Ask Judy

How To Stay Focused


Judy Goss

As a sport psychology consultant, I often speak to groups of swimmers, parents, and coaches, and while they often surprise me with a question or two, most of the time there is a common theme in their questions. For example, swimmers often ask me how to stay focused during race time. They may be distracted standing behind the blocks, during the race, or even during the entire meet. If you get distracted, here are some questions to ask yourself:

Q. What are you distracted by?

a) Things going on around you-other swimmers, announcers-these are called external factors.
b) Things going on inside your body-tightness in your legs, butterflies in your stomach, negative thoughts or worries-these are called internal factors.
c) Both internal and external factors.

A. If external factors distract you, mentally rehearsing how the day of the meet will run and having meet simulations may help. If internal factors distract you, a clear pre-competition plan that has checkpoints where you assess your internal state may help.

Q. Do you have clearly defined process goals for your race?

a) Not just a specific time, but the actual things that you have to do to achieve your goal time. For example-Break one minute in 100 m free-which means that you need a faster start, come up high in the water, concentrate on pushing all the way through each stroke, no breathing in or out of the turn, keep elbows high on last 25 m, and head down into the wall.

A. It may help you to make sure your have process goals for your race. This will give you a specific focus for the entire race, not just diving in and spinning your wheels as fast as you can, hoping you will break one minute.

Q. What method of relaxation works best for you?
a) Does deep breathing, imagery, stretching calm you?

A. It may be necessary to calm yourself down a little bit. It is difficult to maintain your focus when you are anxious. Use a relaxation strategy that helps you to lower your arousal level, then you can focus more clearly on your race plan.

Q. What can you do to increase your confidence?
a) What can you say to yourself?
b) What can you do?

A. Confidence goes hand in hand with how anxious you are. If you are confident you will probably be less anxious and able to focus on your race. Just as everyone needs a way to calm themselves down, you also need a way to reaffirm your belief that you can do it.

Once you have answered these questions you should be able to identify what is distracting you. So, to help your focus, your pre-competition plan should not only include your physical and mental preparation and race strategy, but also the following:
1. A way to deal with your distractions
2. Clearly defined process goals
3. A relaxation method
4. Something that can increase your confidence.

If you would like to ask a question, discuss a problem, or get some feedback, just email me at and look for your response in the next issue.

Judy Goss, Ph.D., is a Sport Psychology Consultant with the National Sport Centre-Toronto.