Dr. Noa Kageyama first picked up the violin at the age of two. Before he reached first grade, Kageyama had already performed with his first orchestra in Matsumoto, Japan, and made a television debut on WBNS-TV’s “Front Page Saturday Night.” Kageyama continued on his prodigious journey, performing as a soloist with the Columbus Symphony, Springfield Symphony, Welsh Hills Symphony and Oberlin Orchestra. After high school, he was accepted to the prestigious Juilliard School.
But as well as he did, Kageyama never fully enjoyed playing music, especially during his endless practice sessions. He felt frustrated that his progress was inconsistent, and he was plagued by the nagging feeling that he wasn’t performing at his highest potential. One day, while hanging out with his friends, someone asked him what he would do if he won the lottery. Kageyama’s answer was immediate: He would quit playing music, of course. Wouldn’t everyone do the same if they didn’t have to work to earn a living?
Surprisingly, none of his friends felt the same. “It was a real wake-up call for me,” Kageyama says. “I realized that maybe I should be thinking about this music thing some more.”
Fumbling for something else to do, Kageyama recalled the only class he had enjoyed at Juilliard was a performance psychology class taught by sports psychologist Don Greene. After finishing his master’s degree at Juilliard, Kageyama decided to put down his violin and pursue a Ph.D. in psychology at the University of Indiana. That’s when Kageyama began to learn that his frustration with music had nothing to do with his ability to perform or his own talents but with something else entirely: his ability to focus.
What is focus?
The word “focus” is constantly thrown around in mainstream chatter, but most people have only a vague idea of what it means. “Just focus!” parents tell their children. “I need to focus on this project,” says a co-worker, trying (unsuccessfully) to pull himself away from Facebook. Focus influences many areas of our lives: being able to focus – and mitigate distraction – is linked to our ability to control impulses and emotions and achieve long-term goals.
Known for his research on flow states, Dr. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi says that tapping into focus leads to altered states of mind – such as flow state, described by the world’s greatest thinkers as the most productive and creative state of mind in which to work. According to Csikszentmihalyi, key components of flow state including being completely engrossed in a challenging task. In flow state, distractions evaporate and attention is consumed by the task until concentration is broken and the flow state ends.
But not all focus requires a laser-sharp attention to detail or shutting out the world. In fact, sports psychologists consider focus a question of where someone puts his or her attention and have broken down focus into four subtypes: external broad, external narrow, internal broad and internal narrow. They describe the subtypes as follows:
• External broad focus is helpful when a person is assessing the outside environment before or during a performance. For example, a quarterback may scan the defense prior to the beginning of a play.
• Internal broad focus is helpful when a person is assessing his or her own mental and emotional state before or during a performance.
• External narrow focus is helpful when a person needs to focus on the execution of one specific skill. For example, a tennis player may focus on the trajectory of the ball as she serves.
• Internal narrow focus is helpful when a person needs to focus self-talk right before the execution of a specific skill. For example, a basketball player could use trigger words like “smooth and easy” right before a free throw.
Kageyama likens focus to the beam of a flashlight: You can widen or narrow the beam at will, but each type of focus will have its benefits and drawbacks. For example, if you have a wider beam, you can see more things but in less detail. Conversely, if you have a narrow beam, you can’t see as much, but the light is more intense. Mastery of focus involves being able to switch effortlessly between those types of focus according to the situation.
Laying the groundwork for focus
Two things that can distract from focus are lack of skill and lack of confidence. Lexi Sundell, a widely exhibited artist and jeweler from Montana, says that lack of skill is often what waylays a beginner: “A beginner is struggling with the medium: How do you make a brushstroke? How do you mix colors properly? All of these are technical necessities that people need to master before they can do what they want to do on the canvas.” Without those skills, explains Sundell, the artist will be preoccupied with how to create the work rather than creating the work itself.
On the other hand, a lack of confidence can lead to intrusive anxiety, which can be similarly distracting. Dr. Jeff Spencer, a former Olympic cyclist and author of “Turn It Up! How to Perform at Your Highest Level for a Lifetime,” says that lack of confidence often comes from lack of preparation. Spencer has created a program called The Champion’s Blueprint, which pushes his clients to take an objective look at how well they are prepared for the task at hand, mentally, physically and skillwise.
“Confidence really comes from knowing that you’re properly prepared to execute the goal. A lot of people think they can make up for underpreparation by hyperfocusing during the event, and that’s just not true,” Spencer remarks.
Dr. Doug Hirschhorn, a business coach and co-author of “The Trading Athlete,” agrees. Hirschhorn helps his clients gain self-confidence by developing greater awareness of their strengths and weaknesses. “Not all strengths are just strengths — sometimes they can hurt a person. It just depends on how we use them,” Hirschhorn says. He also helps people identify specific competitive advantages and goals for achieving what they want in life. “Once you have a tried-and-true process down, it’s easier to focus,” he shares.
Focusing during practice
When he was still playing violin, Kageyama would practice for hours every day, 365 days a year. But because he didn’t know how to focus his efforts while practicing, he always felt like his progress was slow and unpredictable. After learning about the psychology of focus, Kageyama realized that people can do certain things to make the most of out of their practice sessions. “If you’re going to be spending the majority of the time practicing, you might as well make it worthwhile,” he says.
