Myth busting: What does it really take for young athletes to stay focused?

April 13, 2009

By Shaun Goodsell, Sports Performance Consultant
Board Certified Family Physician and Triathlete

The surprising way that you may be sabotaging your game

The big game is a few hours away. You reach for your favorite caffeinated drink because you want to be hyped up and have every one of your nerve endings on fire. STOP! You’ll never be focused and “in the zone” by doing that.

Most energy drinks are counterproductive to improving your game. I work with student athletes on achieving that all-important mental edge. I know we all want to be focused when we compete but most people go about it all wrong.

What is the zone?
To truly succeed in their game, athletes want a clear mental state when they can focus on one or two things at a time, recognize the opportunities and situations that apply to those things, and execute them with mental ease. A lot of athletes say the game seems to slow down at this point. They report seeing things clearly and not feeling anxious. Athletes who are truly in the zone are calm, poised and focused. They look almost stone-faced. Clear thinking and less mental energy actually lead to increased performance.

How you may be sabotaging your game and not even know it
Most so-called energy supplements and drinks that you consume to get more energy often work against your ability to stay focused. That includes sports bars and energy drinks filled with sugar, ephedrine or caffeine. The misperception is that energy is tied to focus. These products over-stimulate the nervous system. They affect the speed of your thinking process and your ability to think clearly. For the most part, energy drinks and foods don’t lead to better performance. In fact, it’s just the opposite. They lead to the jitters and poorer performance.

A better way to achieve mental balance and focus
When you consume large amounts of caffeine, your agitated brain often works against your efforts to focus on the ‘here and now’. Instead, you need something that balances your brain waves which brings you into a focused and clear state. A unique alternative to the energy approach can be found in the amino acid L-theanine found in green tea. That’s one of the biggest values for athletes who consume products made with Suntheanine, (a pure form of the unique amino acid L-theanine produced by a patented enzymatic process): it promotes a calming effect and helps the brain stay balanced and focused. This is huge for both performance on game day and for dealing with everyday stresses that might distract you from doing your best.

Suntheanine stimulates production of the alpha brain waves, a state often achieved by meditation where one is calm, focused and mentally alert. Its effects are generally felt within 30 minutes and have been shown to last up to 8-12 hours. Unlike caffeine and other stimulants, Suntheanine does not lead to jitters, restlessness, increased heart rates, anxiousness or irritability, and does not negatively impact your ability to focus or concentrate on the task at hand.

Don’t get me wrong, caffeine is not necessarily detrimental when taken in moderation. Rather, we should not confuse ‘energy’ with ‘focus’ and being “in the zone”. My concern with the typical energy drink is related to the high levels of stimulants that they contain, and their excessive use by athletes and youth, believing that they will improve their game.

From a sports psychology perspective how a person processes stress – whether it is in their personal life or on the playing field – is the most important thing. The more you can stay focused on what’s happening right here and right now, the more consistent your performance will be.


Author Biography:

Shaun Goodsell has had a passion for working with and helping kids and adolescents for the better part of his life. He has been working with kids in adverse situations for twenty years and has seen many of them through the most horrific of situations. He grew up playing hockey and running cross-country for his local high school and has also run an amazing six marathons! With a Bachelor’s Degree in Communications, a Master’s Degree in Counseling Psychology and his undying love for athletics and young people, Shaun has combined his academic background, his innate love for working with kids and adolescents and finally, his passion for sports in general to create The Mental Edge. A company which not only guides athletes toward a higher ground in measures of performance, but also in their every day lives.

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