Last week, I met a remarkable 14-year-old athlete. Her determination, commitment and attitude toward her sport is remarkable. But it was her focus that really interested me.
Elizabeth Kapitonova is a rhythmic gymnast from Staten Island. She’s without question the best in the U.S. in her age group and will be competing in the youth Olympics this year.
I knew nothing about gymnastics before I was hired to cover the USA Championships. After four days, I know next to nothing, but it’s not hard to spot special athletes, even if you don’t know anything about what they are doing.
Rhythmic gymnastics is that competition where they dance, jump and roll around while doing impressive tricks (we will call them tricks for lack of the official term) with ribbons, clubs, a ball and a hoop. To win the event, the athletes had to do routines with each tool three times for a total of 12 routines.
Kapitonova was as close to perfect as possible each time. That alone takes focus, but nothing extremely special. The most interesting part of each of Kapitonova’s routines was her preparation.
Before they take the floor, most of the athletes would stand in the wings with their coach, who would give them reminders, assurance and motivation. Not Kapitonova. Her coach, Nataliya Kiriyenko, who is among the nation’s most successful coaches, has learned to just leave Elizabeth alone.
“She is actually different than students I’ve had before,” said Kiriyenko. “What I like and what I respect about her is that she can focus on what she is doing. Sometimes it is hard for me to keep silent before she performs. I want to remind her of several things, but I know her. She has to focus herself. She is going through her routine in her mind.”
Before she takes the floor, Kapitonova practices some of her tricks. Then she talks to herself. She tells herself things about the routine, things to remember, saysa little prayer, and when her name is announced, she slaps her thigh and says, “I’m On.”
When she’s finished, her face shows no hint of what she thought of her performance. She marches off to the practice area to get ready for the next round.
“She is a very interesting person, very interesting in the way she practices, the way her mind works, and she’s a very smart athlete,” said Kiriyenko. “Our main focus is what to do in this moment, this second. She does it herself.”
In my mind I started comparing that self-sufficiency and that level of concentration to the typical 14-year-old athlete. For those of you who have coached athletes of that age, have you ever heard this? “Wow, look at the moon!”
Before a game last season, my players found a frog by our bench. All of a sudden, seven girls named it, formed a rescue party and brought it to the nearby woods.
There are all kinds of distractions athletes have to deal with. Distractions can be internal – tests, problems at home, something exciting coming up soon. And they can be external, like frogs and pretty moons.
What can coaches do to help athletes focus better? Here are some suggestions from an article on Peak Sports
1. Routines – Develop routines for competitions including the night before, the morning or pre-game. Routines help focus their attention on the process and what’s relevant to their game instead of distracting thoughts.
2. Trigger Word – Choose a word -- “Refocus,” “Focus on the now” -- that helps them refocus their attention to the task at hand. Select a trigger word that has meaning to them or something they are working on in practice.
3. Be Aware – Make sure they are able to notice when they are out of their normal routine.
Another suggestion is to actually practice focusing. While your players are performing a skill – juggling a soccer ball, catching a baseball, stickhandling a puck, dribbling a basketball – distract them. Spray them with a squirt bottle, have a teammate sing to them, take their picture, or do something to try to draw their attention away.
How does Kapitonova do it? She has a little saying that she sticks to, and it boils it all down nicely.
Train, dominate, repeat.
For those of you who, like I did, thought this kid had to have no life away from gymnastics, you’ll be happy to know that Elizabeth enjoys going shopping or to the movies with friends, playing flag football and she’s a good student despite missing 70 days of school.
And once she was finished with all her performances, all her medals collected, her spot in the Youth Olympics secured, she changed out of the sparkly leotard into shorts and a t-shirt, sat with friends and laughed about anything that would distract her. The only thing left to focus on was vacation.