How To Improve Focus By Mastering The 4 Zones Of Focus


The ability of a hockey player to have focus in their game can be the difference between having success or sitting the bench.

Coaches cite focus as one of the most important mental skills they look for in players. Of the different workshops I do for teams, focus is one of the most popular topics coaches pick. Every person I talk to, from scouts, to coaches, to parents, and players. Focus is a critical mental toughness skill that elite players must master.

The idea of focus in hockey seems pretty straight forward. It’s being able to focus on the right thing at the right time and in the right way to enhance your on-ice performance and success.

However, the right thing, and the right time, and the right way change throughout competition and preparation.

Research on focus in sport identifies two bisecting continuums of focus. Internal vs. external and narrow vs wide. These differences create the 4 zones of focus that players must understand and master to improve their focus in hockey.

The 4 zones of Focus:

1 - Wide and External – Read

2 - Narrow and External – React

3 - Wide and Internal – Analyze

4 - Narrow and Internal – Contemplate

Let’s look at these areas closer because each zone is optimized to provide the right focus at the right time on the right thing, which is exactly what we said it takes to play focused hockey.

Wide and External

Having a wide external focus lets you see what’s going on in the game. It allows you to assess the play on the ice and utilize your hockey sense to read and react so you can make the right play at the right time. Having a wide external focus allows you to READ the play and anticipate what you need to do.

Narrow and External

Having a narrow external focus lets you play the game in small areas. It lets you focus tightly on technique and execution when battling for a puck or positioning in front of the net for a deflection or rebound. Having a narrow external focus allows you to REACT to what you see on the ice so you can do the right thing in the instant the opportunity presents itself.

Wide and Internal

Having a wide internal perspective allows you to analyze your play. It’s not recommended to have a wide internal focus when competing directly as the internal focus tends to put your thinking brain on high alert for mistakes and missed opportunities making it hard for your automatic brain to react to the situation on the ice. Having a wide internal focus is EXACTLY what you need when doing video coaching before of after a game, or working deliberately during practice to improve a skill you’re working on.

Narrow and Internal

Having a narrow internal focus happens in those moments when it is just you in your own head. It’s getting your attention and focus together so you can prepare to play. Narrow internal focus is the mental focus on the bus on the way to the rink where you use imagery to prepare your mind and body to play. It’s that quiet time in the locker room where, despite the noise around you, you are locked into your own mind, firing yourself up to get off to a fast start. Narrow internal focus is “you” time. It’s checking in with yourself to make sure you’re ready to go.

Now that you understand these different zones of focus, it makes it easier to recognize where your attention is when you’re playing and to be able to adjust quickly and appropriately to maximize your focus.

Now let’s take a look at a scenario on the ice where the wrong focus was used and that same situation where the player used the right focus at the right time in the right way.


Bobby stayed up late the night before the game and scrambled to get up and out to his morning game. His arrival at the rink and his pregame routine were sloppy and disconnected. There was a fair amount of screwing around with his teammates before getting ready. He didn’t follow any sort of routine while warming up and heading out the ice, his head really wasn’t in the game.

The game started slow and Bobby’s first few shifts were uneventful. Finally late in the 2nd period while the other team was pressuring in their zone, Bobby stepped over the boards on a shift change and casually glides into the play. As a defenseman, Bobby’s lazy saunter to the blue line was the beginning of Bobby’s worst game of the season.

As Bobby entered the play, he wasn’t paying attention to where his D-partner was along the far wall battling with the winger. As a result, Bobby slid into his position instead of supporting the puck and his defensive partner leaving the center of the ice wide open.

Right about then Bobby hears his coach screaming to “get to the middle, get to the middle” which Bobby starts to do but slow and behind the play. Right then the puck is rimmed behind the net so Bobby adjusts to get back to his side but again, behind the play. When the puck arrives at Bobby’s side, his hesitation lets the winger pounce on the puck and make a quick chip off the wall and out, resulting in a 2 on 0 breakaway going the other way where they score as the clock sounds to end the period. Ouch.

Now let us look at that play with the right focus on the right things at the right time.


Bobby gets a great night of sleep before today’s game and gets up and out of the house with a bounce in his step. He arrives at the rink excited about the game and immediately goes into game mode in his preparation.

