We recently had a chance to chat with Dean M. Hebert, an applied sports psychology coaching professional and owner of Mindset for Performance LLC, an individual coaching and consulting company. He works with teams, athletes, parents, and coaches teaching the mental game of peak performance.
BBS: As Executive Function coaches, we work with many students who struggle with managing themselves amid distractions, both internal and external. How do you address these problems with athletes?
Dean: People talk a lot about focus but usually have little idea exactly how to do it. For many, it's just something that happens - or doesn't. We tend to maintain focus best when we are doing something we enjoy, are good at, or have a strong interest in. That base motivation can be very important. But what happens when you have something you need to get done and it is not pleasurable (like a task at work or homework in school)? Or in the case of athletics, if the activity carries with it discomfort (like playing in freezing temperatures) and distractions (crowds cheering and opponents heckling)?
This is when we all must learn two critical things: what to focus on and how to focus on it.
BBS: Can you share an example using one of your student athletes?
Dean: One young woman I work with regularly had heard the comment "you just don't focus" from coaches and her parents alike. The fact is, though, that Megan was indeed focusing. However, she could be focusing on the wrong things, or on the right things but at the wrong time. She could also be trying to focus on too many things at once, or she's focusing in a manner that isn't effective for her.
Megan is a goalie for an elite soccer club. She is easily distracted by things in her environment visually and has a need to fidget and move around a lot. On the field she lets up on her intensity (game focus) and makes errors allowing goals from what should be easy saves. Megan's parents sought my assistance for her focus on the field.
BBS: I’m wondering if her focus problems manifested in her schoolwork, as well…
Dean: Homework is a chore for her and she finds it difficult to sit for any extended period of time to complete homework. At home loss of focus was more often about responding to her cell phone (vibrating or lighting up) and visual distractions.
BBS: What did your coaching process with Megan look like?
Dean: The first priority is to identify what the immediate task at hand is. It is not enough to state it in general terms like "stop the ball". The focal point must be specific and time bound. "Come out 10 feet and cut the angle of shot on goal" is specific.
To address Megan's attention on the field we created a cue movement (kinesthetic) to trigger visual focus and physical preparedness. The keys to creating a successful performance cue are to have a learning styles based cue (visual-kinesthetic-auditory); specific movement in motion, rhythm and force (clap-clap-pat-pat); that is precisely replicated in practices. Megan's focus routine was to aggressively clap her hands twice and then her thighs twice in rapid succession. Simultaneously her eyes sweep across the field; then she fixes her eyes intensely on the ball and current play on the field.
The vigor with which the action is done also generates a physical reaction - an energizing one. The pattern, when repeatedly reinforced in practices by her goalie coach, reinforces and connects full attention to the task at hand and nowhere else.
BBS: That sounds like an effective strategy, but how does Megan know when to apply it?
Dean: A companion task is to learn when your focus wanders. If you cannot recognize when you are not focusing you will not be able to effectively use your cue. Through detailed questioning Megan and her parents were able to identify those moments. In a game, loss of focus was often linked to thinking of the score or if significant people such as scouts were watching the game, and sometimes just "zoning out".
BBS: How is Megan doing since she started using focus strategies on the field?
Dean: Megan has played the best soccer of her life this past fall. We head into heavy tournament play in December so only time will tell if she'll stick to what is working. On the home front, there is even some improvement in homework focus according to her parents. Megan is still less than enthusiastic about homework - period. It looks like I made the grade on the field but Megan might benefit from some self-management strategies that she can apply specifically to her schoolwork.
BBS: Hmm. I think I know a resource for that. Thanks for taking some time away from your athletes and giving us your focus for a while. I hope we can touch base again. It’s fascinating to see how well our work complements each other. It’s all about being more effective, whether you’re defending the goal or preparing for midterms.
Click the button below for a free consultation to find out if Executive Function coaching can help your child to stay focused both on the field and while studying.
Dean M. Hebert, M.Ed. MGCP
Dean has authored several books and hundreds of articles. “Coach, I didn’t run because…” (2008) is a seriously light-hearted look at making excuses not to workout and how to overcome them. “Focus for Fitness” (2009) and “Screw the Goals Give me the Donut” (2010) are two of his eBooks on mental game approaches for the everyday athlete.
Dean has been cited in Runners World (online & print), Best Health magazine (CN), SWEAT Magazine, and the Washington Examiner amongst many other publications. He is a featured mental games coach in several Runner’s World issues. Dean appears regularly on running talk shows such as LTKFitness, runnersroundtable.com, teachtorun.com and for the past three years has co-hosted a weekly video series with Coach Joe English for Running-Advice.com.
Photo credit: Mobilus in Mobili via flickr
This interview was conducted by Jackie Stachel, Director of Communication of Beyond BookSmart.