• Nic Venter

What's Important Now?

Taking a different approach to focusing on the process during sports performance

I recently had a great chat with Wessel du Plessis, the most successful school rugby coach in the country, on my Going Mental Podcast. One of the things he mentioned was the importance of “WIN’ as a process rather than an outcome. I decided to break this down on a psychological level in order to grasp why it is so appealing.



Dangers of Trendy Jargon

the concept of sticking to a process is not only ambiguous but can be highly confusing if we have never actually coached a process.

In sports we love to talk in jargon, phrases and quotes. The latest one that we throw around as coaches seems to be to “focus on the process.” On face value it seems like an obvious enough idea, but the concept of sticking to a process is not only ambiguous but can be highly confusing if we have never actually coached a process. What we tend to see at schoolboy level is that we coach players using the outcome as a feedback mechanism and a measure of success. This forces us to focus mainly on what the scoreboard says or how many runs we have on the board. For example, if we stand next to cricket nets, we often hear the coach saying “great shot” based on what the shot looked like. However, if the batsman plays the same shot in a match, but doesn’t score runs off of it, a coach will critique the player’s ability to find the gap or find the boundary. The same coach will probably also tell the batsman before his innings to “stick to the process.” We have now provided a player feedback (which is where athletes draw confidence and direction from) based on the aesthetics or the outcome, then provided critique on the same aesthetics or outcome, AND given instruction to take his focus away from the outcome.


Very seldom do we see coaches provide feedback on the success of the process after a failure or loss. Again, we lament the bad shot played, the poor score put on or the loss to our rivals despite telling our players to stick to the process before the match. The ambiguity in our focus as coaches is probably the number one reason we do not have as much success as we would like as coaches. Similarly, an over obsession with the outcome or result has detrimental long-term effects on the players that we coach. Don’t get me wrong, the most successful coaches and players in the world all have an obsession with winning, but the path that leads to the win is where the focus lies.


What does it mean?

if the outcome is unfavourable, we inevitably believe that we should try harder to score a try, rather than try harder to be better in the small controllables.

When Wessel du Plessis tells his boys to focus on “WIN”, he is inadvertently telling them to be fully present. However, he is not only TELLING them to focus on the present, he is actively coaching them to do so. Focusing on only the present moment is a fancy way of telling people to simply do the current task at hand as best as you possibly can. If you are kicking the ball, simply Kick the ball as well as you possible can, and in that moment, do not think about the lineout, the scoreboard, or scoring a try. In this scenario, when we are too focused on scoring the next try or winning the match, a kicker generally tries to gain too much ground with their kick and may end up not getting into touch at all. In cricket, if we are batting and are too focused on scoring a 50 or finding a boundary, we tend to force shots at the wrong time and end up throwing a wicket away. Similarly, we may be so frightened by failure that we end up not playing any shots and missing out on scoring opportunities.


As Wessel states in the podcast, we have to coach this way at practice every day. Our use of language has a massive effect on the players we coach and their focus in a match. Players should fully understand that if we do all of our thousand little processes as well as we can during a practice, and then as well as we can during a match, we will end up playing as well as we possibly can. The outcome then is recognized as an uncontrollable, with the many processes being the controllable. What we see at the moment is that athletes think of the outcome as the controllable and if the outcome is unfavourable, we inevitably believe that we should try harder to score a try, rather than try harder to be better in the small controllables.


Understanding Focus

The same happens when we focus mentally, as it is recognized as a vivid clarity of the object (or objective rather) at the exact moment in time.

Keeping your focus on the process isn’t only appealing because everyone is saying it, it makes sense when we consider the fundamental science behind focus. We tend to use the terms focus and concentration interchangeably, but they are quite different in nature. Concentration, when broken up, is derived from the idea of “coming to a common centre.” Focus, on the other hand, is more visually concerned, where our eyes (or our mind’s eye) are directly involved. When we’re playing rugby, we are concentrating on the events of the match, our role, our coach’s voice and so on while we are focusing on what we are looking at, what our eyes are directed at and the information we absorb through our vision. We focus on our target, on the ball, on the player we want to tackle and on the ref when he blows his whistle. When we break down focus for what it really means we start to understand the value in focusing on what’s important now. An important factor to point out is that focusing on the touchline and then the ball as we kick it into touch, for example, is not the same as looking at the ball and the touchline. Think of focus in a camera lens with aperture. We can point the camera in the direction of the object but in order for it to be in focus it needs to adjust, as if it is paying attention to only that object. The same happens when we focus mentally, as it is recognized as a vivid clarity of the object (or objective rather) at the exact moment in time. Focus also doesn’t last very long in a sport like rugby or cricket as we rarely keep focus on the ball or the exact task at hand for long periods.


Focusing on the exact moment in time shouldn’t be hard, considering that focus is a natural process that every human can do. However, it is not the act of focusing that is hard, it’s the process of getting to a point of focus that is hard. This is because we are so distracted by the thousands of external and internal factors during performance, whether it be a tangible factor such as the ref or a latent factor such as our thoughts about the ref or the outcome. Coaches can play a significant role in helping athletes focus on what’s important now. The usage of specific language and our own focus as coaches is the starting point. If we are coaching athletes to win, rather than to perform their tasks exceptionally well, we lose site of the important details, and detail is what high performance is all about. Attention to detail means attention to doing the small things as well as we possibly can and focusing on only those small things at the moment of completing them.

Focusing on the exact moment in time shouldn’t be hard, considering that focus is a natural process that every human can do. However, it is not the act of focusing that is hard, it’s the process of getting to a point of focus that is hard. This is because we are so distracted by the thousands of external and internal factors during performance, whether it be a tangible factor such as the ref or a latent factor such as our thoughts about the ref or the outcome. Coaches can play a significant role in helping athletes focus on what’s important now. The usage of specific language and our own focus as coaches is the starting point. If we are coaching athletes to win, rather than to perform their tasks exceptionally well, we lose site of the important details, and detail is what high performance is all about. Attention to detail means attention to doing the small things as well as we possibly can and focusing on only those small things at the moment of completing them.


Final Thoughts

The problem with trying to focus is that as soon as we try to do this consciously, our focus becomes on the act of focusing, rather than on the task at hand. We cannot think about focus in the moment that we want to be in full focus. Telling athletes to focus is therefore not enough. Athletes need to be prepared to the extent that all of the preparation results in optimal focus, which then leads to optimal performance. Optimal performance will then lead to the desired outcome, more often than not.



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