Adjusting Our Focus

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Our ability to modify focus is a determining factor in whether or not we will succeed, both in and out of the sports arena. 

It sounds simple to do, and we are all equipped to do it, yet calibrating our focus, particularly when we feel under pressure, is a challenge that often we don’t manage to overcome.

The World’s best athletes excel at this, ignoring distractions, whether they’re internal (i.e. interference that comes from within, such as negative thinking) or external (i.e. interference that comes from the outside, like a controversial umpiring decision).  

Furthermore, they also have the capacity to switch from a broad focus (i.e. taking an overview position, like identifying areas for development), to a narrow focus (i.e. zooming in on the detail, such as watching the ball intensely).  

Simply put, they modify and channel their focus appropriately, disregarding anything which doesn’t help them to achieve their goal. 

Focus is the absence of irrelevant thoughts. 

– Jonathan Trott

Focus quadrants

As described by Robert M. Nideffer in his book, “The Inner Athlete: Mind plus muscle for winning” (1976), our focus can be arranged into four quadrants.

Types of Focus

1 Broad & Internal

Broad and internal focus is thinking about the general aspects of our own performance.

eg. A golfer evaluating his levels of emotional control over the duration of the previous season. 

This is classed as broad because it relates to a prolonged period of time, and internal because it corresponds with his inner psychological state. 

2 Broad & External

Broad and external focus is assessing the people or objects involved in a situation that are occurring outside of us. 

eg. A golfer observing the fairway, identifying hazardous areas that he wants to avoid. 

We categorise this as broad because he’s scanning a large area, and external because he’s viewing something that is outside of himself.

3 Narrow & Internal

Narrow and internal focus is paying attention to the specific details of what’s occurring within us.

eg. A golfer using positive self-talk to boost his confidence moments before swinging his club on the first tee. 

His self-talk relates to internal focus because this comes from within him, and it’s narrow because this inner dialogue forms only part of his overall pre-shot routine. 

4 Narrow & External

Narrow and external focus is zooming in on a person or object. 

eg. A golfer directs his full attention towards the ball as he executes his drive off the tee.

This is narrow because his focus is laser-like, and external because he is concentrating on the the ball which, of course, is an object that is placed outside of himself. 

Focus zooming

Zooming*, which is moving from one focus quadrant to another, is a critical skill that we need to master in order to achieve and sustain a high level of performance.

Focus Zooming

Athletes who experience long-term success remain focused on their goals and objectives because they have the capacity to change the intensity of their focus – they are constantly zooming in and and out.    

Zoom 1 

The least intense, yet widest degree of focus, supreme athletes adjust to Zoom 1 for analysing their current standards of performance, and for planning and preparing on how to improve. 

Similar to organisations that lose market share because they don’t reflect on the past or build for the future, spending little or no time in Zoom 1 will make it difficult for us to produce high performance over the long-term. 

Zoom 2  

During training or competition, Zoom 2 allows us to mentally recharge without completely switching off, which is essential for maintaining concentration over an extended period of time, such as the duration of a match.

For example, a tennis player should deploy Zoom 2 during the break in-between sets. 

Zoom 3

Ideally we’ll utilise Zoom 3 when we’re slightly removed from the action. In another words, the practice or match will be in full swing, but we won’t be directly involved in the action. 

Think of a hockey goal keeper when her team are attacking the opposition goal. It’s important that she’s sufficiently focused in order to react accordingly should there be a sudden counter attack, but at the same time it’s not imperative that she’s totally zoomed in.

Zoom 4 

Maximum zoom! We’re in the middle of the action, which requires our full concentration to deal with the task at hand.

Picture a batsman alert in his stance, eyes fixated on the ball as the bowler starts his run up, ready to execute his shot. This is as sharp as focus gets.

Energy drain

Zoom 4 utilises intense focus, which rapidly drains our mental energy. Those who are always switched on at full capacity, fade away quickly, so it’s essential that we can adjust the intensity of our focus to suitably match the circumstance, whether that be preparing for the future or dealing with the now.  

*Zooming is also referred to as dialling i.e. dialling our focus levels up and down.

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