Every waking moment we face an important selection problem. How do we pick some information for further processing while ignoring almost everything else? This problem is not easy to solve given the brevity and fragility of our working memory (the mental system that regulates our conscious awareness) and the all but unlimited array of information available to us—not only from the external world but also from the internal domain of our own memory and imagination. So, the mind has developed a system that helps us select some information for further processing while blocking out other information. This system is called attention—a term that denotes the process of exerting mental effort on specific features of the world around us or on our own thoughts and feelings. For example, in sport, making a conscious effort to listen carefully to a coach’s instructions before a match involves attention. Similarly, a soccer goalkeeper who is preparing to defend against a corner kick from the opposing team must pay attention to the flight of the incoming ball while disregarding the movements of the players in the penalty area. These two examples show that the ability to focus on what is most important in any situation while ignoring distractions is vital for success in sport. But when we delve deeper into the psychology of attention, a number of questions arise. Are there different types of attention? If so, how can these different attentional processes be measured? Finally, what theories best explain how the attention system works? The purpose of this entry is to answer these and other relevant questions.
Describing Attention: Nature and Types
For well over a century, cognitive psychologists (researchers who study how the mind works in seeking, storing, and using knowledge) have investigated attentional processes. From this research, three different types of attention have been identified.
First, concentration refers to a person’s decision to invest mental effort in what is most important in any situation (as in the example above of listening to a coach’s instructions). Next, selective attention is the perceptual ability to zoom in on task-relevant information (the flight of the ball) while ignoring distractions (the movement of players). Finally, divided attention refers to a form of mental time-sharing ability whereby people can learn, as a result of extensive practice, to execute two or more concurrent skills equally well. To illustrate, a skilled basketball player can dribble the ball while simultaneously looking around for a teammate who is in a good position to receive a pass. In summary, attention is a multidimensional term that refers to at least three different cognitive processes—concentration or effortful awareness, selectivity of perception, or the ability to coordinate two or more skills at the same time. Having explained what attention involves, let us now consider how attentional processes can be measured.
In general, cognitive sport psychology researchers have developed three main strategies for the measurement of attentional processes. These strategies include the psychometric approach (the use of psychological tests to measure individual differences in people’s attentional skills), the neuroscientific approach (measurement of the brain processes underlying attention), and the experimental approach (which involves testing people’s ability to perform two or more tasks at the same time in laboratory settings).
The Psychometric Approach
The psychometric approach involves the use of standardized paper-and-pencil tests in an effort to measure individual differences in attentional processes in athletes. Such tests are both administratively convenient, as they are usually quick and easy to use, and amenable to empirical validation. To illustrate this approach, Robert Nideffer developed the Test of Attentional and Interpersonal Style (TAIS), which is based on a model that postulates that people’s attentional focus varies simultaneously along two independent dimensions—width and direction. With regard to width, Nideffer proposed that attention can range along a continuum from a broad focus (where one is aware of many stimulus features at the same time) to a narrow one (where irrelevant information is excluded effectively). Attentional direction refers to the target of one’s focus: whether it is external or internal (see also the “Attentional Focus” entry). These dimensions of width and direction may be combined to yield four hypothetical attentional foci: (1) broad external, (2) broad internal, (3) narrow external, and (4) narrow internal. These various types of attentional focus can be illustrated as follows. First, a broad external focus is required for sport skills that involve the ability to read a game and quickly assess a situation for relevant information. For example, a good midfield player in soccer must be able to quickly size up the best passing options available having gained possession of the ball. Second, a narrow external focus is necessary when an athlete locks on to a specific target in the environment. To illustrate, a golfer needs this type of focus when looking at the hole before putting. Third, a broad internal focus is necessary when a tennis player develops a general tactical game plan for a forthcoming match. Last, by contrast, a narrow internal focus is demanded when a gymnast mentally rehearses a skill such as a backflip while waiting to compete.
