Athletic Focus
in the Age of the Internet:
A Coach’s Guide

How to improve focus in sports - image of athlete on smartphone

Improving focus in sports is one of a coach’s greatest challenges. Social media and video games haven’t made that any easier. Across every level and type of athletic competition, coaches report taking on more roles than they did ten years ago to ensure their athletes are mentally and physically prepared to practice and play. If you can relate, read on for some helpful ideas for building a team culture that prioritizes healthy digital media use and gets buy-in from your players to turn off the internet and get their heads in the game. How to improve focus in sports.

In This Article

The Internet: The New Outside Noise

Managing distractions has always been a key factor in developing athletic performance, but the internet has multiplied those distractions exponentially. Late-night video game and text messaging sessions rob athletes of precious sleep. Through mobile devices, their social lives follow them to practice and competitions. Online comments about their athletic performance wreak havoc on their concentration. And following their competitors’ training on social media gives them FOMO. All of this results in athletes that are anxious, mentally fatigued, and off their game. Now that the NCAA has decided to allow college athletes to monetize their name, image and likeness, the pull of social media will be that much stronger for those who want to use it to build followings and attract sponsors.1 What can coaches do to get their athletes off their devices and into the game?

Play Video about Vince Carter Social Media Pitfalls for Athletes
Video: 8-time NBA All-Star Vince Carter tells ESPN’s “Outside the Lines” host Jeremy Schaap,“It’s tough for someone like myself or guys who were in the NBA prior to social media being a thing because, I mean, it wasn’t a thing so we didn’t have to worry about the outside noise and, you know, now we’re so accessible to all of these outlets at the click of a button. Turn on your phone, tap and then there it is.”

The Facts About Digital Media Overuse and Athletic Performance

The internet has made this generation of athletes information rich and data driven. You’ll get more buy-in for team rules around healthy digital media use if they’re evidence based. The facts below will help when players try to explain away their digital media overuse behaviors.

“Coach, I get by fine with 6 hours sleep.”

Flip for the facts

The Facts

Research shows that getting 9-10 hours of sleep improves athletic performance.2 Digital media overuse robs athletes of sleep as they stay up late texting, tweeting, or playing video games.3 Late-night tweeting among NBA basketball players has also been correlated with fewer baskets scored and fewer rebounds during the next day’s game.4 For athletes to perform their best, they need a full night’s sleep. Researchers recommend between 9 and 11 hours for school-aged children, 8 to 10 hours for teenagers, and 7 to 9 hours for young adults 5

“Playing video games with my teammates helps me unwind.”

Flip for the facts

The Facts

Multiple studies show that 30 minutes or more of video gaming or social media use causes mental fatigue which impedes athletic performance.6,7,8,9,10 One study also correlated Facebook use before and during competition with sport anxiety among athletes.11

For a more detailed overview of how too much social media and video game use can impede athletic performance, click here.

How Digital Media Overuse Effects Athletic Performance

How to Get Your Team to Buy Into Healthy Digital Media Use

You can’t just yell the facts about digital media overuse and expect players to drop their phones at the door when they arrive at practice. Coaches have to lay the groundwork with their players to get buy-in for behavioral changes. And that starts with establishing a culture of physical, mental, and emotional health for your team that includes healthy digital media use. The following steps have worked for teams to establish behavioral changes that improve focus in sports.

● Rules for Digital Media Use Should Reflect Your Team Culture

● Ground Digital Media Rules in Evidence-Based Research

● Communicate Early and Consistently

● Leave Room for Co-Authorship

● Listen More than You Talk

Rules for Digital Media Use Should Reflect Your Team Culture
Taking a hard line against social media and video games in a vacuum will only communicate to your players that you’re out of step with the times. Players are often willing to make behavioral changes if they believe those changes are in line with individual and team goals. Get clear about the team culture you want to create and how healthy digital media use fits into it.

For example, if you want to cultivate respectful behavior within the team, social media use should be included in that conversation. As in, respect your teammates and your coaches enough to give them your full attention at practice and during games. Turn off your phone and focus on the task at hand. Showing up to practice and competitions well rested and prepared to play is another way to show respect. Digital media use should be included in that discussion because staying up late gaming or texting causes sleep deprivation which has been correlated with impaired athletic performance.

Ground Digital Media Rules in Evidence-Based Research
Never try to lay down rules about healthy digital media use without explaining why to your players. Teach them that digital media use affects their athletic performance the same way nutrition and sleep hygiene do. This will go a long way to show them it’s not your aim to ruin their fun. It’s just science.

“My generation needs to know why because we are science driven. We can look up anything on Google and find a solution for anything, so coaches need to understand that if you ask us to do something, it should mean something, it should have proven credibility, and we need to know why it works in order to buy into whatever it is.”


