Distractions (Part 3): Managing Distractions And Staying On Course

This article was meant to be part 3 of a series of articles that include Distractions Part 1 and Distractions Part 2. I kept finding excuses to not publish this article. It is not perfect, but I have run out of excuses to give for not sharing it.

Free-throws are probably the easiest shot or chance one can have at scoring in a basketball match. It’s a short distance, a mere 4.6 metres from the free-throw line to the basket, and there are no physical distractions. It’s just you, the ball and the basket.

Now, with that in mind, what if I told you thay the NBA average percentage of successful free-throws is 75%?

It is a statistic that is hard to believe, especially if one considers that these professionals practice and master the mechanics of the free-throw. Not only that, but in training or relaxing, they can easily score, maybe, 95% of free-throws blindfolded. So why is the average so low?

Two reasons: one, matches are high-pressure environments, and naturally they induce a variety of brain and body reactions. Heart rate goes up, adrenaline kicks in, and the player’s mind starts to race. This nervousness or excitement, depending on which angle you look at it, has an effect on the player, even though it’s often not debilitating.

Two, distractions. The more distracted you are, the less likely you are able to effectively perform motor skills that you would otherwise excel at.

Matches are high-pressure environments that induce a variety of physiological reactions. Heart rate goes up, adrenaline kicks in, the player's mind begins to race. All this has an effect on a player and might interfere with performance. Click To Tweet

Competition stress

Distractions account for an incredibly high number of dropped points, lost matches and missed opportunities in sport. Therefore, it’s little wonder that opposition “mental disintegration” was a part of Steve Waugh’s tactics. Nowadays, across all sports codes, opponents try to upset each other’s focus and concentration to get an edge. Couple that with the demands of the leagues and fans, among others, that leave an athlete depleted both physically and mentally.

As John Bertrand said, “In international competition everyone is talented and fit and has natural ability, but the one who wins is the one who can focus on the job at hand and play the mind game the best.”

Therefore, it’s no surprise that since forever, athletes and their coaches have been trying to find ways to combat distractions, help players develop mental hardiness and perform at their best.

In international competition everyone is talented and fit and has natural ability, but the one who wins is the one who can focus on the job at hand and play the mind game the best. Click To Tweet

“When you look at brain scans of athletes pre- or midchoke,” says sports psychologist Bradley Hatfield, “you see a neural ‘traffic jam’ of worry and self-monitoring.”

Bradley Hatfield, a professor of kinesiology and psychology at the University of Maryland, has held numerous studies of brain wave activity of expert athletes during performance. Brain waves of beginners show lots of erratic spikes and haphazard rhythms – this is the neural signature of a mind that is humming with conscious thoughts. The brain waves of experts show a totally different picture, they reveal neural activity that is “efficient and streamlined,” using only those parts of the brain relevant to strong performance. The expert’s mind has almost no activity at all, it is serene.

When they are performing, they exhibit a rare mental tranquility, as their brain deliberately ignores interruptions from the outside world. This is neurological evidence, Hatfield says, of “the zone”, that trance-like mindset which allows experts to perform at peak levels. True to the saying that a thinking athlete is an athlete in trouble, the best athletes don’t think, they just do it. They trust their skills will be sufficient to see them through.

The mind of the distracted athlete is no different from that of a novice.

Sian Beilock, a cognitive scientist, who has done extensive research into paradoxical performance say that when athletes overthink they tend to do what most people would assume to very logical: try to control their performance and force an optimal outcome. However, more often than not, this interferes with the execution of well-learned skills. This is because “bringing your conscious awareness to skills that are operated outside your working memory and prefrontal cortex can disrupt them.”

As a way to combat this, Beilock advises that coaches should train athletes under pressure more often than not so that the gap between training and competition is not too wide. According to Beilock, creating high-pressure and stress situations in training helps athletes acclimatize to conditions that heighten self-awareness.

“When golfers practice putting while being videotaped and are told that the videotape will later be watched by golf coaches, they perform better under a subsequent pressure-filled situation than those who did not receive this acclimatization training,” says Beilock.

