How COVID-19 Is Disrupting Athletes' Focus

Looking to the past or future will only hurt your performance.

Posted Feb 03, 2021

Victor Freitas, Pexels, used with permission
Source: Victor Freitas, Pexels, used with permission

The COVID-19 crisis has certainly presented me with new challenges in my work with athletes, whether juniors or professionals. It’s as if the pandemic has taken all of the normal challenges that athletes face and turned their volume up several notches. Whether motivation, confidence, fear of failure, expectations, or anxiety, whatever athletes are thinking, feeling, or doing has become more extreme and potentially more harmful to their sports efforts.

Of all the challenges that are presenting themselves during this COVID sports season, focus is perhaps the mental area that has been most impacted because it has the most immediate influence on athletes in their training and competitions. Focus is so important in sports because whatever athletes focus on is what they direct their time, energy, efforts, and emotions to. Moreover, their ability to focus will dictate their efficiency and effectiveness in training and the quality of their competitive efforts.

Though focus has been disrupted by the pandemic in many ways, one way that I see it doing the most damage is in athletes either focusing too much on the past or the future and not enough on the present.

Past

Focusing on the past is a futile endeavor because you can’t change it. Despite this, it’s easy to look back on the past and focus on what happened (COVID-19!) or what didn’t happen (no spring and summer season and missed training days and cancelled competitions at the beginning of the 2021 season). Additionally, this past focus, not surprisingly, tends to be overwhelmingly negative because not a lot of good happened these last 10 months.

Looking through the “dark” lenses of the recent past does serious harm to athletes psychologically and emotionally. Obviously, if you’re looking back on all of the bad things that happened or the opportunities that were missed since the pandemic began, it’s going to cause you to go negative in your thinking which will do you no good for your training or competing in the present.

Perhaps more powerfully, this “looking in the rearview mirror” generates a tsunami of negative emotions including frustration, regret, anger, and sadness, all emotions that will not serve you well in the present.

There are two aspects of a past focus that are most harmful. First, looking to the past can’t help you in the here and now, thus it’s a waste of time and energy. Second, you can’t control the past, so dwelling on it will only increase your feelings of helplessness, frustration, and regret and interfere with your ability to get the most out of your training and perform your best on the day of the competition.

Future

Focusing on the future is equally troubling, particularly during this COVID-19 sports season because it creates so much uncertainty about what might or might not happen. Will sports facilities stay open, sports programs be able to continue training, and will competitions take place? These are just a few of the questions that are constantly tugging at the minds of athletes (not to mention coaches, administrators, and parents). Certainly, there is more hope for the future now than there was a month ago thanks to the rollout of the various vaccines. At the same time, the new variants of COVID-19 return more uncertainty to our lives because there are questions about whether the current vaccines will be effective with these modified strains of the virus.

You might think that it would be easy to assume an optimistic focus on the future, for example, the pandemic will end soon and life will return to normal. But the fact is that we humans are evolutionarily wired for pessimism because if we focus on the threats in our lives, we are more likely to take action that will reduce the threats and increase our chances of survival. This approach to looking at the future may have worked on the Serengeti 250,000 years ago, where the dangers were immediate and avoidable (e.g., saber-toothed tiger, rival tribespeople with big clubs), but it is far less effective in the 2021 world of COVID-19 where we have little direct control over the virus and its broader impact on our lives.

As such, our natural tendency is to focus on worst-case scenarios, including us or our families and friends contracting COVID-19, missing training due to quarantine, and cancelled competitions. This apocalyptic future focus (in the developed-world sense) can take our minds to equally dark places as being preoccupied with the past. Moreover, this negative perspective that is created as we gaze into our crystal balls and see the future (at least one possible future) triggers a different set of unhealthy emotions including worry, doubt, stress, and fear, none of which play nice with performing your best and enjoying your sport in the present.

Present

As I’ve noted above, focusing on the past is an incredible waste of time and energy. Likewise, looking to the future can be equally unhelpful and unpleasant. So, I encourage you to direct your focus onto the present for one simple reason: The only way to get yourself to a positive future is to control what you do in the here and now. No, you can’t make COVID-19 go away, but there is much you can control that will benefit your sports and your life. First, and most importantly, follow the guidelines for protecting yourself and others from COVID-19, including wearing masks and physical distancing. In your sports and broader life, other areas you can control include your attitude, efforts in training and school, sleep, nutrition, equipment, and much more.

Focusing on what you can control in the present has several essential benefits. First, you are taking active steps that will increase your chances of sports success in the future. Second, when you take control of your present, you will feel better because, instead of dwelling on all of the negatives of the past year and the potential worst-case scenarios of the coming year (both of which will not take you to your happy place!), you will feel more in control, motivated, confident, and optimistic. You’ll experience positive emotions including hope, inspiration, pride, excitement, and joy. As a result, you’ll worry less, have fewer doubts, feel less stressed, and be much happier. The end game of making the shift from the past or future to the present is that you’ll perform better and enjoy your sport much more.

Though there are no easy solutions to shifting your focus away from the past or the future (both can feel difficult to resist), there are a few things you can do to help the move to a present focus:

  1. Be aware of when your mind travels back or forward in time.
  2. Remind yourself that either form of mental “time travel” will only make you miserable.
  3. Shift your focus to the present onto something that you can control. (Ask yourself: “What do I need to do now?”)
  4. Act on what you can control immediately and immerse yourself in it.
  5. If all else fails, do anything that will distract you from the past or future, such as listening to music, hanging with your friends, doing school work, watching a movie, whatever.