If confidence is the number one psychological characteristic of elite performers, the ability to intentionally and meaningfully focus one’s attention comes in a close second. Outside of sports performance, the ability to sort through the billions of bits of sensory information that our nervous systems are constantly being bombarded with is critical to our survival. We need to sift the relevant from the irrelevant and focus our attention on those things that matter most in any given situation. This type of attention is called selective attention. A classic example of selective attention is the “cocktail party” effect which demonstrates that if you were at a noisy “cocktail party”, you would be ignoring most of the irrelevant stimuli around you. Yet, if someone were to mention your name from across the room, your attention would be instantly grabbed given the personal meaning of the message.
Selective attention allows us to focus on those things that matter most and ignore those things that don’t. Not only has this skill allowed humans to survive for thousands of years, but it also separates the ordinary from the extraordinary athlete. The best athletes in the world are able to focus on those things that enhance performance and disregard those things that interfere with it.
In golf, this is particularly challenging given the solitary nature of the sport, which allows for more time to be distracted by both external and internal stimuli. So, how can we practice focusing on what matters and ignore those things that don’t? For the answer, let’s turn to the genius of Tiger Woods’ dad, Earl. It’s widely known that Earl played a critical role in helping develop Tiger’s mental game. When It came to nurturing the skill of selective attention, Earl had Tiger do something very interesting; he had him practice reading while watching television. Having witnessed the amount of attention Tiger received every time he teed it up, it was clear to Earl that Tiger would benefit from learning how to ignore all of the distractions and pressure that goes along with playing in front of thousands of hypercritical eyes. By having Tiger read a book while watching television, he essentially trained Tiger to ignore the background noise while focusing on a single task at hand. As I noted earlier, being able to intentionally and meaningfully focus your attention is paramount to a golfer’s success and has worked pretty well for Tiger.
So, should you practice reading while watching television? Yes, but I think there’s a better way to hone your selective attention skills. The next time you are practicing, bring your phone with you and play something to serve as a distractor. You can play around with how distracting you want the stimuli to be. Familiar soothing music might be least distracting while loud obnoxious crowd noises (which you can find on YouTube) might be more distracting. Ideally, you want to find the level of distraction that challenges you to focus. If the sound is too distracting, it will be counterproductive. Spend at least 15 minutes going through your routine and practice ignoring the background noise by deliberately focusing on each shot. Your measure of success will be simple, were you able to block out the background noise or not. This can be difficult at first, but with repetition, you will be able to lock in on your shots. With practice, you won’t even hear the background noise and will play with laser focus.