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Achieving Effective Action, Concentration, and Effort

Keep distracting thoughts and emotions from blocking athletic performance.

Key points

  • Trying to ignore, suppress, or mute thoughts and emotions doesn't work.
  • Inside "noise" (thoughts and emotions) tends to be more distracting to performers than external distractions.
  • The self-awareness of being distracted and the ability to turn attention back to the task at hand is a skill.

“Sport Between the Ears” (SBE) readership served up many thoughtful comments and questions, prompted by the previous SBE article, "Learn What We Control and Don't Control in Sports."

“This is great,” began one such response from Washington, D.C., reader Geoff M. “Please provide some techniques which athletes, surgeons, or businesspeople can apply to help them during practice or preparation, and to use during their ‘game’ to help them focus on the ACE (Actions, Concentration, and Effort), while also either ignoring, muting, or temporarily suppressing the 'noise' coming from what they cannot control?”

Astute questions from a successful businessperson (and a guy I coached on a youth baseball team back in the late 1990s)!

I’ll do my best to answer.

First and Foremost

Begin by understanding that ignoring, muting, or temporarily suppressing the 'noise’ usually doesn’t work. How do you ignore, mute, or suppress 80,000 fans booing you while playing a professional or collegiate football game?

You can’t.

Trying to ignore something like that serves to increase the volume of the distracting noise because attempting to do so increases attention to it. Doing that intensifies whatever you are trying to suppress. Efforts to ignore is like trying to extinguish a fire by pouring gasoline on it. Athletes just don't pay attention to crowd noise because they are focused on playing their game.

Also understand that there are two kinds of ‘noise’: outside noise and inside noise.

Outside noise consists of those things going on around us and detected by our five senses that we internalize. Inside noise consists of the constant flow of thoughts, emotions, and body sensations that we all experience. It's what our mind does.

Outside noise and inside noise have a few things in common. They can both distract and are out of our control.

Most athletes and other performers report that inside noise is as more problematic distraction than outside noise. The ever-present visual and auditory noise provided by spectators usually isn’t an issue, but internal thoughts and associated emotions tend to stick and can be terribly distracting.

Trying to ignore or suppress inside noise produces similar fire-feeding results as the crowd noise example discussed earlier. That’s because it causes us to increase attention on distracting thoughts and emotions. Attempting to make inside noise go away results in repeating to oneself, over and over, something like “forget it, ignore it, don’t listen to it.” We get stuck between our ears, distracting us from our performance.

Try doing this to demonstrate the point: “don’t think about white bears, don’t think about white bears.” What do you notice with that? Are you thinking about white bears? Maybe visualizing white bears gripping bottles of Coca-Cola and rolling around in the snow? White bears were probably the furthest thing from your mind until I told you to not think about them.

The Solution

Get out of your head and into the game.

How to do that? By focusing on what you’re doing. And how to do that? By being present and in the moment. Watch the ball, train your eyes on the field of play, and whatever your performance behaviors are. All that is accomplished with our sensory tools—eyes, ears, touch, and proprioception (the perception of the position and movement of the body).

Trying to ignore, suppress, or mute the uncontrollable inside noise (unworkable thoughts and emotions), as previously demonstrated, only distracts.

Hitting a baseball requires exquisite watching of the ball and its movement. How long does it take for a 90-mile-per-hour fastball to reach home plate? Blink your eyes—that’s how long. Too much focus on inside noise, including efforts to suppress thoughts or emotions, while hitting a baseball will distract and end badly. Instead, do what professional hitters advise: “See ball, hit ball.”

Quarterbacks better keep their eyes downfield. Concentrating on trying to suppress thought, emotion, and outside noise will end in poor decisions, interceptions, sacks, and other undesirable results. Surgeons better keep their eyes on where they are cutting. What happens there is a bit more serious than what happens in a football game.

Athletes at any level are immersed in constant, endless, and potentially distracting outside and inside noise and it's easy to get stuck in it. Learning to perform and not get distracted by it takes enormous effort and training. It’s a skill requiring as much due diligence as learning to hit a baseball or perform open-heart surgery.

How to develop that skill? It starts with improving self-awareness.

Performers—and the rest of us—need to develop the awareness of when they’ve become distracted and pivot their attention back to what they are doing. Distraction, be it from outside or inside stuff, is part of the human experience. It’s going to be there in virtually everything we do, including sports and other skilled endeavors. It is uncontrollable and we can’t make it go away. Unfortunately, our brains do not come equipped with a delete button.

Elite performers—professional athletes, surgeons, military personnel, etc.—are trained to live with inside and outside noise, and are willing to have it, because they understand that it’s an inevitable part of their “game” experience. They have an awareness of when they do become distracted and turn their attention back to what they’re doing with their sensory tools.

Final Thoughts

Control the controllable.

Remember that thoughts and emotions are not under our command. Be aware of being over-focused on unworkable thoughts and emotions and turn your attention back to what you are doing.

Take this advice from a revised version of the serenity prayer: Grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change or control, the awareness of the things I can control (actions, concentration, and effort)—ACE—and the wisdom to know the difference.

Focus on the ACE that produces optimal results. When properly concentrating on the right things (“C”) with eyes, ears, and proprioception, effective action (“A”) and effort ("E) will be enabled.

Slow down, be aware when you’ve become distracted, and turn your attention to the task at hand with your eyes, ears, touch, and proprioception.

Sharpen your awareness of when you’ve become distracted by external or internal noise, and turn your attention back to ACE, instead of trying to ignore, suppress, or mute the uncontrollable.

Source: Ben Watts/Wikimedia Commons
What happens when you try to ignore or suppress unwanted thoughts and emotions.
Source: Ben Watts/Wikimedia Commons

Stop pouring gasoline on your dumpster fires of distraction.

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