For a coach, there’s nothing more frustrating than looking out on the court at a critical time in a match and seeing one or more players laughing with someone in the crowd or sulking about a previous play. Unfocused players are responsible for a fair share of a coach’s gray hair!
But, as most coaches quickly figure out, you can’t just command them to focus. It’s imperative to teach them about how to deal with the inevitable distractions they will face.
If athletes can learn to recognize and overcome distractions, they’ll be better individual competitors and, in turn, better team members. Using a journal to work through this process can be an effective tool for players.
Step 1 - What is a distraction?
In a team meeting, ideally during the offseason or preseason, lead a discussion asking team members to give examples of distracting events, behaviors or actions. Write them on a white board. They should all generally fall into these categories:
- Something that diverts or draws your attention away from the tasks at hand. At a rival’s gym with a loud crowd, several fans are taunting you by saying unflattering things as you rotate to the front row to hit.
- Thoughts that interrupt or disrupt your thinking. As you walk back to serve, you see your parents walk into the gym and recall the big argument you had with them the last time you saw them. Are they still mad? Should you apologize?
- Interruptions to your focus. In a tight game, you are a primary passer getting ready to receive the serve and the coach calls a time-out. In the huddle, the coach gives instructions about the opposing blockers and talks to the setter about options for sets but says nothing about what to expect from the server and doesn’t offer any encouragement about passing. You leave the huddle thinking about the coach.
- Irritations, actions, talking or behavior that affect those around you. One of your teammates has a tendency to talk negatively and pout when not playing well. Despite team discussion about curtailing this type of behavior, it continues to cause problems.
Step 2 - Recognizing distractions for yourself.
Ask players to spend time alone identifying events, actions, people or behaviors that are distracting to them and may cause them to lose focus. They should be able to identify several different situations. In great detail, they should answer these important questions:
- How, when and where do you become distracted?
- What behaviors do you display when you are distracted?
Step 3 - My most outstanding distraction.
In a quiet environment, have players write down a vivid, detailed description of the distraction that is most common and/or most disruptive to them. When does it happen? Who is there? Where does it happen? How does it affect them?
Step 4 - Make a detailed “refocus plan” for how you will overcome distractions when you become aware of them.
- Individually, each player outlines a simple plan to help regain focus. The plan could be the same for every distraction or different for each one. The important thing is for the player to be able to implement the plan quickly. Here are some examples:
- Snap a rubber band on your wrist. Take a deep breath. Focus on your job for the next play.
- Take 2 deep breaths and make eye contact with a teammate. Tell your teammates what you will be responsible for on the next play.
- Stand up straight with shoulders back, breathe deeply, positively engage a teammate.
Step 5 - Recognizing how you may distract the team.
Players need to acknowledge that they may have behaviors that can be a distraction to their team. Again, they will spend time alone to consider situations or actions from the past that may have been distracting to the team in general or to specific individuals. If players have trouble identifying any situations like this, the coach may help by asking questions like:
- How, when and where do you become a distraction to your team?
- What behaviors do you display when you distract the team?
Step 6 - Make a detailed plan to overcome being a distraction to the team.
This step can be difficult, especially if players are unaware of their behavior. For the unaware player, suggest that they solicit information from a good friend, team captain or, less ideally, a coach. Ask them to tell you about any distracting behaviors they have seen you exhibit. You may also ask them to tell you when these behaviors actually happen. Eventually, each player must take accountability of their actions without relying on teammates. This plan should encompass accepting personal responsibility and being committed to a rapid change of behavior.
Step 7 - Group and team discussion. (Allow 30-40 minutes.)
After completing steps 2-6 individually, players will come together as a team. The coach can randomly assign players to groups of 3 or 4. In the small groups, players will:
- Share personal insights about their own tendencies for distraction. (Some players may be uncomfortable sharing specific information. If that’s an issue, encourage them to share generalizations.)
- Share specific “refocus plans” for dealing with distractions.
- Share thoughts about how they personally plan to become aware and then overcome being a distraction to the team.
Step 8 - Share group discussion highlights with the team. (Allow 30-40 minutes.)
The coach should make sure that every group and each individual participates in some way. Ask the players to wrap up the session with some common themes; write them on a white board.
Productive habits are formed through persistent attention. Before each team practice, give players a few minutes to jot down some goals related to recognizing distractions and then using their refocus plans.
After matches, have players evaluate the success of recognizing when they were distracted and how effectively they used their refocus plans.
The coach also needs to discuss this important aspect of player development during short, regularly scheduled individual meetings.
Stephanie Schleuder is a former collegiate volleyball coach, most recently at Macalester College in Minnesota. She retired in 2009 with 702 career victories.