Athletes are often faced with a variety of factors that can throw off their focus on the athletic task, such as worry, unexpected events, and physical exhaustion. Therefore, it is important for athletes to be able to focus or refocus their attention on the athletic task, despite frequently changing circumstances. In this regard, centering is a process by which individuals direct their attention to a central portion of the body while engaging in deep rhythmic breathing, with the purpose of merging one’s attention and one’s center of gravity, and thus gaining or regaining focus.
As a technique, centering was historically incorporated into the martial arts as long ago as the first century BCE. At that time, centering emphasized focused thought, muscle relaxation, and rhythmic breathing. Centering has been used more recently in modern-day sports. By helping athletes focus attention on a particular central part of the body (such as the abdomen) as they engage in deep rhythmic breathing patterns, athletes can achieve a feeling of physical and mental groundedness and togetherness, which is thought to subsequently promote enhanced focus to the athletic challenges they face. When centered, a sense of quiet mind is created, as diverse thoughts and emotions are replaced by a narrow focus on one’s own breathing and body. The narrowing of focus helps block out distractions both within the athlete (e.g., worry) and in the environment (e.g., crowd noise) and allows the athlete to concentrate more fully on the task.
As with any other skill, effectively developing the capacity to center oneself requires training and practice. Simply attempting to occasionally get focused is not sufficient for the development of centering skills. For most individuals, learning to center one’s body and mind takes concerted effort. As such, athletes are encouraged to frequently practice centering (in a variety of contexts, and even when tasks do not require a centered state) until centering competencies are developed. Centering training usually begins with 20to 30-minute exercises, but, as greater competencies evolve, the time required to attain a centered state can be systematically reduced to several seconds. The technique can be used with eyes open or closed, and in a lying, sitting, or standing position. Therefore, once mastered, centering can be employed by athletes at any moment and in any context just prior to movement. For example, a golfer can quickly center prior to putting and a hockey player can reach a centered state just prior to a face-off.
During sport performance, there are two primary values of centering. The first value is to help the athlete minimize internal and external distractions by transitioning attention away from past-, present-, or future-oriented thoughts, emotional states, performance concerns, or plans, and toward the present moment. The second value is to help the athlete remain focused on the athletic task at hand. It is important to state that centering is often misconstrued as a method of relaxation, as the goal is often incorrectly assumed to be a reduction or elimination of emotions such as anxiety or anger or tense bodily states. Yet while the individual may feel more relaxed after centering, any increase in relaxation would be merely a secondary consequence. In actuality, centering is more similar to mindfulness meditative exercises, and in fact, centering historically originated from the same Asian philosophical traditions as mindfulness.
Mindfulness is a state of nonjudgmental awareness and acceptance of internal experiences, and mindfulness exercises help individuals consistently engage in behaviors that matter to them rather than abandoning their goals and athletic or general life values when negative thoughts, feelings, or physical sensations get in their way. In the proper use of centering, the individual is actually not seeking a state of relaxation or a reduction of any particular thoughts, emotions, or physiological states, but rather is seeking a focused preparatory state for competitive performance. From this perspective, centering is a means of self-regulating attention by bringing the mind to a quiet place in which attention is directed away from distractions and onto the body. Once attention is placed on the body and distractions are minimized, the athlete is then better able to focus on the competitive moment and required athletic tasks. While centering can be used as a stand-alone technique, it is often incorporated into a more comprehensive mindfulness training practice. Yet regardless of whether it is used alone or as a component of mindfulness training, centering can have a marked positive impact on the attentional processes of the athlete and subsequent athletic performance. In fact, research has found that a centered focus of attention is highly correlated with flow states and athletic performance success.
- Gardner, F. L., & Moore, Z. E. (2007). The psychology of enhancing human performance: The Mindfulness Acceptance-Commitment (MAC) approach. New York: Springer.
- Nideffer, R. M. (1981). The ethics and practice of applied sport psychology. Ithaca, NY: Mouvement Publications.
- Rogerson, L. J., & Hrycaiko, D. W. (2002). Enhancing competitive performance of ice hockey goaltenders using centering and self-talk. Journal of Applied Sport Psychology, 14, 14–26.