Nideffer speculated that optimal athletic performance is possible only if performers manage to ensure that their attentional focus matches the specific requirements of the sport skill that they are required to execute. Some evidence to support this idea comes from a study of the attentional strategies used by former Olympic cyclists to cope with the pain of physical exertion in their sport. Briefly, these cyclists reported that they had regularly used all four types of focus when competing. For example, they used a broad external focus when concentrating on getting to the finish line and a broad internal focus when concentrating on their body movements. Similarly, they used a narrow external focus when trying to keep up with the riders ahead of them and a narrow internal focus when concentrating on maintaining a smooth pedaling stroke. Unfortunately, despite their intuitive plausibility, Nideffer’s theory and his Test of Attentional and Interpersonal Style have been criticized on a number of grounds. His theory does not distinguish between task-relevant and task-irrelevant information in sport settings. Similarly, the Test of Attentional and Interpersonal Style is questionable because it assesses people’s perceived rather than their actual attentional skills. Despite its limitations, however, the psychometric approach has made progress recently with the development of self-report tests that purport to measure athletes’ susceptibility to internal distractions or thoughts and feelings that divert focus away from its intended target (see also the “Concentration Skills” entry). In sport psychology, for example, researchers have devised psychometric measures of cognitive interference (task-irrelevant, self-preoccupied thinking) in athletes. Although these measures seem promising, however, they require comprehensive evidence of validity before they can be recommended for use in applied settings.
The Neuroscientific Approach
The second approach to measuring attentional processes in athletes comes from cognitive neuroscience—a field that is concerned broadly with the identification of the neural substrates of mental processes. Typically, this approach involves a range of neuroscientific techniques in an effort to reveal which parts of the brain are activated when an athlete is paying attention to a sport-related task. Among the most popular of these techniques are electroencephalography (EEG), a method that records electrical activity in the brain using special electrodes placed on the scalp; functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), a method that detects changes in the activity of the brain by measuring the amount of oxygen brought to a particular location within it; and transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS), a method in which the functioning of a specific area of the brain is temporarily disrupted through the application of pulsating magnetic fields to the skull using a stimulating coil. Using EEG measures, sport psychology researchers have discovered cerebral asymmetry effects (differences between the activities of the two hemispheres of the brain) in athletes involved in target shooting. Specifically, it seems that just before expert archers and pistol performers execute their shots, their EEG profiles tend to reveal a distinctive shift from left-hemisphere to right-hemisphere activation. This shift may indicate a deliberate suppression of self-talk (what one says to oneself silently) on the part of the shooters in an effort to achieve a truly focused state of mind. Another finding—this time from fMRI research—is that compared to expert players, novice golfers have difficulty in filtering out irrelevant information when imagining the appropriate shot to play in a golf simulation task. More recently, TMS studies have shown that expert basketball players have developed finely tuned resonance mechanisms that enable them to simulate and predict other players’ actions.
Taken together, neuroscientific techniques have a major advantage over their psychometric counterparts in yielding objective data on biological processes that can be recorded while the athlete is performing skills. Unfortunately, key drawbacks associated with such neuroscientific measures are excessive cost and impracticality of use in everyday sport settings.
The Experimental Approach
The third approach to measuring attentional processes comes from experimental psychology and is called the dual-task paradigm. This method is based on the capacity theory of attention (explained below) and investigates how well people can divide their attention between two concurrent tasks like reading and listening to music. More precisely, it compares people’s performance when executing the tasks separately with that when executing the tasks simultaneously. The logic of this method is as follows. If people’s performance on one or both tasks is worse when the tasks are executed simultaneously as compared with when they are performed separately, then these two tasks must be interfering with each other—suggesting that they are competing for the same limited pool of attentional resources in the brain. However, if the two tasks can be performed as well simultaneously as individually, then at least one of these tasks must be automatic, hence making minimal demands on available attentional resources.
When the dual-task paradigm is used in sport psychology, the primary task usually consists of a self-paced skill (one that can be performed without interference from others such as target shooting in archery), whereas the secondary task tends to involve monitoring the environment for a signal such as an auditory tone. To illustrate this approach, a study was designed to investigate the effects of anxiety on skilled performance. The researchers used a dual-task design to examine the effects of manipulating people’s focus of attention on performance on a driving simulator under low or high-anxiety experimental conditions. Attention was directed explicitly to either the participants’ own driving performance or to a distracting secondary task. In this study, participants were required to perform a primary task (simulated rally driving) as fast as possible while responding as accurately as possible to one of two theoretically-derived secondary tasks. The skill focused secondary task required participants to respond to an auditory tone by indicating at that moment whether their left hand on the steering wheel was higher, lower, or at the same height as their right hand. The distraction secondary task required participants to remember the pitch of an auditory tone presented while they were driving. Results showed that racing performance effectiveness (as measured by lap times) was maintained under anxiety-provoking conditions—although occurred at the expense of reducing processing efficiency. Unfortunately, despite its ingenuity, the dual-task paradigm has not been used widely to measure attentional processes in athletes—mainly because of the difficulty in locating pairs of attentional tasks that engage athletes’ interest in laboratory settings.