Here are some of the key ways top performers can focus during practice sessions:
1. Be specific about goals and outcomes
Think back to the last time you were practicing something, whether it was your free throw or a piece of music on your instrument. How did you practice? Did you just make shots over and over until it “felt right”? Did you go through a difficult riff for an hour until you could play it without making a mistake? That’s the way most people practice, but it turns out that it’s the wrong way.
In 2001, researchers analyzed 43 adolescent boys to figure out how they practiced differently. They found that the high-performing basketball players focused on a specific goal during their free throw attempts — either practicing bending at the knees or angling their arms in a particular way. These players also attributed their missed shots to a specific technical factor that they could work on in the future.
In contrast, novice basketball players didn’t set specific goals when they practiced, and when they missed a shot, they attributed it to vague reasons like being tired or not having good rhythm. The next time you begin to practice, try taking a few minutes to come up with a specific thing you’d like to focus on, and after you’ve practiced, take a few minutes to think of specific things you could improve on next time.
2. Practice self-awareness
While top-performing athletes know exactly the type of movement that will give them a millisecond burst of energy, novice athletes can think of their bodies and abilities only in vague terms. Knowing yourself and your practice can help you create specific goals for practice and optimize your preparation.
How do you develop a strong self-awareness? There are a couple of tried-and-true techniques in the sports psychology literature. Many experts recommend keeping a performance log where you note specific feelings in your body, your levels of fatigue and soreness, and your mental and emotional state. The more specific you can be, the better. Many studies, such as the research cited in this article, have shown that athletes who use a performance log gain greater self-awareness about what helps their performance and review their past experiences with more precision and objectivity.
As a bonus, those who keep a performance log are able to boost their self-confidence, most likely because they are able to see continued progress and monitor self-defeating thoughts. Other sports psychologists recommend videotaping yourself so that you can see your body from another perspective.
3. Practice performance-level focus
Studies have shown that in our distraction-filled world, we have rewired our brains to have shorter and shorter attention spans. This is why it’s even more important to practice the same type of focus you’d have to employ during a performance.
For Kageyama, this means not only turning off phones but also leaving them out of the practice room. “When the phone is in the same room as you, you’re not only distracted by all the buzzing and ringing that your phone does; you’re also distracted by thinking about the phone and the messages you have just sent out,” Kageyama explains. “If we don’t practice focusing in the practice sessions, then the only time we’re truly focusing is onstage, and that’s not a good thing.”
Conversely, many coaches will add purposeful distractions into athletes’ workouts to train their ability to block out external noise. For example, some coaches will play the sound of a crowd over the loudspeaker during practice or attempt to distract their players by waving red flags while they practice a play.
To practice dealing with internal distractions, players and performers might rehearse verbal or kinesthetic cues during practice drills and make a note of their anxiety and concentration levels to figure out which cues increase focus most effectively.
Focusing during performance
The type of focus you bring to a game or show is very different from the type of focus you bring to practice. When you’re performing, you’re not analyzing your individual actions and thinking about how to improve in the future. Instead, you’re trying to stay present for the game. To that end, Kageyama says the most important thing a performer or an athlete can do when it’s showtime is to prepare — ahead of time — a mental game plan for what your mind will do under different circumstances.
“We spend a lot of time on our physical scripts — what our fingers are going to do, where we’re going to run — but not a lot of time on our mental scripts,” notes Kageyama. Research indicates that mental scripts can greatly improve performance levels, especially scripts that have been rehearsed beforehand. Kageyama has his students run through the performance and rehearse what will go through their minds before they play the first note, if they mess up a riff, and throughout specific passages.
Other sports psychologists recommend similar techniques called attentional cues and focusing statements. There are many different types of attentional cues, some focusing on the external environment (“lift the bar high”) and some focusing on the internal environment (“squeeze your bicep”). Studies show that short verbal cues focusing on the external environment tend to lead to the best outcomes for performance, but it’s important to test out various cues during practice to figure out which ones work and which ones don’t.
Meditation also has proven to increase our capacity to think and focus. In a 2010 study, scientists observed changes in people’s performance after completing an attention-oriented task. Even more interesting, another study found that meditation led to a better brain: after just 11 hours of meditation, practitioners had structural changes around the anterior cingulate cortex, a part of the brain involved in monitoring our focus and self-control.
From Daniel Coyle’s perspective, focus is the ultimate mindset for thriving in the modern world. The author of “The Talent Code” says focus is rare, powerful and tough to find. His advice for nudging yourself toward focus is to raise the stakes and go to the edge of your comfort zone – and risk is indeed a component of flow state, according to Csikszentmihalyi’s findings. Coyle advocates “north-star” goals and creating an environment that keeps you attentive and that gives you feedback on your progress.
Some final words on focus
It’s important to note that moments of nonfocus are just as important as moments of focus. Research finds that letting your mind wander and distractions are key to the creative process (especially important to artists and writers).
In addition, relaxing your attention from time to time can allow you to replenish your energy so that you can focus more intensely later on.
According to the artist and jeweler Sundell, the proof of mastery over focus is in how keenly you can control the aperture of that focus. She says, “The amateur starts off with a passing mood that is random, out of control and unpredictable. The professional artist has the ability to turn on the focus when he or she needs to.”