Focus is something that is mentioned every single day in sport but what does it actually mean?
“Focus: pay particular attention to.”
Although this is the Oxford Dictionary’s definition of focus, it is very vague and could mean anything when we apply it to sport. There is often confusion when it is said during training, as focus could mean hundreds of different things. I know my self that I use the word focus more than 20 times a day at my job whilst training and coaching hockey but what do I actually mean? By looking at the photo above it is easy to say that all players are focused on the ball but is this what I mean when I tell the girls to focus? No.
Unfortunately due to the vagueness of the word focus it is often required that I explain what I would like my players to focus on. Something that I say to my ladies 1st team before very game is translated to “Focus on your own game”. What I mean by this is not that they focus on how they are playing but instead ignore what other around them are doing. Why do I and many other coaches say ‘focus on…’ when we actually mean ‘do not focus on…’? This is simply because it is easier to say ‘focus on one thing’ than listing the things that are not relevant. A example of this which happened only last week was a practice match one of my players was struggling to find people in the field to pass to, so I told her to “Focus on keeping the ball under control while running with the ball”. This is because that while you are moving the dynamic elements of the game become more obvious to you as you are part of the whole moving mechanism. What I actually meant when telling her this is that she needs to ignore many things in order to be comfortable and find a pass (ignoring; the other team, the crowd, her team mates and many other things). As you can see telling her to focus on one thing is a lot easier to say. There is a name for this type of focus where you ignore things that are not important and it’s name is Prime Focus.
Prime Focus (or Selective Attention): Is where an athlete pays attention to important sensory information while ignoring information which is not relevant.
Biologically it is very important for the nervous system to filter information before it reaches the brain because your brain does not have the capacity to process all information it receives at once. An example of this is if you are preparing for long jump in a stadium full of supports screaming and shouting. A very famous example of this is a test involving players passing a basketball and you are required to count how many passes they make. (Link to video) Without going in to too much detail for those who have not seen the video before, the video gives a very quick and clear example of how our brains ignore certain things in order to focus on what is important (the number of passes from one team). Looking back at the definition of Prime Focus there is a part of the sentence which is very significant word: “…pays attention to important sensory information…”. What makes Prime Focus so valuable in sport is that the players have taught their brain to filter out the unimportant things so they are able to use more capacity on other things such as vision, movement or communication.
In order to teach players to be able to Prime Focus during matches you need to take a step back and look at what is important in the first place. Whilst training my ladies team during the indoor hockey season we were practicing a tactic where you press the left defender depending on the situation. If my forwards pressed the player while there were two opponents in the middle of the field this would have been very dangerous for us. What the players needed to asses quickly while under pressure was how many players the other team had in the middle. It sounds quite simple enough but adding all the distractions to this task it becomes quite difficult. If I asked my players to ignore everything except assessing the amount of players in the midfield they would become useless slugs standing still and doing nothing. Instead of telling them to only focus on the midfield I told them to ignore certain things, unimportant things, Prime Focus. By ignoring the other positions of the opponent it becomes second nature to the players when they should press or relax, this in part was one of the reasons they won 7-1 & 7-0 in our last two games. The Prime Focus was so apparent they became autonomous and pressed without instructions.
This leads me on to explain how you can teach your players/your self Prime Focus whilst participating in any sport. I will give some easy examples to try with your teams that do not require huge amounts of money and state of the art lab equipment. In order to train your ability to ignore unimportant stimuli during matches you will also need to replicate these during your training in order to learn to ignore them. By giving constant and structured stimuli to the players while training is a great option, here are some examples that you could do during training when it is important to focus on a task and ignore certain outside factors:
- Audio Distraction: Some body shouts to the players incorrect/correct orders and the players in the field have to make the right decision whilst ignore the person shouting. (Only shouting “Pass Left” every time a player(s) get the ball.)
- Visual Distraction: By adding extra visual queues during an exercise will cause players to take more time to figure out which things they see are important/unimportant. (For example adding many different coloured cones within the exercise that are not needed.)
- Physical Distraction: This is where the players have to ignore physical demands their body. This will also include fatigue which decreases the capacity to filter unimportant queues away from the important ones. (For example asking the players to run shuttles then performance a skill which requires filtering of information whilst still tired from running.)
Coaches and players say focus many times a day but it very important to work out what we are actually meaning. Prime Focus: Quickly and effectively filtering out unimportant information in order to focus on what is truly important at that time. Fortunately this can be trained and is not hard to do so thus giving players lots of un-lockable potential in regards to performance.