Other coping mechanisms

Se Ri Pak’s father is said to have taken her to a local cemetery on cold winter nights and often left her alone to practice golf swings in the eerie silence. Apparently, young Se Ri Pak had a huge fear of ghosts. So, to help her overcome the fear, Joon Chul Pak would either leave her alone practising her swing alone in the cemetery, or he would pitch a tent in the cemetery and they would camp there for the night.

Joon Chul Pak believed that if Se Ri Pak could remain composed and execute perfect  swings despite her fear of ghosts, then nothing would provide a distraction to her in competitions.

Another legend claims that when Tiger Woods was still a young and upcoming golfer, his father, Earl Woods, would wait for that moment when Tiger was about to execute a drive, a putt, whatever shot, and he would drop golf bags, roll balls across Tiger’s line of sight, while also jingling change and keys in his pocket. Earl did this to help Tiger learn to block out distractions during critical times on the golf course.

Earl Woods would wait for that moment when Tiger was about to execute a drive, a putt, whatever shot, and he would drop golf bags, roll balls across Tiger’s line of sight, while also jingling change and keys in his pocket. Click To Tweet

Joon Chul Pak and Earl Woods employed unconventional methods to ensure that their children to develop mental hardiness to combat distractions. Some athletes turn to visualization techniques to keep distractions at bay. Others use self-talk to centre themselves and focus, while some utilize habitual movements and cues, as does Steve Smith.

Researchers Daniel Gucciardi and James Dimmock suggest the use of holistic cue words as a way to mantain and retain focus. The two researchers from Western Australia wrote a paper titled, “Choking under pressure in sensorimotor skills: Conscious processing or depleted attentional resources?” In the paper, Gucciardi and Dimmock suggest that expert performers should be encouraged to “adopt more global, higher-level cue words that collectively combine the mechanical process of their technique, which may act as either a schematic cue or a conscious distraction.”

The benefit of the “holistic cue word” approach is that it doesn’t require performers to stop thinking entirely, as this can be excruciatingly difficult, especially under pressure. Instead, the experiment suggests that golfers and footballers can still contemplate their behaviour – they just need to do so without thinking about specifics. In this sense, focusing on a vague aspiration can be an elegant distraction, a simple thought that can keep us from thinking too much.

Gary Kirsten, the Proteas and choking

Coach and former Proteas opener, Gary Kirsten, suggested that the South Africa team should have an open conversation around their chokers label. Suggesting that the first step to dealing with that distraction was the acceptance and acknowledgement of it’s presence.

Speaking of choking, he said, “It’s always been, it’s not an issue, let’s move on, play the game as we need to, play in the moment. I have always been from the school of thought that until you address the elephant in the room, it’s going to stay there.”

Kirsten revealed that even he had attempted to do that with the team when he was the Proteas coach and he been met with resistance from a few of the players, “So we, with the help of Paddy [Upton], tried to go down a bit of a journey, but we never got enough legs on it to really make some good progress. I think it still needs to be done, to be honest.”

Maybe Kirsten was met with resistance because fans and commentators take a dim view on failure to perform by distraction. It is spoken of with derision and contempt. Most suggest that athletes who choke or produce suboptimal performances because of distractions do not want to win bad enough, that they are not fully invested in success. Thus, because of shame, some are unwilling to be identified as slackers, players without BMT (big match temperament) or any such negative label.

However, research has shown that the opposite is true. Distractions affect players, leading to suboptimal performances because they care too much, want to win too badly and try too hard.

To be world-class performers, athletes have to train like it's the only thing that matters in their lives. But, to prevent choking they have to ditch that belief. Click To Tweet

Mark Bowden,  former England cricket team psychologist (2009 to 2014), who was also the head of psychology at the English Institute of Sport and is a co-founder of Mindflick, has this to say, “In order to make all the sacrifices necessary to reach world-class levels of performance, an athlete has to believe that performing well means everything. They have to cleave to the belief that winning Olympic gold is of life-changing significance.

“But that is precisely the belief that is most likely to trigger a choking response. So, the key psychological skill for someone with a tendency to choke is to ditch that belief in the minutes before competition and to replace it with the belief that the race does not really matter. It is a form of psychological manipulation, and it takes a lot of work to master.”

Creating high-pressure and stress situations in training helps athletes acclimatize to conditions that heighten self-awareness. Click To Tweet