Focus, in simple terms, is the ability to direct and sustain attention toward a specific target. For athletes, the primary goal of focus is to stay in the moment and pay attention to what is important while simultaneously ignoring things that are not important. Interestingly, focus not only contributes to on-field athletic success, but it also plays a role in mental toughness and the likelihood an athlete experiences an injury related to poor focus.
Ice slips & focus
Paying attention to our surroundings is very important in life, as it not only helps us reach goals, but also prevents damages that could have been much worse. One example I like to use when discussing the importance of focus as it relates to injury is when we accidentally slip on ice. Embarrassing, of course, but have you ever stopped to wonder why those slips end up being so painful the next day? One simple and logical theory is that ice slip falls are completely unexpected, thereby not allowing us to focus and respond quickly enough to prompt our bodies to cushion the fall. Having more time to focus — like a football player expecting a hit — allows the body to absorb, or cushion, hits that are often of far more impact compared to short-distance ice falls. While we will probably never advance to being able to foresee future ice falls, we can parlay the example of ice falls to potential sports injuries. In simple terms, having your “head in the game” (focus) helps athletes better prepare for collisions, thereby preventing/minimizing injuries.
How focus impacts sport injuries
Unfortunately, when our focus widens we often miss the cues that we may be in jeopardy for harm. For athletes, this can be practically understood during repetitive, mundane practices where focus often widens (i.e. thinking about weekend plans) at the same time an otherwise expected hit is about to be delivered. Hits like this can be debilitating, but by strengthening focus and attending to practice drills the injury might have been prevented altogether.
For athletes, being focused in practice and games helps offset the potential negative consequences of physical play. Conversely, being unfocused leaves athletes very susceptible for serious injury — not because of the hit, but because of the complete lack of attention for the hit when it occurred. Take for example basketball practice — if an athlete simply “goes through the motions” and is thinking about anything other than basketball, even the simplest contact could lead to devastating consequences because of the body being unprepared and exposed to the hit (think zero “cushioning” whatsoever). It is for this reason that coaches and parents emphasize the importance of focus to young athletes, and send prompts out regularly to remind kids of the terrible consequences that can occur by being unfocused.
Specific strategies for helping kids with focus include:
- Talk to them about the connection between focus and potential injuries — just knowing how the odds between poor focus and injuries increase by not paying attention should be a good reminder for kids.
- If you are a coach, be creative with practices and make sure they don’t become too predictable and mundane. The more excited and active you are, your kids will more likely follow suit.
- If you are a parent, help your child find ways to get the most out of practice by setting individual goals you can keep track of in a journal. The more your child invests in his sport, the more focused he will become in practices and games.
Tool Kits for Athletes, Coaches, and Parents here!