Have you ever had an experience where you were playing exceptionally well and building up a large stack only to lose it in a few minutes?

Looking back, would it be fair to say that losing focus was a contributing factor?

This scenario happens many times - even to very good players.

  • Maybe they missed the signals their opponent was giving them about the strength of their poker hand ranking. So, they kept barrelling, only to see the bad news when the cards flipped over.
  • Or perhaps they felt fatigued and played their hand too passively.

While it’s possible that other psychological factors played a role, lost focus is often the main culprit.

In 1890, psychologist William James argued that you must be able to take “clear possession of the mind in order to focus only on the most important factors at the exclusion of non-important factors” if you want to achieve your goals.

He meant that focusing on irrelevant, unimportant stuff would lead to subpar performance. You must focus on what is crucial and block out all the rest.

If you want to improve your combinations in poker performance, you must do the following:

  1. Focus only on relevant cues in your environment while ignoring irrelevant things.
  2. Maintain your focus over time.
  3. Be situationally aware so you can adapt as needed.
  4. Be able to shift your focus as necessary.

Doing the above four things well will help you achieve your poker goals. Don’t do them well, and you will likely be in for a rough ride.

So, how does one go about improving focus and concentration?

First, let’s delve into distractions and how to best deal with them.

Dealing With Distractions

Dealing With Distractions

We often say that we’ve “lost concentration”. It is more accurate to say we cannot direct our focus on where we want it to be. You can think of concentration as a beam of light that is always on.

  • Sometimes, the light directly focuses on where it should be
  • Other times, it drifts to somewhere less valuable (like unwanted thoughts or other distractions).

Distractions can significantly impact your ability to concentrate and make sound decisions. Blocking out external stimuli and staying focused in a noisy casino or a crowded home game can be challenging.

Online poker is not free from distractions, either. Whether trying to multitask by playing several tables at once or ignoring unwanted chats, external distractions vie for your attention.

Internal distractions, such as thoughts about personal problems or financial worries, can also affect your ability to concentrate.

If you want to improve your game, developing strategies for managing distractions and maintaining focus while playing (and studying later) is essential.

9 Techniques for Improving Focus

You can incorporate several techniques into your routine to improve your focus and concentration and to better deal with distractions.

1. Develop a pregame warmup: 

Coming up with a set of rituals or habits before playing can create a sense of familiarity and prepare your mind for the task ahead. This practice can get you into the right mindset, enhancing your concentration.

2. Practice selective attention:

When you sit down to play, ask yourself, “What is my job right now?” You may think your job is to win money or a world poker tournament. But the correct answer is that your job is to play each hand to the best of your ability.

Reminding yourself of this will help you selectively attend to what’s vital in the present moment. Spoiler alert: the focus is not on a past hand, and it’s not something that might happen in the future. Focus on what is controllable and let the rest go by the wayside.

Focus on what is controllable

3. Use positive self-talk:

Don’t let your thoughts run wild. It is very easy to get distracted by negative thoughts, but you can usually talk to yourself so that you don’t get consumed by them. You want to be deliberate about the messages you give to yourself. Negative self-talk, like “I am so stupid” and “Why did I do that!?” will likely reduce self-confidence and focus/concentration.

It is far more effective to prepare some short, positive phrases before playing that you can use to keep your mind primed for focus. Positive statements like, “Keep your head in the game, each hand matters, you can do this, let’s go, or I’m still in this” are good options.

Try using short, specific, encouraging statements whenever you notice that you are losing focus. You can remind yourself to relax and breathe. You might also try statements like “I choose to focus on what can help me the most right now” or “I will relax and let it go.”

4. Use visualisation and mental rehearsal:

Many players find these powerful techniques valuable but this method is no poker cheat sheet. They work by allowing you to picture yourself going through a routine mentally. You mentally rehearse different scenarios and visualise yourself making good decisions Doing so trains your brain to stay focused and make better choices during the game.

Use visualisation and mental rehearsal

5. Practice mindfulness and meditation:

Studies show that developing a mindfulness meditation habit can improve focus and concentration. Mindfulness involves paying attention to the present moment without judgment. In comparison, meditation trains the mind to focus on a specific object or thought.

These practices can be used separately or combined. Both can help you remain calm under pressure, reduce stress, and enhance concentration.

6. Develop a routine for managing distractions:

It’s a good idea to have a routine you can use when you notice yourself getting distracted. Assuming, of course, you are monitoring yourself to identify when your focus is waning. Whenever you catch yourself getting distracted, fall back on your routine. You could take a break and use techniques such as deep breathing or visualisation to refocus your mind.

7. Be situationally aware:

Phil Ivey, with his one WPT Poker Tour and many WSOP titles, has a reputation for being able to “soul read” his opponents. This ability is an example of being situationally aware. He is exceptionally skilled at paying attention to and picking up the clues his opponents are offering. Becoming situationally aware is a complex skill best developed through experience.

Studies show that novices and experts differ dramatically in their abilities to be situationally aware. The experts can even pick up subtle cues, while novice players often miss obvious patterns. Developing expertise facilitates the development of situational awareness, a key component of focus.

8. Learn to get in the zone:

Getting into the zone, or being in flow, is a mental state where you are entirely immersed in the activity and playing optimally. It can only happen when your skill level is well-matched to the challenge. If you are in a game that is too easy for you, boredom (and often lack of focus) will ensue. Get into a game where you are outmatched, and anxiety is the likely outcome.

Anxious people often get wrapped up in thoughts about the future (e.g., worried about looking like a fool, wondering what they will do if raised, etc.). The secret to being in the zone is becoming wholly absorbed (aka entirely focused) on the task. The challenge-skill balance aids immensely in this process.

The challenge-skill balance aids immensely in this process.

9. Maintain a balanced diet:

The brain requires a constant supply of nutrients and oxygen to function at its best. If you’re dehydrated or hungry, your ability to concentrate will decline. Research has shown that foods rich in antioxidants and omega-3 fatty acids play a crucial role in assisting with focus. Being dehydrated can lead to fatigue, headaches, and difficulty concentrating.

Power of Focus Conclusion

Concentrating and focusing are crucial for achieving peak performance in poker. So, working to improve in this area can pay real dividends. Unfortunately, the brain naturally tends towards distraction. Getting good at staying focused can take a lot of practice.

Commit to maintaining a positive attitude at all times and challenge yourself to think and behave in ways that will help you. This dedication will go a long way towards improving your focus in this area.

Get in the habit of only focusing on things under your direct control. It is easy to go on tilt and lose focus.

But if you practise getting off tilt quickly, you’ll get your head back in the game and refocus in no time.

Dr. Tricia Cardner is the author of Positive Poker, Peak Poker Performance and co-author of Purposeful Practice for Poker. She podcasts at Poker on The Mind with her co-host Gareth James. You can find her at peakpokermindset.com where she teaches poker players the most effective psychological strategies for optimal poker performance.