5 Ways Athletes Leverage Focus to Perform at Their Best

As a leader, whether on the track or in the boardroom, it's easy to fall into the trap of using past performance and visible cues to correlate success. Turns out, it's a lack of self-knowledge that holds people back.

5 Ways Athletes Leverage Focus to Perform at Their Best

Work Smarter, Not Harder!

That is my least favorite advice, and it's one of the most common. It's used for sports and work.

Better work isn't actually about work at all.

Better work is about focus.

Athletes -- you know this. You know what it feels like to be in the zone, to have a "no-chain" day on the bike when things are humming. Every pitched ball moves in slow-motion. The hoop seems bigger. The wind dies down right as you make contact.

This has nothing to do with working harder at all. This flow state is only developed through focus.

Focus Wins As It Is A Life Skill

As a coach of age group athletes for twenty years, I've been continuously fascinated by how the athletes I would least expect could sometimes out-train and out-perform their over-qualified peers.

Unsurprisingly, this success also manifested itself in the workplace and at home. In other words, these athletes' skills weren't just physical gifts. These were strategies and techniques that could be used in any environment.

A Degenerate Gambler

Every year I handpick 5 to 10 athletes who I believe will really see gains. It's a small wager I have against myself.

The goal? To see if I can single out the athletes who have what it takes to achieve their goals.

For the first ten years of my coaching career, I was an abject failure at this game. I was lucky to pick two out of the 10. The criteria I believed to be important had zero predictive power.

As their coach, I could see all manner of data. I knew their athletic history. I had access to their schedules. I could see how much they slept, when they took days off, and even what they ate during training.

It still didn't matter.

Turns out that physical gifts, unlimited finances, and a strong constitution had minimal impact. I was looking in all the wrong places.

Focus on the Inputs, Not the Outcomes

As a leader, whether on the track or in the boardroom, it's easy to fall into the trap of using past performance and visible cues to correlate success.

However, success in the past does not guarantee success in the future. And physical gifts, while valuable, are just that - gifts. Whether or not a person can use them effectively is entirely different.

So it has to be intelligence, right? The smartest win?

Interestingly enough, access to expert knowledge is rarely the limiting factor of performance.

Turns out, it's a lack of self-knowledge that holds people back.

By taking the time to understand ourselves and our unique strengths and weaknesses, we can better position ourselves for success in any setting.

Here are five ways you can do just that.

Focus Technique #1: Rest

Arguably, this is the most important technique. Without rest, proper sleep, and recovery, achieving a focused state for physical and mental performance is impossible.

Cumulative fatigue -- the kind that shows up when you're doing work but not recovering from it -- is insidious. It's like the frog in a pot of slowly boiling water. You don't realize how bad things are until they're too bad to fix.

When you accumulate a sleep deficit, you are compromising the operational capacity of the infrastructure that allows you to focus. Sleep deprivation has been shown at significant levels to be equal to or worse than being legally drunk.

Before you can even start to approach the concept of leveraging focus to improve your outcomes, you must establish baseline levels for proper rest.

A sleep-deprived person cannot focus attention optimally and therefore cannot learn efficiently. Sleep itself has a role in the consolidation of memory, which is essential for learning new information. [link]

Here are some basic guidelines:

  • Seven hours is for survival. Eight is for performance. Enough said.
  • Set a Go To Bed Time - Don't do math every night, just nail this.
  • Track Your Sleep Data - See how you do over time and how it correlates with your performance (and mood, overall health, etc.)

Focus #2: Visualization

Visualization is a common strategy for athletes looking to improve, but few get it right.

Most athletes mistakenly go to the outcomes. They focus on the end of the story. Crossing the finish line, touching home plate, the huge celebration in the center of the court.

That may give you good vibes, but it's not productive.

Good visualization targets the work that you do. The work which separates a great performance from a good one.

  • If you're an author, it's writing.
  • If you're a podcaster, it's speaking.
  • If you're a student, it's studying or test taking.
  • If you're a parent, it's disciplining your child or loving on them.

Know those key areas because they are precisely what you want to focus in on with your visualization.

Create the narrative for the event in your mind and how you want it to happen.

Don't worry about it being perfect. That never happens on your first try. Instead, this will iterate over time as you "replay the episode" in your mind. Do this either at the end of the day or before the big moment.

