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How to refocus when you don’t make the cut

The current Olympic trials are proving as tough as ever, with many known names not making the cut. Hackett, an experienced swimmer, is one of the well known athletes who did not make qualifying time. Be it the Olympic trials or regional qualifiers, not making the cut can shake the resolve of even the most seasoned athlete. However, do not miss the opportunity to learn from these valuable experiences. The key to improving physical performance after a sporting mishap is to strengthen your mental fitness and refocus your mind.

When researching methods of mental training that elite athletes can use to enhance their performance, three common denominators kept cropping up: goal setting, visualisation, and focus. All of these methods are useful when you want to refocus. This trio of training techniques seems to be the golden combination that lies at the heart of many mental fitness methods, and goal setting is one of the first weapons that an athlete should have in their arsenal.


The Australian Institute of Sport (AIS) identifies goal setting as a motivation booster and a way to increase your confidence in your performance. Quantifying your success by chunking large goals into smaller, more achievable sections is a sure way to build your confidence in your own ability.

The AIS suggests using S.M.A.R.T. goals to help manage your goal setting and refocus your energies. In fact, many sports organisations and websites use the S.M.A.R.T. acronym as a tried and tested method for an athlete to track their progress. While the word attached to each letter may be different depending on who uses it, its general meaning remains the same.

  • Specific: What time do you want to beat? What distance do you want to run? Being particular about what you want to achieve will make completing the goal easier.
  • Measurable: How will you know when you have achieved your goal? Ensure your goal is quantifiable and celebrate your achievements no matter how small.
  • Achievable: Are you physically and mentally capable of achieving your goal? Create goals that you can realistically achieve.
  • Relevant: Is your goal relevant to what you are doing? Ensuring that your goals are relevant is important, as this will help you progress toward achieving a larger goal.
  • Timely: Attach a timeframe to your goal. Giving your goal a timeframe is not only motivating, but also makes your goal more measureable.


Having goals in place, particularly S.M.A.R.T. goals, is especially important if you don’t make the cut. Make this a reflective experience and revise your goals. Go back over what you hoped to achieve, and ask yourself some questions.

  • Were my goals specific? Did I make clear what I wanted to achieve?
  • Were my goals measureable? Did I know when I completed my goals?
  • Were my goals achievable? Did I make my goals realistic?
  • Were my goals relevant? Did I make my goals important?
  • Were my goals timely? Did I give my goals a timeframe?

In hindsight, perhaps you didn’t structure your goals properly in accordance with your needs, your performance, or time available. Being adaptable and able to refocus your energy and restructure your goals so you always have a clear path ahead of you are important skills all athletes should develop. Use this experience as a stepping-stone toward your future success.


Jeffrey Hodges, director of Sportsmind, explains in his audio recording “Optimum State For Visualisation” that for an athlete to use visualisation effectively, they must first put themselves in an optimum mental state. He bases this reasoning on recent research conducted in the U.S., which shows that when athletes maintain theta brain waves – those linked to meditation – they can “achieve a higher standard of physical performance much faster”.

In another recording, Hodges gives tips on how to get the most out of practicing visualisation.

“Know what you want to do in your visualisation. Set goals for what you want to achieve. Begin your visualisation sessions with a relaxation technique to get your mind into an optimum state for visualisation. Use all your senses when visualising, and associate into your body so you can experience what you would see, hear, and feel as if you were really there. Practice perfectly. Mentally, you can get it right every time, and you want to do this to program in the best neuromuscular circuit for future successes. Regular and consistent practice with visualisation is what makes the difference.”

Visualisation is a useful reflective technique because it assists you in identifying mistakes and areas that need work.

“Visualisation is an important tool for any athlete who wants to succeed in their chosen field. Imagining yourself winning, establishing a new personal best, or hitting the mark puts you on the path to achieving that goal.”


Finally, and probably the most important factor in bouncing back from failure, is focus. The AIS identifies being able to concentrate on the right thing at the right time as “one of the most important skills an athlete can possess”. Perhaps you didn’t focus when you should have, or you were concentrating on the wrong things. Consequently, a lack or loss of concentration may have been an active factor in your not making the cut.

The AIS names two types of distractions that can cause athletes to lose their concentration when they need it most: internal distractions and external distractions. The Institute lists some strategies for athletes to use to improve their concentration:

  • Simulation training: identify distractions present at competitions and learn to manage these at training.
  • Cue words: establish words to remind you of your focus.
  • Positive self-talk: repeat positive affirmations.
  • Switching on and off: identify points during training or competition when you need focus on the task at hand, or when you can allow your focus to shift.
  • ‘Parking’ thoughts: put your thoughts aside until a later time.
  • Staying in the ‘here and now’: control your present actions.


Similar to revising and restructuring your goals, being able to refocus your mental energy is particularly important. Instead of falling into a negative frame of mind, put yourself into what U.S. psychologist and author of the book MindSet Carol Dweck calls a growth mindset.

“A growth mindset focuses on improving, with the understanding that improvement is constantly underway through your practice and even mistakes.” -Carol Dweck

Olympic trials are a big event but whatever the level of competition, the priority is to make the most of the experience. Breathe in the atmosphere. Appreciate the officials. Acknowledge the support team that shared your journey. Welcome the growth opportunity. Competing and not reaching your performance expectations can be a valuable learning experience. It’s all about your next move. So if you didn’t make the cut, take time to refocus your energy to improve your performance.