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What Separates Good from Great, The power of concentration and focus
The great athletes of our time, people like Michael Jordan, Joe Montana, and Carl Lewis, all had amazing physical abilities (strength, stamina, and quickness). But as the true elite of the sporting world, this group also displayed another trait that separated them from even the very talented opponents they faced: the power to concentrate and focus on the task at hand.
Whether it was MJ hitting a game-winning shot with a few seconds left on the clock, Joe Montana throwing a fourth-quarter touchdown pass, or Carl Lewis winning a gold medal in the Olympic 100-meter dash or long jump, these athletes were able to play at their best and to perform at another level in high-pressure situations. World class athletes combine their amazing physical talents with a mental discipline and focus that allows them to separate themselves from other top athletes.
As we know, athletic performance is part physical skill and part mental ability (things such as discipline, determination, confidence, focus, etc.). It can be argued that athletes who excel in one area but not the other will likely not reach their full potential. Most high school, college, and even professional athletes spend most of their time focusing on the physical aspects of the game (weight training, sport-specific training, team practices, endurance work, etc.). By working on the mental part of the game, athletes and coaches can achieve higher levels of success for themselves and their teams, and separate themselves from the competition.
Among other things, higher levels of concentration and focus can allow athletes to:
Outperform opponents who may have superior athletic abilities
Consistently perform at higher levels (i.e. not mentally drifting in and out of a game)
Succeed when it matters most (i.e. hitting a game winning free-throw or shot with a few seconds left on the clock)
Work smarter in practices and the off-season (i.e. getting the most out of practice and workout time)
By focusing on the moment and blocking out external distractions (the actions or words of an opponent, crowd noise, feelings of self-doubt, etc.), athletes put themselves in a mental state that allows their physical ability to flow without the mind getting in the way. Have you heard the phrase "paralysis by analysis"? It means that when you think or analyze something too much, your mind gets in the way, and doesn't allow you to perform like you normally would (like you have practiced over and over again in low-pressure situations).
When athletes perform at optimal levels, you often hear them describe that they were in "the zone", and that things happened almost as if they were in slow motion. This is the classic description of being focused and being in the moment.
So how can a coach or athlete teach or improve the mental part of the game? Here are some proven methods that will help you perform better when it matters most:
Practice being in pressure situations - Like anything else in life, the more you do something, the more likely you are to get better at it. So put yourself in situations that force you to focus and perform under pressure. Play against opponents that are better, faster, and stronger than you so that you have to perform at a high level. During the summers, play in leagues that mimic what it will be like during the regular season (where there are referees, fans, etc.), so that it feels a lot like a regular season game and puts pressure on you to perform. The more you practice performing well under high-pressure situations, and the more you perform well in these situations, the more accustomed you will be to performing under pressure.
Visualization - Top athletes will visualize themselves performing and succeeding in stressful situations over and over again before a game (and even during the off-season). You have probably heard professional athletes say they saw themselves performing at their highest potential even before it happened. If you visualize yourself performing well over and over again, your mind will start to become more familiar with being successful, and stressful situations that happen in real life will not seam so foreign to you. Visualize yourself performing well, and you'll start to see yourself becoming more focused, and better able to perform under duress during games and competition.
Confidence - Another key differentiator between top athletes and the rest of the pack is that typically the best-of-the-best have such unwavering confidence in their abilities that the little things that throw most of us off track don't faze them. For the good or average athlete, missing a few shots, getting off to a bad start, or not feeling our best that day might spiral into a really bad day where nothing goes right. Top athletes regroup, re-focus and get back on the winning track more quickly and more consistently than those who waver in their confidence levels. Elite athletes walk onto the court or playing field knowing they are the best, knowing they will dominate, and then make it happen. If you walk out onto the court unsure of yourself, or uncertain of your abilities, you'll most likely get beat by someone who has unflinching certainty about their ability to succeed, even if you have better skills and talent.
Great athletes have the ability to focus and perform at their peak even under the most stressful of situations. Practice performing under duress, visualize yourself succeeding, and approach your game with unwavering confidence and the mental part of your game will go a long way towards boosting your performance levels.
Patrick Chylinski is a former college and professional basketball player. He is now a private success coach based in Los Angeles. His website: www.basketballsuccess.com has tips for basketball players on how to improve the mental and physical aspects of their game.