Explaining Attention: Theories and Issues
Cognitive psychologists have developed three main theories of attention: filter theory, capacity theory, and spotlight theory.
The first modern theory of attention, proposed by Donald Broadbent in the 1950s, was based on a series of laboratory experiments on selective listening tasks. Two key assumptions of this theory were that people are limited in their ability to process information, and there must be a mechanism that facilitates the selection of some information while inhibiting the selection of competing information. To explain this mechanism, Broadbent drew an analogy between attention and a filtering device or bottleneck that restricts the flow of information into the mind in accordance with a set of criteria. He proposed that just as the neck of a bottle restricts the flow of liquid, a hypothetical filter in the mind limits the quantity of information to which we can pay attention at any given time. In addition, Broadbent suggested that although multiple channels of information reach the filter, only one channel is permitted to pass through for further information processing. Unfortunately, Broadbent’s filter model of attention soon ran into difficulty. Attentional researchers failed to agree on either the location or timing of the filter. Also, this model could not explain the cocktail party phenomenon. Imagine that you are at a noisy party and trying to pay attention to a conversation. Suddenly, you hear your name being mentioned in another conversation somewhere else in the room. How can Broadbent’s theory explain the fact that you recognized your name? Clearly, if you heard your name being mentioned, then it could not have been blocked by the hypothetical filter in the first place. Problems like these hastened the demise of filter theory.
Capacity or resource theory was developed by Daniel Kahneman in an effort to explain the mechanisms underlying divided attention (explained earlier in this entry). This theory postulates that attention is analogous to a pool of mental energy that can be allocated to tackle various processing demands according to certain strategic principles—such as the influence of the performer’s arousal level. For example, people usually have a greater amount of attentional capacity available to them when they are fully alert than when they are sleepy. Also, the notion of automaticity suggests that the more practiced a task is, the more automatic (or unconscious) it becomes and the fewer attentional resources it requires. One implication of this latter notion is the prediction that expert athletes are especially vulnerable to distractions because they have considerable spare attentional capacity due to the largely automated nature of their highly practiced skills.
A recurrent weakness of resource models of attention, however, stems from the possible circularity of some of their terminology. For example, there is a logical flaw in the explanation offered by resource theorists for people’s inability to divide their attention successfully between two concurrent tasks. Specifically, the assumption in such cases that the resources of some central attentional capacity system have been exceeded by the joint demands of these concurrent tasks is circular in the absence of an independent measure of attentional resources.
According to spotlight theory, as developed by researchers such as Michael Posner, selective attention or our ability to zoom in on some aspects of a stimulus while ignoring other features of it, resembles an adjustable mental beam that we shine at things that are important to us at any given moment. These targets of our concentration beam can be external (in the world around us) or internal (in the private domain of our own thoughts and feelings). Aiming one’s golf drive at a specific target on the fairway, for example, involves an external focus of attention, whereas concentrating on the rhythm or feeling of one’s golf swing involves an internal focus of attention. This idea of attention as a mental spotlight appeals to athletes and coaches for two main reasons. First, it shows us that our concentration can never be really lost because our mental spotlight is always shining somewhere— either at external or internal targets. But lapses of attention can occur whenever we focus on the wrong target (something that is irrelevant to the task at hand or that lies outside our control). In such cases, our performance is likely to deteriorate (see also the “Concentration Skills” entry). Second, the spotlight theory of attention suggests that athletes can exert voluntary control over where they shine their mental beam. In other words, athletes have choice over their attentional focus (see earlier discussion of Robert Nideffer’s theory).
Unfortunately, although the spotlight metaphor of attention is intuitively appealing, it has three main weaknesses. First, spotlight theorists have largely neglected the issue of what lies outside the beam of one’s conscious attention; they have tended to ignore the possibility that unconscious factors, such as ironic or counter intentional effects, can affect people’s attentional processes in certain situations, as when they are cognitively overloaded (see the “Concentration Skills” entry). Second, spotlight theory has historically been concerned with external targets (stimuli in the external world) rather than the internal distractions that often afflict athletes. Finally, spotlight theory has little to say about the influence of emotional factors like anxiety on attentional processes (but see the “Choking” entry).
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