The F Word
"Focus!" It's another one of the coaching commands we say or hear all the time like, "Relax!" or "Throw strikes!" Like both of the other commands, we demand this of our players but rarely address how or what to focus on. I've never heard of a player who did not want to focus. Telling them to do so is meaningless without them knowing how and what to focus on. That being said, focus is a weakness of many young players. This is something that has probably become more and more of a concern as our society has changed into such a fast-paced, technology-centered way of life. I do not say that to complain. The fact of the matter is it just makes educating players about proper focus all that much more important.
So, how do we go about teaching focus? The topic itself is so broad that making it manageable is a challenge. For me, it starts with understanding how players best perform. In speaking with and reading about athletes and their best games, the common answer when questioned about what they were thinking is "Nothing." Although I have my questions about whether this is revisionist history on the part of the athletes, best performances are rooted in a free flowing state we call "the zone" in which there is tremendous clarity of the mind. "Nothing" is very much a possibility within the actual pitch or play, and reacting is what occurs. Klay Thompson's 38 point quarter Friday night is a great example of "the zone." What stands out to me in watching the clips is how loose he is and how much he is truly enjoying the moment.
I digress though. "The zone" is an awesome place to be, but the fact of the matter is we will not be there too often. Trusting preparation and playing freely will increase our chances, among other things, but let's talk about focus during the other ninety percent of the time or so that we play. The first piece of information to consider is that the brain can only focus on one thing at a time. But you're a multitasker who can focus on five things at once? No, you're not. What is really going on is your brain is bouncing around constantly among those five things. The visual I get in my head is a personified version of the brain standing in the middle of a circle of people. Those people represent the five things being thought about. The brain is shuttling back and forth rapidly, maybe in fast-forward mode with the orchestra playing in the background, trying to hold those five conversations all at once. What is undoubtedly happening is the brain is missing bits and pieces of the conversations and is really absent in all instead of being present in one.
So, we can only focus on one thing at a time. Where should my focus be then? Here are some tips for where to have focus before going into specific examples:
1. Stay in the PRESENT moment. Focus on what you need to do on this pitch or this play. Thinking about past results or future consequences gets us out of the moment and away from our present focus.
2. Focus on what you want to do. Be POSITIVE in your plan. A great takeaway from a presentation I saw Geoff Miller give recently that may help a lot of players out there is that negative self-talk, although not ideal, is okay. G's point was that accepting negative thoughts is much better than not doing so. It's unrealistic to expect players to have 100% positive thoughts. Perfectionists, if that is what they are demanded of, will take that to heart and beat themselves up over a negative thought. This ultimately will lead to more and more and more instead of a simple acceptance and moving on. That being said, you want to be positive in your plan of focus.
3. Focus on what you can CONTROL. This is simple but incredibly important. "See the baseball" instead of "get a hit." "Hit a spot" instead of "Strike this mother guy out" (edited Major League reference). Urgency creates tension. When we get result-oriented within the moment, tension often occurs.
4. KNOW what to do in the situation. Many of us have been there before. We are unsure of the signs, of a pick play, or of where to go to the ball if it is hit to me right here. All of those go into proper preparation. Neglect can lead to the brain bouncing around and taking away from our focus. Know what to do, and then let it happen.
5. Stay EXTERNAL. This is getting away from thoughts on mechanics, thoughts about how you feel in the moment, or thinking about how you look. It's staying task-oriented on this pitch. "See the ball" again instead of "I've got to keep my shoulders level and my eye on the ball." Again, trusting the preparation you have put in is vital to this ability.
5. COMMIT to your plan, and expect success. One of my favorite concepts I've heard talked about by pitching guys goes something like, "The wrong pitch, thrown with conviction, is better than the right pitch thrown without it." Commit to your plan for that pitch. I feel like a broken record, but this is where trust is again so vital to performance.
So, what are some examples of what to focus on? As a hitter, it may be as simple as "See the baseball," or "See the spin." "Hit the ball hard." "Make solid contact." "Just react right here." All are simple and meet the characteristics we are looking for. As a pitcher, "Hit a spot" or "To the mitt" are again about as simple as it gets and as much as you need. It's away from mechanics and results. It's present and under our control. As a base stealer, "Read the foot," "Read the feet," or whatever else you may teach as a coach. The thought is away from not getting picked off or even steal the base. You're seeing and reacting. Ultimately, most of the different choices of what to focus on as a player all come down to what terminology you find best resonates with you. The tips will help you find that.
Now, what can I do if I find my mind wandering or racing, and my focus is fleeting from the moment? Some of your choices are to resort to focal points (go to 7:18 for more), breathing, and stepping out of the box or off the mound to recommit to your plan. Whatever ultimately works for you is great. Acceptance of the situation and allowing it to be okay that your mind is racing is probably the most effective. It allows you to move on instead of getting stuck or the racing to continue.
In conclusion, focus is a skill just like many of the other concepts I've discussed on the blog. You can work on it. The more you are able to control your focus as a player the more likely it will help you when you need it. Consistency is also much more attainable with being able to do so. Challenge yourself to work on your focus. As you are sitting in class, try locking in on something using the characteristics discussed within the blog. A lot of people like the use of concentration grids. The concept behind them is going through and marking out the numbers in order. Variations like timing the activity and adding distractions like loud music can help as well. Work on focus in practice. As you are doing defensive BP, truly treat it gamelike in your way of thinking as a player with working your focus from pitch to pitch. With a little bit of purposeful work, you can turn focus into a weapon you use instead of an excuse.