Keeping your head in the game

Posted by Steven Wills on 05 Nov 2015

Close up of runner about to launch into run

“Is what I’m thinking about pertinent to this situation, or not?”

That’s the question we need to ask ourselves whenever we’re trying to focus, concentrate and hone-in on our task at hand. In sports, focus is absolutely key – how often do you hear commentators referring to someone as ‘in the zone’?

Being ‘in the zone’, from a purely focus-driven point of view isn’t a mystical, far off concept: it’s very real, and very present. It’s about having a single-minded determination on the challenges confronting you, and having an absolute desire to achieve.


Random thoughts

I was racing down in Twizel; in the lightweight double-sculls – and lightweight meant I’d been dieting. I was about second or third, with about 400 metres to go. And all of a sudden, a thought popped into my head: ‘When this is over, I can have a bucket of KFC!’

We can’t control what pops into our heads. Anything can trigger a thought, our senses, our surroundings. Who knows what, in the middle of Lake Ruitaniwha, kicks in a thought about Kentucky Fried.

A lot of the mental anguish people have is caused by distracting themselves in the process of trying to distract themselves from a distraction. Confused?

Imagine a batsman, aware he shouldn’t be thinking about going out tonight. Instead of telling himself ‘that’s not pertinent,’ and re-focusing on the matter at hand, he starts thinking about clouds, trying to distract himself from the thought of going out. But it doesn’t matter, he’s distracted from the task at hand.

Concentrating on keeping that stuff out of your head won’t work. Instead say to yourself ‘not pertinent’ and shift your thoughts back on what you’re meant to be focused on.



It’s not just pure, random distractions that can halt concentration; sometimes, it’s the pressures at hand.

Anyone can ‘do stuff’ – but then, all of a sudden, the pressures come on. Expectations of others, expectations from yourself, worry about injuries or your performance ... all of these pressures can play on your mind.

The issue is that none of these thoughts help you in your endeavours, and instead act as a distraction from the real priorities.

Rod Corbin, a former Wintec sports psychology tutor, in a documentary he did about the English soccer team, showed how pressure affects people. In the documentary, a man was wired up with motion sensor balls, for biomechanical analysis.

The man was then asked to kick a soccer ball into a goal. After a period of time, the researcher told the man that they would send the video of his kicking to a selector. Immediately the man started over-thinking what he was doing, kicked the ball … and broke the camera <oops>.

Dealing with pressure requires effort BEFORE the event. It’s about taking steps. Step, after step, after step.

It might be easy to say that it would have been better to debut Nehe Milner-Skudder against softer opposition than the Rugby Championship winning Australians, but really, having played against all those same players in Super Rugby, it was nothing more than another step-up.

When you’ve built up, step-by-step, to the big stage, you will have learned to deal with both others’ and your own expectations.


Fear of failure

But the biggest distraction, and the biggest pressure, is a fear of failure. Worry.

We turn to Mark Richardson (former Black Cap and now Cricket commentator) for this one: “Once you learn that it’s okay to be nervous, because it means something … then you start to accept that, and that it has to be there.”

Of course you’re worried about losing, but worrying about it isn’t going to make anything easier. It brings us back to that original point; is this thought pertinent?

It’s possible to use fear of failure to your advantage. It leads to a desire to succeed, and a desperation not to fail. That can be a driving factor, and something that can lead to a positive result. But it must not override a determination and focus on the matter at hand.

It’s impossible not to have an emotional motivation, and as Richardson says, to be nervous means something. As long as it’s used in the correct way, it will lead to success.


Keep your mind on the game

Which presents the crux of this post, which applies to all distractions and pressures – expectation-based pressures, worry, injuries, the desire to win and fear of losing. If your thoughts are pertinent, and help drive focus, they’re worthwhile and positive.

But if they’re not pertinent, you need to be focused enough to discard them, and motivated enough to be intensively concentrating on the real matter at hand.

The message is clear: discard impertinent information, and don’t allow distractions to detract from absolute concentration. If it’s pressure that’s a problem, make sure you build up in a way that allows you to cope with that pressure; step up, and up, and up, until you’re ready to succeed.