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Coach to Coach: The Mental Fundamentals - Attention Control and Concentration

by: Tim Mitchell
Assistant Football Coach, Fossil Ridge High School (CO) and Sports Psychology Consultant
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One Play at a Time
It takes consistent practice in order to concentrate and focus on the proper things. Our defense in high school had a motto on every break of the huddle. The Mike linebacker would call the defense and yell “HIT!” and everyone would follow with “HARD!” HIT.....HARD! It seems so simple but that was over 25 years ago and it still gets me fired up. It served as a great verbal trigger to focus on the next play and it describes what we were about to do.

The ability to concentrate is defined by the ability to stay in the moment. Getting our football players to harness their full attention on a single play is optimal for their performance. What makes football such a great sport for creating the skill of focus and concentration is the fact that the team gets to reset after every play.

I remember watching a game on TV and hearing coach Marty Schottenheimer in a pre-game chant say “one play at a time!” That chant encapsulates the meaning of focus and concentration in football. “One play at a time” is the only thing we should really concentrate on and the only thing we have any chance of affecting. One of the best examples of this mantra occurs on special teams.

There are no second chances on a special teams play. There is no second or third down. It’s all or nothing. Each player must believe that their maximum effort on this one play will be enough to fill their heart with satisfaction as opposed to remorse. A motto can serve as a verbal trigger to remind them what they are about to do. Mottos are like mini-mission statements that can be repeated in the form of self-talk. Self-talk is the inner dialog a player is having in their mind. Help your players create self-talk mottos that express the mission of the moment.

The Real Scoreboard

I know there are times you have been dissatisfied with your team’s performance even though they won. On the other hand, I know you have been satisfied with your team’s performance even though your players lost a game. Why? Because the real scoreboard is based on effort and improvement and you, as the coach, know if your team gave it everything they had. That’s why we sometimes hear coaches express how proud they are of their team even after losing. One way I have helped my teams develop the “one play at a time” mentality, is to explain the real scoreboard:
1. Ask an injured player or parent to keep real scoreboard stats on the sidelines during the game. The stat I want them to keep is how many plays we won. I define winning a play by gaining 3 ½ yards or more on offense and holding the opposing offense to less than 3 yards on defense. I also have special teams criteria like pinning the opposing kick return team at the 30 or deeper. Come up with your own criteria that will satisfy you and help the players define what a winning play is and then make sure your statistician knows that criteria so they can track it accurately.

2. Provide regular updates on what the real scoreboard says. This will give them a driving focus to win the next play – ”one play at a time”. Win or lose, you can use this exercise to show improvement because it is quantifiable information.

3. Praise the team for winning what really matters. I have done this exercise multiple times with my teams. When we lost a game, I went to the real scoreboard and commended my team for winning what I considered to be more important. They won more plays. They just didn’t score more points. Put the focus on “one play at a time!”

Circle of Control

As a football team, we can only control certain elements and we must acknowledge that some things are impossible to control. Having your team identify the elements within their control will draw attention to what they should focus on. If athletes’ focus on the things that are out of their control, they’re likely to experience anxiety, doubt and low self-confidence. If they focus on what they can control, you’ll notice increased motivation, clarity of thought and increased performance because they have indentified what to focus on. To help your athletes make the distinction between what they can and can’t control, try this exercise.

Draw a large circle on a white board. Inside the circle, write down everything they have control over (let them come up with the items). You should hear things like, effort, feelings, reactions, stance, assignments, etc. This is their circle of control. After you feel satisfied with their answers, ask them to identify what they cannot control. You should hear them say things like the referees, coaches, bad calls, opponent’s talent, crowd, etc. Write these items outside of the circle, giving them the visual of the things they cannot control.

Then ask your athletes if they ever find themselves thinking about the things outside the circle. Ask them about their best games and what they were thinking about during their best games. Their answers will make the point for you. Then you can encourage them to create a self-talk dialog that reflects what’s inside the circle. As much as they know the right answer, you’re the leader. Inspire them to stay in the moment. Put their minds on what really matters, the real scoreboard – “one play at a time!”
About the Author: Coach Tim Mitchell is a Sports Psychology Consultant and a former U.S. Navy diver. He holds a master’s degree in Sport Performance Psychology. Mitchell has been coaching for over 20 years and is currently on the staff of Fossil Ridge High School in Ft. Collins (CO). He can be reached at


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