Distractions – What to do?

Distractions come in many situation and can occur at any point. During competitions distractions can pose a significant issues to a players success if not dealt with appropriately. To better understand how to decrease distractions, it is important to know; what a distraction is, why they occur, and how long they effect a player.

Every player has a different set of distractions and triggers that grab their focus from the task they are working on in the moment. The first step to developing a rock solid focus is to know yourself; what are the things that distract you and why. Athletes work hard to hone their physical abilities but these can’t be used optimally unless there is a positive mental focus he/she can tap into. It is most likely that a player will get distracted in some way during a competition. The distraction that occurs may be a minor or a major one. The key for the player is to develop the ability to deal with the distraction in a way that keeps him/her in the competition. In order to help us understand distractions we will look to get a better idea on the two general kinds: Internal & External.

Internal distractions are the things that are going on inside you. They most likely are not seen by others. Examples of these can be; Negative self-talk, Physical pain, Mental fatigue, Random thoughts, & Emotions could all be part of what a player is distracted by internally. (No matter what the internal distractions are it is important to know the ones that most impact you specifically)

External distractions are things that are occurring outside of your body. The world around you encompass those many things that can lead to distraction. Examples are; People, Weather, Sounds, Visual objects, and Equipment are all general things that can pose as distractions coming from the outside world.

The negative effects of distractions can be poor performance in your competition or training session. Limited ability to learn the tasks or information that is in front of you. Distractions typically carry a player away from the intentional thoughts about your plan and the execution of it. Athletes who are distracted typically don’t find success during the time that the distraction is occurring.

While this article as discussed some of the negative aspects of distractions, there are some positive times when distractions are needed. There are times that more training, video analysis, extra work out, or studying may be actually be detrimental to a players success. Over focus on training, winning, and success can inhibit an athletes performance as they can start to obsess about their sport of competition to the point where there success is impacted by the lack of time off. In Tennis specifically a player has to find a balance between a high level of training and times where he/she has the ability to relax mind and body. Distractions can help with relaxation and allow a player to protect against burn out. While distractions in this way can be beneficial they have to be used in a careful way so that the athlete doesn’t use them as an excuse not to train. It is for this reason that training plans and strategies need to be developed and executed appropriately to help a player focus on the right things at the appropriate times.

Below are some ways to help protect yourself from distractions and increase success:

Know your goals: goals are highly effective tools which allow people to focus and drive themselves toward something specific. A person without goals and sights set on specific tasks are similar to a boat without a rudder. Goals guide, motivate, and strengthen ones resolve. They help a person through difficult times in a training session, competition, or non athletic life event.

Hold onto a positive self-esteem: If an athlete starts to doubt his/her value and worth then the foundation is set for negative self talk, anxiety, and frustrations to set in on player. Keeping a positive self-esteem is one way to shield yourself from distraction. It is important for a player to know that they are valuable and have worth in any given situation. Once a player starts to doubt their importance and value, distractions can get an easy foothold and keep a player form finding success.

Positive Self Efficacy: It is always important for an athlete to believe that they have the ability to succeed and execute the physical abilities they have in a competition or training session. Continuing to believe in ones abilities is much like holding onto a positive self-esteem once a player loose this focus it is easy for distractions to grab attention.

Know your triggers: It is always helpful to know what your strengths and weaknesses are so that you can prepare and plan for a competition. Knowing what things typically distract you is a very important way to protecting yourself from allowing those specific things becoming a distraction. Knowing what distracts you can help you put up safe guards to keep those distractions away or allows you address those distractions quickly when they come up. A very common trigger for athletes can be other people presence during training or competitions. An athlete can be distracted from focusing on the task they are looking to complete due to his/her worry of what others are thinking. This can lead to an athlete loosing quite a bit of focus and getting into a thought spiral that typically leads to a mental state not fit for attending to the task at hand.

Ways to minimize distractions once they occur

  1. Thought stopping: Initially it will be quite a lot to ask an athlete to never be distracted. even the best athletes get distracted at times and their job is to continually practice rituals and other cognitive activities to continue focus.
  2. Remember goals: I like to encourage the athletes I work with to always have a goal for the training session or competition specifically on top of the larger set of long term and short term goals they have developed.
  3. Create a structure for your day or for the moments you get distracted: For players to get out of a distracted thought process and back into a focused mindset, a structure is important to do so. Developing a strategy to refocus is quite important and will be one of the key tools to help an athlete during a competition or training session.
  4. Focus on what you can control and what is your role in the situation: Too many times I see athletes getting distracted from their role of responsibility and get too worried about the things out side of their control. An athlete can only control their performance level and their focus. It is impossible to control others on your team or opponents. While the things you do can effect others, it is your role to first control yourself and execute your plan. It is impossible for a player to control the outside distractions so developing a way to block those out will be a crucial step for any athlete. Athletes can control what is inside them and their work output. limiting focus on these can help produce a positive outcome.

Here is a short action plan to help increase your ability to label your distractions and then more on from them.

  1. Label the situation: what is going on?
  2. What is grabbing your attention?
  3. Why does the distraction matter to you?
  4. Focus on what you can control
  5. Make the motivational decision to get back to the task you are looking to accomplish


Limiting or minimizing the number as well as the frequency of distractions is quite important in the overall success of an athlete. Distractions, particularly those coming from other perceptions, significantly effect the way an athlete sees himself or herself. These internal distractions based on perception can be some of the hardest to deal with. No matter what the distraction is there has to be a way to manage it in the moment and then work on fixing it during athletic and non-athletic training sessions. Distractions will happen, it is not how badly the distraction effects an athlete that is important in the initial stages but how an athlete recognizes the distraction and makes and action plan to get back into focus. Once the athlete knows what distracts him or her then they can work on stopping the distraction from even occurring in the first place.

In order to battle distractions it is important to focus on what you can control as an athlete, work extra hard at knowing the plan, limit thinking about the score or the wins/loss, and don’t put value in who is around. Take your time and make sure you are level headed. In Tennis I like to tell player between points to go to their towel or back to the fence and take a second so that they can work to get your thoughts back under control. Staying patient with a focus on a few key words will help fight back against the distracted mind. Key words are words that help you focus your attention on small things that are under your control or positive words that help motivate. Remind yourself to think positively and throw out all the thoughts about how bad you are playing or how your not playing like you should. this increases self-esteem and self efficacy. As you go about the next play or point limit your thoughts, control your breathing, focus on a plan and execute it to the best of your abilities.

Under pressure distractions can take a deep root in your mind and keep you from success. Learn the information above and start to practice strategies during non competition settings. It is also important to work with a coach to tailor these concepts and ideas for you as a player in the specific areas you need.