Communicate Early and Consistently
It’s never too early to begin speaking with athletes about the kind of culture you want on your team. On the youth sports level, coaches can begin as soon as the team is finalized, before the first practice. Enlist parents and players to help build a healthy environment for everyone on the team that includes healthy digital media use. If you’re a college or elite-level coach, begin during the recruitment process. College athletes commonly complain that what coaches tell them during recruitment does not reflect their experience on the team. This deteriorates trust between athletes and their coach and athletic program. Something to consider now that the internet has provided college athletes with a transfer portal. The more you can honestly describe your team culture to prospective draftees and their families, the better chance you have of creating a happy, well-oiled team.

“You see that’s the thing with recruiting, it’s such a messed-up thing. You’ll say anything to get an athlete to come, and then the moment they sign, the whole attitude switches and you’re just another player.”

Leave Room for Co-Authorship
To garner buy-in for the team culture you’re trying to create, leave some things open for co-authorship. For example, if you want to foster a team culture of respect, ask your team to help you list examples of disrespectful behavior. More than likely someone will name “showing up unprepared”. If not, you can add it to the list. Then ask them to list ways that players show up to practice or games unprepared. Inevitably someone will say, “not getting enough sleep the night before” or “not being focused during practice or during the game,” setting you up to explain that too much social media and gaming are common reasons that this happens.

Listen More Than You Talk
With all this discussion about communicating with your team, we don’t want you to forget to listen to your athletes—a lot. Coaching is a people-oriented profession. And nothing is more important than the relationship between you and your athletes. Put time in your schedule to connect with athletes one-on-one at least once a month. If you’re the head coach of a big program, you might need to divide this duty between yourself and the assistant coaches, but make sure every player feels they matter to you as a person, not just as a player. This will instill trust between you and your players, increasing the likelihood of their buy-in. As well as help you assess their digital media habits.

“I've been amazed over the years the number of people I have met who are not people persons and they're in coaching. It doesn't work. This is just human beings. It's group dynamics. It's people coming together.”

How to Improve Focus in Sports
in the Age of the Internet:
Resources to Learn More

How new Drake football coach Todd Stepsis is putting his imprint on the program [Des Moines Register] — News article and video about a college coach in Iowa who’s gotten his players to turn off phones before practice as one part of a larger shift in team culture.

5 Tips for Building a Strong Relationship Between a Coach and an Athlete [Ohio University] Great article that goes into some of the skills coaches can develop to form strong ties with their athletes.

Should We Ask Our Athletes to Give Up Their Phones? [Growing Leaders] — Article about how digital media use hinders team bonding and a list of steps you can take to get your team to put devices down. Growing Leaders is a non-profit that offers resources to educators, employers, coaches, youth workers, and parents to understand and connect with Gen Z.

Tackling technology in track and field [Athletics Weekly] — An article that looks at how athletes’ addiction to screen time can challenge their success and how coaches can work with athletes to meet in the middle on this issue.

Recreational Screen Time and Anxiety among College Athletes: Findings from Shanghai [International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health] — Academic study that found excessive recreational screen time is a risk indicator of college student athletes’ dispositional anxiety, pre-competition anxiety, and anxiety during competition.

Seeing the benefits while trying to manage risk: Exploring coach perceptions and messaging with student athletes around Fortnite [Sci-Hub] Academic study of Division I college coaches and their messaging to student-athletes’ about the video game Fortnite.The results suggest that coaches need to strategically manage message construction around entertainment media such as video games to avoid negatively impacting their relationship with student-athletes while also needing to manage risks associated with these technologies.

Managing Students-Athletes’ Motivations For Playing Fortnite [AthleticDirectorU] – This article from AthleticDirectorU summarizes findings and recommendations from an academic study that looked at college athletes’ motivations for playing the incredibly popular video game Fortnite.

State of Play 2021 [Aspen Institute Project Play] – Project Play produces exclusive reports that take measure of the state of play from the national to community levels by creating research, insights and tools that sport providers use to improve the delivery of youth programs.

How to Coach Kids [] – This site is full of resources for youth coaches to learn how to coach kids. It covers everything from how to prepare for practices and competitions to how to bring social-emotional learning into your coaching. Co-created by the United States Olympic Committee and Nike and inspired by Aspen Institute Project Play. Full

Social media 101 for coaches [ViaSport] – This article has a good section on how to talk to your team about healthy behavior on social media in a way that is reflective of overall team values. From a Canada-based organization that provides strategic leadership to the amateur sport ecosystem.

