Sight is the primary sense used by athletes and research tells us that our sight/vision accounts for at least 85% of the sensory processing demands during sport (Khanal, 2015). At any given point in competition, athletes can experience a number of potential distractors. Examples can be broken down into two categories, external and internal:
External = the other team, fans, playing conditions (are you inside or outside) ...etc.
Internal = inner dialogue and our emotions, energy levels (when you begin to feel tired) ...etc.
Coaches and parents often use the aforementioned phrases as words of encouragement or to help re-direct. Often, they're thought to be interchangeable, but that isn't quite the case.
Attention is a natural function of the body because athletes are constantly in a state of observing the environment (Zeplin et al., 2014). Focus, on the other hand, requires concentrating on a specific point for an extended period of time while tuning out other stimuli in that environment (Zeplin et al., 2014).
A top level player for instance is able to track the flow of the game, process the information, make critical decisions, and respond to shifting dynamics. This might look like identifying several moving objects and tracking them in order to follow and anticipate the evolving play. This ability creates a competitive advantage when an athlete is able to control their attention in order to concentrate on the task at hand to consistently execute the right skills at the right time (LoRusso, 2017).
Consider the following:
As an athlete, what are the things outside yourself that you need to pay attention to and when? As an athlete, what are the things inside yourself that you need to focus on and when?
When athletes focus inward, they have an internal focus directed on thoughts, emotions, bodily sensations...etc (Nideffer & Sagal, 2006). When athletes focus outward, they have an external focus directed on their opponents, game play, the crowd, other sights and sounds...etc (Nideffer & Sagal, 2006).
By identifying the attentional demands specific to your sport and your position, you can better direct your focus more effectively and shift between internal and external demands. However, internal and external directions isn't the only dimension at play in our attention. There is also the dimension of broad and narrow. This dimension refers to how many things you are paying attention to at once (Nideffer & Sagal, 2006). When your attention is broad - it's many things. When narrow - specifically one to two things (Nideffer & Sagal, 2006).
During competitions, athletes are often called upon to shift across these dimensions in order to meet the required attentional demands of the situation (LoRusso, 2017; Zeplin et al., 2014; McCann et al., 2008; Nideffer & Sagal, 2006).
Look back at the image of the 'Four Quadrants of Attentional Focus'. This model describes how the two dimensions interact.
Assess (Broad-External) refers to your 'total environment' and is good for quickly assessing the situation (McCann et al., 2008). Mistakes in this quadrant occur when athletes pay attention to irrelevant or distracting cues and may be faked out easily (McCann et al., 2008).
Analyze (Broad-Internal) refers to your inner 'big picture' and is good for dealing with high volumes of information all at once and what is considered essential for developing game-time strategy (McCann et al., 2008). Mistakes in this quadrant occur with over analysis (McCann et al., 2008).
Act (Narrow-External) refers to a 'single object focus' and is good for locking on a primary target and essential for blocking out distractions (McCann et al., 2008). Mistakes in this quadrant occur when that focus is too narrow and they miss other important cues (McCann et al., 2008).
Prepare (Narrow-Internal) refers to your 'inner thoughts' and is good for body awareness, energy management, emotional regulation, and mental imagery (McCann et al., 2008). Mistakes in this quadrant cause the dreading choking during performance (McCann et al., 2008).
Choking or rapid deterioration in performance during high-pressured or important competitive situations, often involve physiological and psychological change (McCann et al., 2008; Nideffer & Sagal, 2006). For example, an athlete may become distracted by internal states (i.e. fear of failing and other anxious thoughts) that increase muscle tension, causing jerky and improper movements for the skill they are attempting to execute.
Using sport psychology to improve concentration and attentional control:
Athletes recognize the importance of maintaining concentration to perform their best but often don't know how to specifically train for and increase it. The following suggestions will help improve your ability to...
...during practice and competition.
1. Controllables Drill
2. Adopt a Routine.
"Routines increase the consistency of an athlete’s thinking, feelings, and pre-sport behavior and thus produce more consistent sports behavior leading to better results" (LoRusso, 2017).
3. Simulation Training
If you are a coach, provide athletes with opportunities to practice game-time scenarios so they experience possible distractions where they can learn to manage them ahead of time. It's within simulation training that coaches (and athletes themselves) can begin to adopt Cue Words - task-specific words or phrases that will help shift one's focus to the appropriate demands throughout their performance. Cue words can break down how to execute a skill or strategy.
4. Distraction Drills
Inside Rival runs a 'Focus Up!' clinic where we purposefully put the entire team through an exercise with many components for them to keep track of while they work together. As they navigate the drill they're required to practice shifting between attentional states and honing in on relevant cues to perform successfully. At the end we come together to talk about our shared victories and learning opportunities to extract what exactly made the athletes individually successful in maintaining focus and what made them successful as a team.
5. Practice Mindfulness
Mindfulness is most often defined as, 1) attention to present moment experience, coupled with 2) an attitude that is open, non-reactive, and accepting of things as they are (Norris et al., 2018). Research has demonstrated the positive effects of mindfulness meditation training on alerting, orienting, and executive attention (Norris et al., 2018). Becoming mindful of an internal state (i.e. one’s breath) can hone abilities such as focused attention, working memory, and acceptance (Norris et al., 2018). In turn, positive outcomes are seen with attentional focus, body awareness, emotion regulation, and perspectives on the self when mindfulness is practiced over time (Norris et al., 2018).
Training your attentional focus will improve and increase:
Mental stamina for better maintained concentration under stress and fatigue;
And act as a buffer to unhelpful emotional states. If you're feeling anxious but you know what to focus on, you can't pay attention to the nerves inside your head and body if your mental resources are allocated to cues or other states of play (Neumann, 2019).
See our Mental Tool Box for additional focusing drills.
Khanal, S. (2015). Impact of Visual Skills Training on Sports Performance: Current and Future Perspectives. Adv Ophthalmol Vis Syst, 2(1).
Zeplin, S., Galli, N., Visek, D. J., Durham, W., & Staples, J. (2014). Concentration and attention in sport. Exercise & Sport Psychology, 2(1).
LoRusso, N.J. (2017). The application of mental skills training for sustaining effort during operations. Defense Technical Information Center. Retrieved from https://apps.dtic.mil/sti/pdfs/AD1084436.pdf
Nideffer, R.M. & Sagal, M.S. (2006). Concentration and attention control training, in J.M. Williams (ed.), Applied Sport Psychology: Personal Growth to Peak Performance. 5th edn. Mountain View, CA: Mayfield.
McCann, S., Peterson, K., Haberl, P., & Bauman, J. (2008). Concentration, in Sport psychology mental training manual. Colorado Springs, CO: United States Olympic Committee.
Norris, C. J., Creem, D., Hendler, R., & Kober, H. (2018). Brief mindfulness meditation improves attention in novices: Evidence from ERPs and moderation by neuroticism. Front Hum Neurosci., 12.
Neumann, D. L. (2019). A systematic review of attentional focus strategies in weightlifting. Front. Sports Act. Living, 1(7).
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