Switching Focus: A World Class Skill
Be World Class
A little while ago I asked a National Head Coach, ‘what separates genuinely world class players from the rest’. His answer was very insightful. One of the keys, at the very highest level, appears to be the way world class players are able to control and switch their focus very quickly within the PDA cycle.
If you have not come across the term PDA cycle before, it stands for Perception, Decision, Action. This is the mental process that many games players go through when they perform. Firstly they perceive. They read what is going on around them. Let’s take tennis as an example. If their opponent has just played a shot, they will assess the trajectory and power of the shot, the opponent’s position and their movement. All of this information (and more) will then inform their decision. What does the player do based on their perception? Where will they move? What shot will they look to play? Once they have made their decision, they will execute their action. They will make their move and play their shot.
Obviously, as a player moves through this cycle, their point of focus must change. When they are in the ‘perception phase’, their focus needs to be wide and primarily external. They need to pull in information from the world around them. They must focus on what they see, hear and feel from their environment. As they enter the ‘decision phase’, that focus must switch and become internal. When we make decisions, our focus is inevitably directed at our own thoughts. Once a player has decided upon the most effective action they need to be able to execute it. To execute our skills and play high quality shots, we often need to have a very specific and narrow point of focus. In some cases that might need to be predominantly external (i.e. focusing on an external cue, such as looking at the ball) and in some cases it’s primarily internal (i.e. focusing on the feeling cues from our body which helps us to regulate the power that we use and therefore the weight of the shot). Interestingly, many high level coaches that I’ve spoken to, talk about ‘shot responsibility’. They explain that in the moment when a player takes a shot, they should be entirely immersed in the shot. That moment should be their ‘quiet time’ when everything else except the shot disappears into the background; it is a moment devoid of anything else (Hartley, 2010a).
The ability to control our focus throughout that cycle is an aspect that separates players. Controlling focus and changing focus very quickly is a skill. Therefore, it requires practice. Let’s take this a stage further. High level coaches are also aware that the PDA cycle actually has more phases in expert performance. It is not simply a case of perceiving, then deciding and then executing. As players become more experienced they often have a secondary perception and decision phase before they execute their action. Essentially, they make another assessment before playing their shot. Is it still the right shot? Is the opponent in the same position that I expected them to be in? If they are, I may simply confirm my initial decision and go with it. If not, I may need to change tack and play a different shot.
In a match situation, we are not given more time to cater for the extra perception phase, the re-assessment and another decision. The ball doesn’t slow down to allow us to fit these extra processes in. Therefore, we have to be able to run the processes more quickly and to change our focus more quickly. If we fail to focus back onto the shot quickly enough, we deny ourselves that important ‘quiet time’ in which to execute the shot. This can lead to errors (Hartley, 2010b). Tactically of course we can help ourselves by starting the whole process as early as possible. Physically we can ensure that we can move quickly and therefore give ourselves more time at ‘the sharp end’. However, we also need to ensure that we can switch focus quickly and effectively.
In my conversation with the National Head Coach, he described the way that truly world class players actually have a third perception and decision making phase before executing their shot. At the very last moment before playing the shot, they will make a final re-assessment. Perhaps they were planning to play a drop shot. Has their opponent come up to the net quickly? Is the drop shot still on? Should they opt for a chip to the back of the court instead of the drop?
The ability to make late decisions separates players in a vast number of open skill sports, where they are required to react to their opposition. When we make late decisions and execute skills later, we give the opponent less chance to respond. Novices find that hard to do because they may not have the ability to switch their focus between perception, decision and action at lightning speed. Not only do they require longer in each phase of the cycle (i.e. it takes them longer to perceive and assess, and longer to make their decisions), it also takes them longer to pin their focus firmly on the execution of the shot.
The ability to switching focus is often the missing link for players who are technically superior, but find it hard to fully realise their technical superiority in match situations. Controlling and rapidly switching and honing focus is a skill. Therefore, like any other skill, it needs to be practiced!
Hartley, S.R. (2010a) ‘Athletic Focus & Sport Psychology: Key To Peak Performance’, Podium Sports Journal, December 2010. Available Online. HTTP. < http://www.podiumsportsjournal.com/2010/12/09/athletic-focus-sport-psychology-key-to-peak-performance/> (accessed 21st December 2010).
Hartley, S.R. (2010b) ‘Momentum Shifts in Sport: Value the Psychology Behind Them’, Podium Sports Journal, December 2010. Available Online. HTTP. < http://www.podiumsportsjournal.com/2010/12/22/momentum-shifts-in-sports-value-the-psychology-behind-them/> (accessed 4th April 2011)
Hartley, S.R. (2011) Peak Performance Every Time, London: Routledge
Vickers, J.N. (2007) Perception, Cognition and Decision Training: The quiet eye in action, Champaign, IL, Human Kinetics.