Mental health and social media [The Art of Coaching Volleyball] – Video recording of an online discussion between four coaches about the effects of social media on athletes, especially body image and social comparison. The Art of Coaching Volleyball launched an annual series of coaching clinics in 2011 and later created a website where coaches could find the resources needed to help their players and teams improve.

Coaching the Modern Day Student-Athlete with Dr. Tiff Jones [ITA-The College Tennis Coaches Podcast]  – In this interview, certified mental performance consultant and former college coach Tiff Jones discusses how technology has influenced the social and emotional behavior of this generation of athletes and gives strategies coaches can use to connect with them. This podcast is from the Intercollegiate Tennis Association.

The Golden Rule: Coach the Kid, Not the Sport [Mojo.Sport] — Article about how to work with kids on your team who don’t really want to be there.


1. (2021, December 28). NCAA adopts interim name, image and likeness policy.

2. Touitou, Y., Touitou, D., & Reinberg, A. (2016). Disruption of adolescents’ circadian clock: The vicious circle of media use, exposure to light at night, sleep loss and risk behaviors. Journal of Physiology-Paris, 110(4), 467–479.

3. Fry, A. (2022, March 11). Sleep, Athletic Performance, and Recovery. Sleep Foundation.

4. Jones, J. J., Kirschen, G. W., Kancharla, S., & Hale, L. (2019). Association between late-night tweeting and next-day game performance among professional basketball players. Sleep Health, 5(1), 68–71.

5. Hirshkowitz, M., Whiton, K., Albert, S. M., Alessi, C., Bruni, O., DonCarlos, L., Hazen, N., Herman, J., Katz, E. S., Kheirandish-Gozal, L., Neubauer, D. N., O’Donnell, A. E., Ohayon, M., Peever, J., Rawding, R., Sachdeva, R. C., Setters, B., Vitiello, M. V., Ware, J. C., & Adams Hillard, P. J. (2015). National Sleep Foundation’s sleep time duration recommendations: methodology and results summary. Sleep Health, 1(1), 40–43.

6. Fortes, L. S., de Lima-Junior, D., Fiorese, L., Nascimento-Júnior, J. R. A., Mortatti, A. L., & Ferreira, M. E. C. (2020).The effect of smartphones and playing video games on decision-making in soccer players: A crossover and randomised study Journal of Sports Sciences, 38(5), 552–558.

7. Fortes, L. S., Gantois, P., de Lima-Júnior, D., Barbosa, B. T., Ferreira, M. E. C., Nakamura, F. Y., Albuquerque, M. R., & F. S., F. (2021) Playing videogames or using social media applications on smartphones causes mental fatigue and impairs decision-making performance in amateur boxers Applied Neuropsychology: Adult, 1-12 | 10.1080/23279095.2021.1927036. Sci-Hub.

8. Fortes, L. S., Lima-Júnior, D. D., Gantois, P., Nasicmento-Júnior, J. R. A., & Fonseca, F. S. (2020). Smartphone Use Among High Level Swimmers Is Associated With Mental Fatigue and Slower 100- and 200- but Not 50-Meter Freestyle Racing. Perceptual and Motor Skills, 128(1), 390–408. 9. Fortes, L. S., Lima-Junior, D., Nascimento-Júnior, J. R., Costa, E. C., Matta, M. O., & Ferreira, M. E. (2019). Effect of exposure time to smartphone apps on passing decision-making in male soccer athletes. Psychology of Sport and Exercise, 44, 35–41.
10. Fortes, L. S., Fonseca, F. S., Nakamura, F. Y., Barbosa, B. T., Gantois, P., de Lima-Júnior, D., & Ferreira, M. E. C. (2021). Effects of Mental Fatigue Induced by Social Media Use on Volleyball Decision-Making, Endurance, and Countermovement Jump Performance. Perceptual and Motor Skills, 128(6), 2745–2766.

11. Encel, K., Mesagno, C., & Brown, H. (2016). Facebook use and its relationship with sport anxiety. Journal of Sports Sciences, 35(8), 756–761.

12.Vance, M. R. (2019, July). Generation Z: Perceptions from Today’s Collegiate Athlete on the Coach-Athlete Relationship and Its Impact on Success in Athletics. Digital Commons @CSP. Retrieved October 4, 2022, from
13.Vance, M. R. (2019, July). Generation Z: Perceptions from Today’s Collegiate Athlete on the Coach-Athlete Relationship and Its Impact on Success in Athletics Digital Commons @CSP. Retrieved October 4, 2022, from

14. Way of Champions Podcast #203 Great Assistant Coaches ‘Cement the Cracks’ with Ron Adams, Golden State Warriors Asst. Coach. (2021, January 17). Wayofchampions.Libsyn.Com.