Stop dreaming: Achieving by not focusing on winning

The best athletes know when to stop dreaming of winning and when to focus on the moment. Help them concentrate on the processes that will help them achieve their potential.

Every top athlete imagines themselves at the winning line and holding up the cup. It’s what makes us sports people hungry to improve. Yet, they also know how to focus when they are at the start line, or in the case of rugby players, cross the whitewash and onto the pitch. Here’s how you can help them improve on being present-focussed.


When the starting whistle goes, the player wants to focus on that moment in time, not the end result. To do this, encourage players to think about one play at a time. As the ball is kicked off, they should know their role and responsibilities, and have a plan of action that guides them through many eventualities.

A player’s focus may be different when comparing practice situations to matches. In training, players have a chance to try out techniques, engage in deliberate practice, reflect and listen to feedback.

When it comes to the game, they want to feel that these techniques are natural, and are recalled from memory with little effort. Instead pre-performance routines may help them approach matches with the “winning” mindset.

Goal kickers and hookers will most likely have a very set routine, which may include breathing exercises, mental cues and imagery rehearsals. But all players can do something before the start of a play to bring their mind into the present. This could be as simple as a cue word, adjusting a shirt or even a hand gesture.


A process is an action performed by a player which leads to an outcome. For example, a tackler will use footwork to get close to the ball carrier, then use his shoulder, grip, head position and leg drive to complete the tackle.

The desired outcome is a completed tackle. However, there are external factors out of the player’s control, such as slippery pitches, evasive opposition techniques or even referee decisions that work against the team. A missed tackle can be down to poor processes and/or uncontrollable situations.

That’s why players need to work on the areas they can control, and seek to make themselves better at them. One of the roles of coaches is to create an environment where quality practice can make these processes more habitual, yet continues to challenge players.

Simply spending time working on something that already works well, with little or no pressure may not enable growth. A bit of challenge will accelerate the learning process when effort is applied.

Be careful not to set challenges too high, such that even with hard work, players are unable to achieve the desired results. If challenges are too high, players risk becoming anxious and stressed.


Setting goals, can help players focus on the process which enables more control. Goal setting is a powerful way to motivate players. The coach and players are urged to set collective team goals together. Individual goals are also useful and it is better if the player engages in the process with autonomy.

Think about using the SMART principle to help in setting goals. That’s Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Realistic and Time specific. Using this principle, set goals that can be broken down into more manageable tasks. Also, consider focussing on the three most important aspects to keep everything manageable and clear.

However, think about making goals adjustable. This isn’t a get-out clause, but rather it recognises that certain life circumstances such as injury may impact on the ability of a player to achieve their potential. Hence some adjustment in the timeframe for the player achieving the particular goal may need to be considered. If goals are too rigid, a player may become anxious and stressed about what they are trying to achieve, and that can lead to a downwards spiral in confidence.


SCRUM Training goal: Front body positioning – 8 out of 10 scrums correct position.

TACKLE Game goal: Grip in the tackle – make good use of this technique in 5 out of every 6 tackles made.

LINEOUT LIFTING Training performance goal: 9 out of 10 quick lifts in the final section of the session, focusing on the processes of foot positioning, leg and arm extensions.

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