a little bit of trash inside the octagon and have me stay calm and not be worked up.'

The strategy paid off, Henderson was unfazed by Diaz’s attempts to rattle him and comfortably controlled the fight to take a clear victory.

Focus on processes, not outcomes

It’s a bitter truth to swallow, but the fact is you can’t always control an outcome. You might do everything right and still not quite hit a PB, or you might play badly and end up with a lucky win.

Focusing on the end result takes you away from what you can personally control as demonstrated by this study, which found that American college athletes performed worse when focusing on ‘results’ goals compared to focusing on achieving a certain level of performance.

Shift your focus to how you can achieve specific, actionable goals. By paying attention to your own actions – something you control – you’ll likely experience more favourable outcomes as a result.

Talk yourself up

There’s a reason you always hear about the benefits of positive thinking. It works! Rather than just yelling about being the best, figure out a list of positive cues, whether that’s self-talk, visual reminders or even gestures. These are an effective way of grounding yourself in moments when you feel your focus being shifted away from your goals.

This is a technique even the greatest athletes have used successfully. 'Iron' Mike Tyson may have struck fear into those he fought, but he still had to talk himself up as he walked to the ring.

On an episode of the To The Top podcast Tyson talks through the process, describing how he’d remind himself, 'I’m an intelligent savage and this guy doesn’t match me.' If it works for the youngest ever heavyweight champion, it can work for you.

Track your concentration levels

This one’s simple: create a diary of your concentration levels. Give yourself a concentration-level rating for each session. These simple evaluations are vital for improving your focus as they force you to pay attention to and evaluate your progress. Think of it as a basic form of mindfulness.

Vocal advocates of using mindfulness to stay focused include Cristiano Ronaldo and LeBron James. Like a physical activity, you’ll get better at it over time and the impact it has on your performance will be pronounced.

You’ll soon learn to recognise the signs of faltering focus and address it much faster. MRI scans show that after as little as eight weeks people who practice regular mindfulness have physical changes in their brain. The stress-processing part becomes smaller, while the part that deals with concentration – the pre-frontal cortex – becomes bigger.