It’s generally understood that better focus leads to better athletes. Think about the steely-eyed marathon runner or the rapt attention of a pro-golfer before taking a putt. However, when someone is instructed to ‘focus,’ the suggestion is that their focus is presently off – that they aren't focused – and they just need to turn it on; as though focus were as simple as flipping a light switch.
However, this is an unhelpful and inaccurate model of our attention. As living, breathing humans, our focus is more like a flashlight: It's always on – we're always focused on something. It's just a question of where we choose to shine the light of our attention, writes sports psychology coach Greg Chertok, M.Ed.
If this is the case, then athletes who want to improve their performance should reframe the question from “How can I focus better” to “How can I better focus on what’s important.”
We asked experts in psychology and sports for their input on uncommon, but effective means for harnessing focus that can build better athletes and received an array of suggestions that you — or the sporty folks in your life — should check out.
Memory Practice Boosts Mental Focus
Dr. Anthony Metivier, a memory expert who competes in memory competitions, considers the practice a form of mental athletics. He is the founder of the Magnetic Memory Method, a systematic approach to memorizing information such as foreign language vocabulary, names, faces, numbers, and poetry.
“An important aspect of this is the mental focus made available by deliberate practice,” says Metivier.
The term is used often in sports science and is often defined as practicing according to specific steps or instructions. Dedicated practice is planned, based on small component parts, and improvement is meticulously tracked by capturing data.
This data is then used for the individual person engaged in the practice to help them further improve by dialing down even deeper on key areas that require improvement. [Here's Metivier’s TEDx Talk on his work in this area.]
Fixed Point Gazing Can Improve Mental Concentration
According to MyYogaTeacher instructor Rohan Shroff, you can improve mental concentration or focus with a simple at-home exercise known as"fixed point gazing” (aka candle gazing). Done for a few minutes each week, Shroff says it will also help with your physical/athletic performance.
Called Trataka in Sanskrit, which means ‘gaze,’ the practice is believed to bring energy to one’s third eye (sixth chakra) while improving vision, memory, and concentration. “Trataka" is a centuries-old yogic purification practice that involves staring at a single point, in many cases a fixed point or candle flame.
A 2014 study found that Trataka improved cognitive functions in older people (ages 60-80) over a period of 1 month. Rohan has also witnessed improvement in his students’ health when they integrate candle gazing with their physical yoga practice.
“By practicing Trataka, it’s very possible to reduce stress, anxiety, and depression, as well as sharpen vision, mental clarity, and focus, by gazing at a candle, for a couple of minutes once to several times a week,” says Shroff who teaches candle gazing as part of his breathing and meditation courses in MyYogaTeacher’s live group sessions.
According to Rohan, Trataka has three types of benefits:
- Physical benefits - It keeps away the eye strain by improving the stamina of eye muscles and giving deep relaxation to them. It cleanses the tear glands and purifies the optical system, making the eyes clear, bright, and radiant.
- Therapeutic benefits - Errors of refraction get corrected. It strengthens the ability of the eye lens to adjust better to distances. It balances the nervous system, relieving tension, anxiety, depression, and insomnia.
- Spiritual benefits - It helps to develop intense concentration and improves mental clarity, focus, and memory. It helps to develop a strong inner will-power. It is also an excellent preparation for meditation.
Hypnosis for Sports Performance Enhancement
Studies show that sport hypnosis is effective in helping athletes to develop and maintain the appropriate states of mind and concentration needed for peak performance as well as increasing their actual ability to perform, says Eli Bliliuos, a certified hypnotist who specializes in helping athletes perform at the highest level by improving concentration and eliminating anxiety or hesitation.
“Whether it is overcoming a mental block, building a sharper focus for mental imagery, or increasing self-confidence, sport hypnosis has been helping athletes and coaches engage in an elusive but effective mental process to improve training and performance for more than 100 years,” notes the Journal of Psychology & Clinical Psychiatry.
For instance, in 1956, the Soviet athletic team traveled with 11 hypnotists to the Melbourne Olympics. Heavyweight boxing champion Ingmar Johannson used hypnosis training before his 1959 winning match against Floyd Patterson. In 1984, Mary Lou Retton underwent hypnosis. That year she won the American Classic gold medal at the LA Olympics.
“Competition always includes some feelings of anxiety. Anxiety initiates the body’s stress response, which gives that boost of energy to compete. Unfortunately, anxiety can also cause athletes to “choke”—underperforming during a critical situation. Hypnosis can help athletes to control their anxiety and get into “the zone,” allowing the focus to hone in on everything it takes to win and nothing else,” says Bliliuos. “Hypnosis bypasses the clutter and targets your subconscious, training it to respond to ‘cues’ and place the rest of the mind and the body into the zone, ready for competition.”
Neurofeedback Brain Training and Peak Performance
Years of scientific research support the effectiveness of neurofeedback as a non-invasive, non-drug way to change the way your brain functions. By monitoring brainwave activity using electrodes on the scalp (electroencephalography, or EEG), neurofeedback gives personalized feedback about the brain’s inner workings. Recently, people have begun to recognize the power that this form of brain training can bring to healthy individuals in achieving peak performance in sports and athletics.
Over the past 20 years, more and more pro sports figures have used neurofeedback for daily mental training as a means of achieving the ultimate competitive edge. The Wall Street Journal has reported how neurofeedback helped beach volleyball stars Kerri Walsh-Jennings and Misty May-Treanor to win the London 2012 Olympic gold medal.
Members of the Italian soccer team that won the World Cup in 2006 credited neurofeedback and other biofeedback training to their win. To prepare for the tournament, the footballers used neurofeedback techniques to train focus, concentration and for “getting into the zone.” Italian pro soccer team AC Milan, Spanish team Real Madrid, and UK team Chelsea have since added neurofeedback to their team training.
How does neurofeedback lead to better athletic performance? Research shows that the underlying rationale behind neurofeedback training is based largely on the associations made between optimal performance states and the associated brain patterns. In other words, training your brain to promote those brain patterns that relate to higher performance will actually increase your performance in real life.
Visualization: See Yourself Winning
Marnie Kunz, a NASM-certified trainer and USATF and RRCA-certified running coach and the founder of Runstreet agrees that mental focus has a big effect on performance and cites ample evidence to support the idea of 'mind over matter,’ including instances of injured athletes who still beat the competition through sheer willpower.
Kunz encourages people to try visualization, a mental exercise similar to meditation but where you use imagery to ‘experience’ your performance in your mind and prepare to feel strong throughout the experience. Legendary coach Phil Jackson used visualization to lead his NBA players to many championships, for example.
Many meditation apps, like Calm, have sports visualization options, or you can go old school and do it on your own. To do this, she suggests first creating a quiet space, putting on a relaxing soundtrack, and doing some deep breathing.
“Then you picture yourself at your event and you use all senses — sight, sound, touch, smell — , etc -- to experience the event. You picture your competition and surroundings and feel yourself performing well and feeling strong,” says Kunz. “I recommend doing meditation every morning and then when you are training for a particular event, do visualization in the weeks leading up to the event.”
From fixed point gazing, to neurofeedback, to memory practice, it turns out exercising your gray matter might be just as important as building strength in your limbs when it comes to getting an athletic edge. Whether you’re an amateur runner or professional athlete, it’s worth considering how your brain performance is impacting your physical performance. Maybe before your next golf tournament, you should spend a few minutes visualizing yourself making that tough putt. It could mean the difference between a birdie and a par four.