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  • Writer's pictureDanny Ourian

Shift Your Focus, Grow Your Game

We all struggle at times. Confusion can supersede confidence. Basketball is a free-flowing game with a ton of information to absorb, internalize and execute on. For instance, your coach put forth a game plan with requirements in the full-court and the half-court, you are toggling between multiple defenses, you need to know where multiple players may be in a given set, and you have to be able to zero in on the rim when you have an open shot with a player closing out at you.

How, then, do you shift your focus and know what to be attending to? First off, reps, reps, reps. Playing the game as much as possible is hugely valuable and can't be replicated. You have to have a template for each situation that might occur so that when similar situations occur you have seen an example of that instance prior. That information, coupled with your ability to process the information, allows you to quickly make decisions. Second, getting coached up on the nuances of the sport is entirely helpful. Watching film with a trusted coach can help you look at different moments of your game with fresh eyes and help you recognize what you can do to gain an advantage in different situations. Third, working with a mental skills coach is highly recommended. Mental skills training can help you recognize what "style" of attention is required in different instances:

Robert Nideffer's model of Attentional Styles (1976) helps us look at different areas of basketball and how the mind can effectively shift attention between the different styles as needed.

A broad-internal focus allows you to analyze your opponent, your game plan, and any relevant competitive strategy. Using this style of attention you might study game film on a particular opponent, watch for tendencies, or review how your game went after the fact. This style of attention is great for coaches and players that like to use analytics to influence how they play. Thinking of you, Shane Battier!

The moment you are transitioning from offense to defense, on either side of the ball, you must immediately enter assessment mode. This style of attention is broad-external and allows you to recognize where the defense is, where your teammates are, and make cat-quick decisions as to the best course of action. This skill will come in very handy for a point guard leading the break or a back-line defender reading the offensive action, but really everyone on the court needs to be able to assess what is going on from a broad-external vantage point.

We know preparation is a key to success. Well, when we are preparing, where is our attention? This is another area where mental skills coaching can be very beneficial. In preparation, our minds can go a hundred different ways. We can be worried about our ability to match-up with our opponent, concerned that a scout will be present, or otherwise distracted by a variety of non-task related thoughts and feelings. By taking time to set your mind properly, you can use your focus to your benefit. Pre-game routines that are consistent and incorporate positive self-talk and cue words/phrases help you create a mindset for performance that is of your choosing. That doesn't mean everything will go your way; it won't. But it does mean that you are bringing a clarity and consistency to the way you are mentally approaching your sport activity. This gets overlooked far and wide, but is a game changer for athletes.

The final piece is using your narrow-external focus to act when needed. The obvious example is shooting in the face of duress, defense, or detractors (i.e. opposing fans). How well you can pinpoint a specific element in execute the task at hand is key to achieving the results you want. This takes practice releasing distractions which abound in the game. It also takes a sharp eye gaze and the ability to effectively reproduce your physical ability. For instance, like Tim Duncan in the photo above, in order to step up to the line and make this free throw, he has to have practiced the physical act of the free throw thousands of times. He has to be able to release any mental distractions that may be arising (previous possession, future possession, fatigue, etc.) and he also must passively block out the external distractions around him (in this case, the fans attempt to hinder his vision of the rim by using those squiggly things. What do you call those? I'm going with squiggly things). I say "passively" because if he is actively thinking about blocking them out he will spend too much mental capacity on doing so.

In this moment, we recognize that the other areas of focus that came before it are beneficial in that free throw. His ability to game plan and mentally practice such a moment, expecting to be distracted and working on releasing those distractions, allows him to have success when the moment arrives. Of course, this does not guarantee he will make the free throw! Many physical components come into the making of the free throw, from hand position, to leg extension, follow-through, wrist snap, and arc on the flight of the ball. What the Big Fundamental can control is his approach beforehand, his free-throw routine, and his ability to release distractions.

How? How do we release distractions. This is where the work of mindfulness is powerfully important to sport performance. By training the muscle of noticing distractions and releasing them, returning over and over again to the breath without judgment, athletes wire the brain to do so in the moment of performance. This is simple but is not easy. It takes practice, just like your free throw!

The ability to focus on the appropriate thoughts and tasks at the appropriate times is perhaps the most critical mental skill we have in sport. Your ability to do so can be trained with regular mental practice. Contact Hoops Minded today for your free 30 minute consultation and to learn how mental skills training can help you improve your game!

Good Luck on your journey.


Coach Dan


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