Attention Theory in Sport

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.

Measuring Attention

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.

Filter 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 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.

Spotlight Theory

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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