Concentration Skills

Several sources of evidence reveal that concentration, or the ability to focus on what is most important in any situation while ignoring distractions, is vital for success in sport. First, anecdotally, lapses in concentration can mean the difference between winning  and  losing  at  the  Olympics.  For  example,  at  the  2008  Games  in  Beijing,  rifle  shooter Matthew Emmons missed an opportunity to win a gold medal in the 50m three-position target event due to a lapse in concentration. Leading his nearest rival Qiu Jian as he took his last shot, Emmons lost  his  focus  and  inexplicably  misfired,  finishing without  a  medal  (in  4th  place).  A  second  source of  evidence  on  the  importance  of  concentration comes from research showing that the capacity to become absorbed in the present moment is a key component  of  peak  performance  experiences  in sport (see also the entry “Flow”). Finally, experimental  evidence  suggests  that  athletes  who  have been trained to focus on task-relevant cues tend to perform  better  than  those  who  have  not  received such  training.  Despite  the  preceding  evidence, however,  psychology  researchers  have  struggled to  answer  two  significant  questions  in  this  field. First,  if  concentration  is  so  important,  why  do athletes  appear  to  lose  it  so  easily  in  competitive situations? Second, what are the building blocks of effective concentration skills in sport?

Why Do Athletes Lose Their Concentration?

According  to  a  conceptual  approach  called  spotlight  theory  (see  also  the  entry  “Attention  Theory”),  paying  attention  is  like  shining  a  mental beam at targets located either in the external (real) world or in the internal world of our thoughts and feelings. It is like the head-mounted torch that divers and miners wear in dark environments. Wherever they look, their target is illuminated. A practical implication of this theory is that concentration cannot be lost, although one’s mental spotlight can be diverted easily to a target that is not relevant to the task at hand.

In  competitive  sport,  an  abundance  of  distractions  can  threaten  to  divert  an  athlete’s  mental spotlight   from   its   intended   target.   Normally, these  distractions  fall  into  two  main  categories: external  and  internal.  Whereas  external  distractions  are  objective  stimuli  that  exist  in  the  world around  us,  internal  distractions  include  a  vast array  of  thoughts,  feelings,  or  bodily  sensations like  fatigue  that  can  disrupt  our  focus.  Typical external distractions include factors such as spectator movements, sudden changes in ambient noise levels (e.g., the click of a camera), gamesmanship (e.g., trying to block a goalkeeper in soccer from seeing  the  ball  at  a  corner  kick)  and  unpredicted weather  conditions  (e.g.,  tennis  players  may  get distracted when windy conditions affect their ball toss  before  serving).  Typically,  these  distractions impair  athletic  performance.  For  example,  the marathon  runner  Vanderlei  De  Lima  was  leading the race in the 2004 Olympics in Athens when an unstable spectator suddenly jumped out from the crowd  and  wrestled  him  to  the  ground.  Stunned and  distracted,  De  Lima  eventually  finished  third in  the  event.  Internal  distractions  stem  mainly from thoughts such as wondering what might happen  in  the  future,  regretting  what  has  happened in the past, or worrying about what other people might  think,  say,  or  do.  A  classic  example  of  a costly  internal  distraction  occurred  in  the  case  of the golfer Doug Sanders, who missed a putt of less than 3 feet, which prevented him from winning the 970 British Open championship in St. Andrews, his  first  major  tournament.  Remarkably,  Sanders’s  attentional  lapse  was  precipitated  by  thinking too far ahead: He had made a victory speech in  his  mind  before  his  final  putt  had  been  sunk. Unfortunately,  little  research  has  been  conducted on the mechanisms by which internal distractions disrupt performance. Nevertheless, Daniel Wegner developed a model that attempted to explain why attentional  lapses  occur  ironically,  or  precisely at  the  most  inopportune  moment  for  the  person involved. Briefly, this model postulates that when our working memory system (which regulates our conscious awareness) becomes overloaded because we are anxious or tired, a particular form of ironic distractibility may occur. Specifically, trying not to think about something may paradoxically increase the  prominence  of  this  very  thought  in  our  consciousness.  According  to  Wegner,  this  increased awareness of the very thing we try to suppress is called  a  rebound  effect  and  applies  to  actions  as well as thoughts. For example, in sport, ironies of action are evident when anxious penalty takers in football try not to kick the ball at the goalkeeper but  end  up  doing  so  or  alternatively,  when  tired golfers try not to overshoot the ball when putting, but again, end up doing so.

Building Blocks of Effective Concentration Skills

Research suggests that there at least four building blocks of effective concentration skills in sport.

Deciding to Concentrate

To begin with, athletes must make a conscious decision  to  invest  mental  effort  in  their  performance.  Just  as  researchers  have  distinguished between  deliberate  practice  (a  purposeful  activity in which the learner tried to improve a specific skill under the guidance of an expert coach) and mindless practice (whereby the learner flits from one skill to  another  without  any  plan),  we  can  distinguish between  deciding  to  concentrate  and  merely  hoping that it will happen. To implement this principle, many  athletes  establish  imaginary  switch  on  and switch off zones in their competitive environment. For  example,  entering  the  locker  room  before  a game may serve as a trigger for footballers to turn on their concentration before a match. Likewise, in an intense game, tennis players may use a between points  routine  of  wiping  their  face  with  a  towel at the back of the tennis court to safely switch off from thinking about the previous point.

Having Only One Thought at a Time

Next, the one thought principle is the idea that one  can  focus  consciously  on  only  one  thing  at  a time.  This  principle  comes  from  research  on  the bandwidth of attention or the number of items in working  memory  on  which  one  can  focus  effectively.  Studies  on  this  topic  suggest  that  people’s focus of attention may be limited to just one item. Extrapolating from this finding, it seems plausible that the ideal thought for a sports performer should be a single word that triggers the appropriate feeling or tempo of the action to be executed (e.g., smooth for  a  golf  swing)  rather  than  a  complicated  set  of instructions (e.g., bend your knees and go from low to high) (see also the entry “Attention Training”).

Focusing Only on Factors Under One’s Control

Third,  research  shows  that  people’s  concentration  wanders  when  they  think  too  far  ahead  or otherwise  focus  on  factors  that  are  irrelevant  to the job at hand. To counteract this tendency, athletes  should  focus  only  on  actions  that  are  under their control; for example, a penalty taker in soccer should  focus  only  on  where  the  player  wants  the ball to go, not on the position of the goalkeeper.

Focusing Outward When Nervous

The final building block of effective concentration is the idea that anxious athletes should focus outward  on  actions,  not  inward  on  doubts.  This outward  focus  is  necessary  because  anxiety  tends to  make  people  self-critical  and  hyper vigilant, primed to detect any sign of what they may fear.

References:

  1. Kremer, J. M. D., Moran, A. P, Walker, G., & Craig, C. (2012). Key concepts in sport psychology. London: Sage.
  2. Moran, A. P. (1996). The psychology of concentration in sport performers: A cognitive analysis. Hove, East Sussex, UK: Psychology Press.
  3. Moran, A. P. (2012). Concentration: Attention and performance. In S. M. Murphy (Ed.), The Oxford handbook of sport and performance psychology(pp. 117–130). New York: Oxford University Press.
  4. Moran, A. P. (2012). Sport and exercise psychology: A critical introduction (2nd ed.). London: Routledge.
  5. Wegner, D. M. (2009). How to think, say, or do precisely the worst thing for any occasion. Science, 325, 48–51.

 

See also: