Ask Dr. Amy: How Can Focus Help Me Be More Confident?

What is focus, and what can we learn about it from elite performers?

Dr. Amy Athey

By Dr. Amy Athey

focus is a key skill to train for elite performers — so what can we learn from them?

Over the past twenty years, I’ve offered performance mindset coaching to elite performers in business, athletics or tactical fields. Key challenges across performance domains — whether in the Rose Bowl, the high-pressured negotiation table, or simulation training — entail navigating distractions and maintaining optimal focus.

Elite performers have learned (sometimes the hard way!) that breakdowns in focus can result in crucial missed opportunities that could cost them the game or a critical negotiated “win.”

So — what is focus, and what can we learn about it from elite performers? Here are three questions that offer insights we can apply in our own lives.

How do elite performers think about focus?

Focal training has evolved over the years, from concentration grids to tracking lighted up sequences like a game of simon on a large wall board. But there are consistent concepts to understand.

The key elements of attentional processing that have been highlighted by the world’s leading cognitive scientists are:
1) we alert ourselves to the environment
2) we orient to the relevant stimuli (and disengage from the irrelevant stimuli)
3) we sustain our attention by using tools such as emotional regulation.

What does this psychobabble all mean when it comes to focus? Well, in short, elite performers pay attention to what matters most in the moment (W.I.N. — What’s Important Now), and if they get distracted, they quickly disengage from what’s not important and refocus on what is.

For a football player, that could be focusing on the player running the route and then quickly shift to finding the loose ball on the ground. For a presenter, it could be sharing detailed statistical data and then refocusing on addressing the concerns about team processes from the panel’s question before time runs out.

At the end of the day, elite performers utilize strategies to focus on the what matters most in the moment and sustain with refocusing strategies.

"At the end of the day, elite performers utilize strategies to focus on the what matters most in the moment and sustain with refocusing strategies."

What are the keys to improving my focus to boost my confidence?

Confidence is influenced by the information we take in. Perhaps you’re reminding yourself of a successful performance in the past and the key ingredients that contributed to that success. You may be focused on the preparation you engaged in to meet the demands of the moment. Or maybe you shift your present focus to simple cue words reminding yourself of key actions you can take to optimize your performance in the moment. All of these focus targets, arguably, help contribute to confidence.

The key to improving focus is first identifying those pieces of focus that aid confidence compared to those that detract from your confidence.

Then comes practice. Are you aware of the many times during a performance that you have to sort through what is relevant information and what is irrelevant? Do you practice refocusing on the most important cues? Or do you end up focusing (either internally or externally) on information that diminishes your confidence?

Elite performers know that keys to improving focus for confidence are 1) knowing what focal points improve vs diminish confidence and 2) deliberately rehearsing tools to help implement focal cues and distraction management strategies.

"Keys to improving focus for confidence are 1) knowing what focal points improve vs diminish confidence and 2) deliberately rehearsing tools to help implement focal cues and distraction management strategies."

I always start out focused but then I get distracted. How can I refocus to perform better?

Ever hear someone say, “we lost that game because we lost focus?” Well, I would argue that no one really loses focus. When confidence or performance dips, it’s more likely that someone shifted their focus to something that was not helpful. So they were focused — just on the wrong things.

You may have seen your favorite player approach the free throw line with less than a second remaining in the game and their team down by two. The player has a 1 and 1, so they have to make the first shot to be able to shoot for a chance to tie the game. You’re intensely watching the player on TV — and crushed when she misses. Yet you knew the ball wasn’t going in. You can’t find the words to describe how you knew, you just knew.

If you’ve been following this player all season, you know her routine. You know what her approach to the line and pre-performance routine looks like. You know the timing, the rhythm. If we broke down game film, we would likely see some very small shifts.

From my experience discussing these types of performance situations in after-action reviews, players will share that they were aware of some internal dialogue that caused them to “think” more than just “do.” The high performance mindset is a free and clear mindset. It was likely that this player made a subtle shift in attention to a thought that wasn’t helpful or relevant in the moment. And that was all that it took to throw her shot slightly off under pressure.

Elite performers not only use tools to focus on the most relevant things, they also are able to refocus when it matters most. Returning to her tested-and-true pre-performance routine, even if it meant taking an additional thirty seconds before the first shot, could have served your favorite player well.

"The high performance mindset is a free and clear mindset."

How can I practice training my focus?

Consider what often happens when you’re driving on the highway, heading towards your destination. Along the way, you’ll be distracted by many billboards by upcoming exits. Some will even have shiny lights pointing the way, distracting you from paying attention to the traffic ahead.

Usually, if we get distracted, we glance and then refocus back on our destination. What’s key here are two things:

First, we say “hello” and “goodbye” to the distraction. Acknowledge and recenter. Of note, we don’t stay stuck on the billboard. We glance with the hello and then say goodbye.

The second key is to refocus to the road right in front of you. You may have fifty miles to go until you reach your destination. But you refocus on what is important now — in this moment. Not in fifty miles.

So you can practice this! When you catch yourself distracted, try saying goodbye and come back to What’s Important Now — W.I.N. That simple cue can get you back on the road.

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Wrapping up!

We can borrow the tools of high performers to support us during the high pressure performance situations in our own lives. In your day-to-day, start to notice which elements of your routine are increasing, versus diminishing, your focus, and then practice using those tools more consistently to improve your focus. We have to train our focus like a muscle so it’s strong and there for us when we most need it.

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