Tiger Woods returned to the world of professional golf yesterday at the Masters Tournament, after a months-long and scandal-plagued absence. Many sports analysts doubted that he would perform well – some predicted that he wouldn’t even get past the first cut. How could he possibly focus? Wouldn’t he be distracted by all the turmoil? Surely he couldn’t perform under that kind of pressure, under such hostile scrutiny?
When Woods approached the first tee, he was greeted with applause and cheers – though there were enough boos and hisses to be clearly heard. Then, a small and rather noisy airplane flew overhead, lingering above the course, with a message trailing behind that read “Tiger Did You Mean Bootyism?” (referring to both his religion and his recent sexual transgressions). A couple of hours later, a second banner appeared, reading “Sex addict? Yeah. Right. Sure. Me Too!” Whatever taunts and animosity Woods may have expected to encounter yesterday, he probably never considered the possibility of sky-heckling.
Despite the pressure, the mocking, and whatever internal conflict and self-doubt he may be enduring, Tiger Wood shot a four-under-par 68, his best performance ever on the first day of a Masters. Whatever your personal opinion of him may be, you really can’t help but wonder, how in the world did he do that?
One clue can be found in the answer he gave to a reporter, when he was asked what his remarkable comeback performance “meant to him.” Woods replied, “It meant I’m two shots off the lead, that’s what it means. I’m here to play a golf tournament.” This is an athlete who knows how to shut out distractions – to focus on the game and nothing else. Not surprising, really, given that he has won 14 major titles (his last, the U.S. Open, when he was suffering a very painful knee injury).
Distraction is one of the most dangerous saboteurs we can encounter in pursuit of our goals, and it comes in many forms. Some distractions, like jeering fans, loud noises, or taunting airplanes, come from outside of ourselves. Others, like anxiety, self-doubt, cravings and intrusive thoughts, come from within. Whatever the source, distractions take our attention and energy away from what we are trying to do, and lead to inefficiency and mistakes.
Not knowing him personally, I really can’t say which strategies Tiger Woods uses to shield his performance from distractions, but I can say something about the ones that the rest of us can use to keep ourselves from being distracted, from the inside and out.
First, you’ll want to practice. Practice may not actually make perfect, but one thing it does for sure is make automatic. The more you practice, the more the actions you need to take become routinized – your brain learns what to do without you having to consciously think about each step. Automatically-executed actions are harder to derail. For instance, because I have spent so many hours typing on my computer, the act of typing is relatively automatic for me – my toddlers can scream and bang on pots in the background and my fingers still hit all the right keys (now, whether what I end up writing in all that racket is actually worth reading is something else altogether.)
Second, try simulating the factors that might disrupt you as part of your practice. Getting used to distractions makes them less attention-grabbing, and weakens their impact on your performance. (When he was young, Tiger Wood’s father would often drop clubs or make loud noises when his son was in mid-swing, in order to prepare him for the distractions he might face in competition.)
Lastly, try making an if-then plan for how you will deal with the distractions you think are most likely to occur. By planning out in advance how you will respond, you can act swiftly to return your attention to your performance. The plan can be as simple as saying “If I hear a distracting noise, then I will ignore it,” or “If people are calling out, then I will focus on the game.” Studies show that if-then plans made by dieters to control their cravings (e.g., by having a healthy snack) and by competitive tennis players for dealing with feelings of anxiety or frustration (e.g., by thinking about how they’ve won in the past) are enormously useful for improving and maintaining performance.
These strategies will keep your focused on your goal, so you can stay “in the zone” and do your best, no matter what kind of distraction comes your way.