Visualization stimulates brain regions involved in movement rehearsal, priming the brain and body for action and, like physical practice, functions as training to improve real-life performance. [link]

Here are some basic guidelines:

  • Know Your Key Work - What are those moments?
  • Watch Your Self Work for Five Minutes - Cultivate the "removed and slightly elevated" perspective to understand who you are when you work.
  • Create a Highlight Reel - Collect and save those moments on your mental list for when you need them.

Focus #3: Music

Music is also a powerful tool for creating focus. It's tricky, however, because music has also been used to get people amped up and excited. If you've ever gone to a professional sports game, you know! The key here is to find the right music.

  • The first step is to make sure that you're not choosing music that you actually love. Instead, we want to choose music that puts us in the right mood.
  • Do you need to be reflective?
  • Do you need to be calm?
  • Do you need to be dialed in?
  • Do you need to be on edge or relaxed?
  • Do you need to be open and reflective?

Choose the music that puts you in that state.

Go ahead and create a playlist, and save it to your phone, or your laptop. Have options for every scenario; by all means, make sure you have a pair of soundproof headphones to block out all the other distractions!

Sixty-four percent of (students) who listen to music said they had an easier time taking tests, and 80% felt more prepared for class on a regular basis. [link]

Here are some basic guidelines:

  • Don't Choose Music You Love - You'll end up singing they day away (and possibly dancing too!).
  • Create Playlists - Curate options for every scenario.
  • Sound Proof Headphones - Great for tunes and for being left alone when focusing!

Focus #4: Mantra

Not everyone has a mantra. Even people who do will rarely tell you. Why? Mostly because it doesn't make sense to anybody else.

So let's start there. Make sure that it matters to you. Don't worry about putting this on a billboard somewhere for the world to see.

We use mantras in specific moments. Moments of resistance and anxiety, moments where we're about to topple off and lose our balance.

At that pivotal time when the crowd is on their feet, when adrenaline is pumping through your veins when you're most stressed...that's when you reach for your mantra.

Start by identifying that moment.

It's possible you already did this under the inflection visualization period from earlier. Identify the characteristics that matter to you here. What key actions are you taking? What emotions are you cultivating?

All of this allows you to come up with the adjectives and the verbs, the words that make this mantra unique to you.

By giving your mind a mantra to concentrate on it becomes more focused and so doesn't jump around from subject to subject, allowing you to relax into your meditation without constant distraction. Think of it like giving your mind a toy to play with, to keep it occupied. [link]

Here are some basic guidelines:

  • Dial In on The Inflection Point - What will reach you through the noise?
  • Make it Memorable - It should stand out to you in your moment of challenge, like your favorite shirt or your car in a crowded parking lot.
  • Use it Frequently - This isn't just for emergencies. Say it when you start work. Or when you take a break. Or when you need to bounce back!

Focus #5: Rituals

Rituals are last on the list because they are both underappreciated and also overly hyped.

We are all aware of professional athletes or performers who have unique rituals. Maybe they step in and out of the batting box 3 times. Maybe they dribble the basketball 3 times with the right hand and then 3 times with the left hand before shooting a foul shot. Maybe there's a specific way they place water bottles around the court.

All of these elements are often considered to be superstitious, but in reality, are much more about creating conditions for success.

It's about putting in the pieces of your performance, plugging it into the rest of the day.

I mention the athletes and performers because, like them, you also will be performing. You'll be doing something, the work that's so important.

Starting with your equipment is one option. Do you use a laptop, or do you actually write with a pen and paper? How do you begin the process of going to work?

Or maybe it's a place? Do you work at home? Or do you have a special place like the library?

Remember, the most straightforward ritual is the one where you start.

What are the key steps that you take when you start so that you get into the zone where you are locked in and focused? Do you use your mantra at that time? Or do you do something in particular?

A great example of this is an anecdote about a father coming home from work.

He wanted to make sure that he didn't bring work issues into the house. So when he got out of his car and was walking to the front door., he made sure to stop by the tree in the front yard and physically pretend to hang his work on the tree before he went inside. This way, the dad knew that work was outside the house and off-limits.

In support of our hypothesis, we found the brain showed reduced activation in response to these personal failures, but only after completing the ritual.

In other words, we show that rituals desensitize the brain’s anxiety-related reaction to error, mitigating the negative experience of personal failure. [link]

Here are some basic guidelines:

  • Review Your Work "Equipment" - Are there things you set up on the daily -- or use -- that could be part of a ritual?
  • Focus on the Starting Point -- This could be the start of the day. Or could be restarting. Use these rituals to begin (and even end) your most important work.
  • Strive for Consistency - A ritual is only a ritual when you do it on the regular! Practice makes focus. (See what I did there?)