How To "Keep Your Head In the Game"

Centering helps athletes improve focus and keep their heads in the game

Beautiful female looking thoughtful
Centering helps reduce anxiety. Philip Haynes/DigitalVision/Getty

If you play sports and have had a coach tell you to "get your head in the game" you probably understand how easy it is to become distracted and unfocused while on the field. One bad play, small error or misstep can easily set you up for distraction and cause you to lose focus. There are many techniques athletes can use to regain composure and try to move their attention back to what they are doing, but one of the easiest to practice and master is called centering.

Centering is a practical skill that helps athletes stay focused on success, to avoid distractions, and to keep the negative self-talk from derailing a performance. It can help an athlete stay in the moment and let go of past and future thoughts, worries and plans. Centering works by narrowing your focus and attention to one thing at a time and limiting extraneous thoughts and distractions.

Sports psychologists often recommend that an athlete practice centering techniques to help them reduce anxiety and stress. These skills and techniques allow athletes to pay attention to their body and breathing and help redirect their focus from the negative- or anxiety-producing events and thoughts to the present task.

Centering may sound simple, but it does take a bit of work and lots of practice before it becomes a reliable skill or tool. Here's how to get started.

Centering Techniques
The first and most basic skill to master for any centering practice is the ability to focus on the breath.

This aspect of centering involves paying careful attention to each inhalation and exhalation and noting every sensation that occurs as the air flows in and out of the nostrils, and as the air fills the lungs. With each breath and athlete can simply notice the sensations of heat, cold, the speed of the air flow, the way the air fills the lungs.

To begin this practice, simply start in a quiet place with no distractions and focus your attention on the rate of breathing while maintaining a slow, steady pace. Don't try to change the breath, just be aware of it as you breathe in through the nose, and feel the air fill your lungs. Exhale through your mouth and repeat. It may help to have a key word (mantra) to repeat that helps you refocus on what you want to do. For example, 'relax,' or 'steady.'

In order to this to become a useful skill on the field, and using this technique to automatically reduce anxiety and distraction when you need it most (during the stress of competition or training), you must get into a habit of practicing centering often. Use your training sessions to try various centering techniques and find the best one for you. Refocus and get 'centered' at every break, rest period or when there is a pause in the action.

This process aims to keep you in the present, help you drop any baggage you carry about performance anxiety, expectations, or 'what-ifs.' If you develop an automatic relaxation response, it will change how you feel about what you are doing.

Then, you will have less stress, enjoy performing and as a result, have more success.

Also see:


Biofeedback and relaxation techniques improve running economy in sub-elite long distance runners., Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise. 31(5):717-722, May 1999.

Foundations of Sport and Exercise Psychology. Robert Stephen Weinberg, Daniel Gould, 4th Edition. 2007.

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