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In Sports, Results Matter, But to Get Them, Ignore Them

Focus on the process and the results will come.

There are a lot of misconceptions about the role of results in achieving your athletic goals. Of course, you need good results to be successful, but the question is how to go about getting those results and, ironically, the answer is not what coaches, athletes, and parents often think.

First, I want to define ‘outcome’ and ‘process.’ An outcome focus involved focusing on results, rankings, and beating others. Notice that this focus is on things outside of you. A process focus involves focusing on what you need to do perform your best such as preparation, technique, or tactics. In contrast to an outcome focus, a process focus is entirely on you.

Now it’s time to discuss the paradox of outcome focus. Most people think that, to get the results you want, you need to focus on those results. But, and here’s the paradox, by having an outcome focus actually reduces the chances of your achieving the results you want. Here’s why. First, when does the outcome of a competition occur? At the end, of course. If you’re focused on the outcome, you aren’t focused on the process, namely, what you need to do to perform your best from the start to the finish of the competition. Second, what makes you nervous before a competition, the process or the outcome? The chances are it’s the outcome, more specifically, a bad outcome such as not winning or achieving your goals. The bottom line is that when you focus on the outcome, you are far less likely to get the outcome you want.

In contrast, when you focus on the process, you increase your chances of getting the results you want. If you focus on the process, that is, what you need to do to perform your best, how you are likely going to perform? Pretty well, you can assume. And if you perform well, you’re more likely to achieve the result you wanted in the first place.

Here is my wish for you: never think about results. In an ideal world, I would like you to be entirely process focused and basically never have results cross your mind.

Here’s another wish. In that ideal world I mentioned above, I would have parents and coaches never talk about results either. The fact is there is no point. You know when you’ve had a good competition and you definitely know when you’ve had a bad one. If you’re like most athletes, when your parents and coaches talk about results, you hear their chatter as expectations, pressure, or disappointment.

Parents, good or bad competition, give your children a hug, tell them you love them, and ask them if they’re hungry. If you’re too excited about a good performance or too disappointed in a bad one, stay the heck away from your children because they will sense your emotions no matter how hard you try to mask them.

Coaches, if your athletes had a good day, don’t say “good job.” Instead, help them understand why they performed well. If they had a bad day, pat them on the back, tell them you still believe in them, and help them figure out how to perform better in the next competition.

Here’s where the real world collides with the ideal world that I wish existed. We don’t live in an ideal world and until someone invents a “process pill”, it’s not likely that you can expunge results from your mind. In the real world, results do matter. As an athlete, you are competitive and you probably do have some big outcome goals.

I don’t expect you to not think about results. In fact, I’m going to assume that you are going to think about results a lot. So, knowing that an outcome focus actually hurts your cause, your challenge is what to do when your mind does fixate on results.

First, become aware that you are focusing on the outcome. There’s no magic to this; you just have to monitor your thinking and notice your outcome focus. Once you see that you are thinking about results, you can take steps to get your mind off of them.

Recognize that you can only focus on one thing at a time, so if you can replace your outcome focus with a focus on something else, you have stopped yourself from thinking about results. Ideally, you want to refocus on the process, specifically, something that will enable you to perform your best, but sometimes, focusing on anything other than results (e.g., music, school, food) will do the trick.

Go through your routine (in practice or competitions). The purpose of a routine is to get yourself totally prepared to perform your best and, if well ingrained, to trigger thoughts, emotions, and physiology that will help you perform well. So, by going through your routine, you are reminded of the process and it takes your mind off of results.

Do mental imagery. If you are focused on the thoughts, feelings, and images of performing well, you’re not focused on results. Plus, the imagery will increase your motivation and confidence, help you reach your ideal intensity, and get your body primed to train or compete.

If you just can’t shift your mind from outcome to process, the best thing you can do is get out of your mind completely. In other words, distract yourself by talking to others, listening to music, goofing around, anything that will prevent you from thinking about results.

Finally, remind yourself why you compete, for example, for the love of competition, being with your teammates, or just plain having fun. This change gets you out of thinking mode and into feeling mode, generating powerful emotions, such as excitement, inspiration, and pride, that will get you fired up about getting out there and performing the very best you can.