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Managing Distractions In Competition and Practice

Uncategorized Jan 17, 2018

“One way to boost our willpower and focus is to manage our distractions instead of  letting them manage us”  -  Daniel Goleman

How often do we find ourselves doing damage control in our roles as “athletes, coaches, sport psychology consultants, parents or teammates” and merely reacting to the challenges we face in sport during an event?

Granted we can’t control everything, but taking time to think about it provides a unique learning opportunity to create positive training habits.

We all get easily distracted, in fact, this week I was watching a professional tennis match and the athletes were continuously wiping sweat from their forehead, hydrating, resetting, and consistently adjust to the sunlight.  I was distracted just watching it!

As many of you know, the Aussie Open just started and one of the major factors in preparation for this elite tennis event is handling the environment - specifically the weather.  Well we can’t control the weather…. and every sport possesses exclusive obstacles… but what do we do when we get in these situations and how do we proactively prepare for them? Perhaps the weather is not an adversary to some, but preparing athletes for any form of distraction during indoor or outdoor competition is essential.

So how do you deal with this? Athletes are faced with distractions all the time: whistles, weather, ice/field conditions, malfunctioning equipment, loud noises from crowds, unfortunate calls by referees, injuries and the list continues….. In our field, we talk a lot about “Controlling the Controllables” but how do we do that when some things just seem so uncontrollable?

Well, we start with looking at what we can control and our reaction to these distractions.

Helpful Hints:

Be Prepared:  When and where are you competing?  What are some of the challenges you may face in this environment?  Have you experienced this before?  Is there any opportunity to practice handling these distractions in training?  

The best example I can think of is Michael Phelps stating that he would swim with broken goggles just in case it happened in competition – he had a plan and knew how to work through it.  Interestingly enough, this happened to him in one of his races at the Beijing Olympics and he knew exactly what to do.

Limit Catastrophizing:  Simplify solutions and go back to the plan. What can I actually do in this situation?  Keep it straightforward and go BACK TO ROUTINES!  Trust the training and the ROUTINE!

Take Care of Your Body & Brain:  Make sure you are fueled – physically and mentally.  Do I have the resources to handle the obstacles that may be placed ahead of me?

 Stay Focused on What You Can Control!

Identify Aspects of Surrounding Environment: What may come into play? Lights, Camera, Unwanted Sounds?  Am I aware of the space and distance between performing and the crowd?  What will I do if I hear things I am not prepared to hear?  If at all lost - go back to the reference of the 5 senses.  What could I possibly encounter (smell, sound, feel, taste and see).  Familiarize yourself so you can react the way you want! 

Simulate Training Environments: Try to include one aspect of managing distraction into training.  If possible, find a similar environment to mimic your performance.  I often have swimmers train their races with the actual sound of the starting whistle.  We will also have a run through of their routines (pre-competition, pre-race & post-race) prior to their competition practice time.

Implement Mental Training into Practice!

Visualization: Have athletes use visualization to see themselves train and compete in this specific environment with surrounding distractions prior to competition.

Routines: Remind athletes to use their same routines despite what they may experience.  If distractions become overwhelming, discuss options to adapt their routines early on prior to competition.

Collaboration: Talk about concerns and potential distractions with coach.  Have a back up plan!

 After event, take time to review what you learned and how you may handle this in the future so you are better prepared next time!

Taking 15-20 minutes to critically review distractions once you get to an event better equips you to handle out of the ordinary experiences when they do arrive. Train your athletes to become comfortable with the uncomfortable so that when they are faced with: the prolific sound of a cowbell, melting ice, broken laces or a faulty ventilation system, managing these realistic encounters are not the primary focus – performing is.

Reflection Piece:

Coaches: When you prepare with your athlete for their next competition, what is one thing you can do to better manage distractions that may be completely out of their control prior to their performance?

Athletes: What distractions do you need to starve and what is one thing you can primarily focus on that tends to be a constant struggle in your competition environment?


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