He gathers up his teammates to begin warmups and the team jogs off for an energetic and spirited warmup. In the locker room the boys joke and chat but with a focus on the game at hand. There’s no screwing around and everyone acts like a pro. Heading out to the ice for the start of the game, Bobby feels that buzz of excitement that reminds him why he loves this game so much.

From the drop of the puck, Bobby is in the game. By the 2nd period, he already has 3 shots on goal and is shutting down the other team’s top line. As the 2nd-period winds down, Bobby jumps over the boards on a shift change and immediately notices his D-partner on the far wall battling for the puck so he goes straight to the middle of the ice to support the play and prevent a breakout.

As soon as he sees his D-partner gain control of the puck Bobby sees that he’s going to rim the puck low to eliminate the pressure at the point. Seeing this unfold, Bobby anticipates the other players on the ice and jumps to his side of the ice beating the winger to the puck and keeping the play inside the zone. Seeing the winger advancing, Bobby shields the puck with his body and sees his winger on the half wall supporting the play. With a quick flip, Bobby chips the puck off the wall down low to his winger, and without hesitation spins past the winger on him, and skate into the slot area. Not missing a beat, the winger who just got the puck from Bobby redirects it right back to Bobby for a give-and-go. With a step on the winger, Bobby takes the puck in stride fakes a shot, and then skates in putting the puck under the bar right as the period ends, giving his team the lead. GOAL!

So what were the differences between the crappy first scenario and the awesome second scenario?

  • WRONG FOCUS – The night before. In scenarios one, Bobby went to bed late, slept in, and rushed out the door haggard and frazzled
  • RIGHT FOCUS – In scenario two, Bobby got a great night sleep, jumped out of bed, ate a great breakfast, and arrived at the rink in game mode.
  • WRONG FOCUS – At the rink. Since his head was still foggy from the frantic morning, Bobby eats crappy rink food for breakfast and spends the hour before the game screwing around.
  • RIGHT FOCUS – At the rink, Bobby takes a leadership attitude and makes sure he and his teammates are behaving like pros. They look good, they act like gentlemen, and their warmup comes off like something you would see from the pros.
  • WRONG FOCUS – In the locker room, Bobby and his teammates aren’t thinking about the game, they’re not preparing mentally to play, and as a result, they get off to a slow start.
  • RIGHT FOCUS – In the locker room, the boys are all business. They’re getting their game face on, and the coaches can see these guys came ready to play.
  • WRONG FOCUS – When Bobby jumps over the board late in the 2nd, he doesn’t recognize the game situation and doesn’t go to the middle to support his D-partner.
  • RIGHT FOCUS – Paying attention to the line change, Bobby jumps over the boards and immediately surveys the situation on the ice recognizing that his D-partner was battling on the far wall meaning that Bobby needs to get to the center of the ice and support the play.
  • WRONG FOCUS – Then when the coach starts screaming, Bobby reacts, but too late and the rest of the shift he’s scrambling to react to what’s going on the ice but it’s too little too late and he and his team get burned for a late goal.
  • RIGHT FOCUS – Once he recognizes his D-partner gain control of the puck, Bobby reads the play and reacts quicker than the winger guarding him allowing him to get to the puck quicker and without hesitation, creating a beautiful give-and-go with the winger on his side setting up for an amazing deke and backhand for a goal.

You’ve heard it over and over, it's the little things that make the difference. Looking at the two scenarios described, something as simple as a poor night's sleep, or sloppy pre-game preparation, or inattention on the bench when making a line change can combine into a sloppy play on the ice and a late goal by the other team.

All of these are focus errors and they are things you can eliminate when you make a commitment to improving your focus in hockey.

If you want to learn more about your focusing style, I encourage you to look into TheFocusedPlayer workbook, part of TheCompletePlayer Workbook Series. Another incredible resource is the work by Dr. Robert Nideffer, considered the Godfather of research into focus and concentration in sport. If you’re into assessments, Dr. Nideffer developed the well-known TAIS assessment. (The Attentional and Interpersonal Style Assessment), that not only helps players understand their attention and focus style, but provides insight into how to develop in the areas that will benefit them the most, both in hockey and in life. I encourage you to check out Dr. Nideffer’s site at Enhanced Performance Systems

Kevin L. Willis, PhD
Sport Psychologist
Level 5 USA Hockey Coach

Focus Clarity Toughness