Attention Training

The  term  attention  denotes  the  process  by  which we exert mental effort in focusing either on specific features  of  the  world  around  us  or  on  our  own thoughts and feelings. An example would be 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 a variety of distractions arising from the movements of players in the penalty area and from any irrelevant thoughts he or she might have at that time. Clearly, the ability to focus on what is most important in any situation while ignoring a  multitude  of  distractions  is  vital  for  successful performance  in  sport.  Accordingly,  researchers in  sport  and  exercise  psychology  have  developed a  variety  of  practical  strategies  that  purport  to improve  attentional  skills  in  athletes.  Although these  strategies  differ  in  the  extent  to  which  they have  been  validated  by  empirical  evidence,  they share a common purpose—namely, to help sports performers  to  achieve  a  focused  state  of  mind  in which there is no difference between what they are thinking about and what they are doing.

Specifying Performance Goals

Psychologists   commonly   distinguish   between result  goals,  such  as  the  outcome  of  a  sporting  encounter,  and  performance  goals,  or  specific  actions  that  lie  within  the  athlete’s  control, such  as  attempting  to  achieve  100%  accuracy in  one’s  first  serve  in  tennis.  Some  evidence  has accumulated  to  suggest  that  athletes  who  specify performance  goals  while  competing  can  improve their concentration skills. To illustrate a practical implication of this finding, a golfer could strive to improve  concentration  during  a  round  by  focusing  on  maintaining  a  slow,  rhythmic  swing  on every shot rather than worrying about the score. Theoretically,  performance  goals  should  enhance athletes’  concentration  because  they  encourage them  to  focus  only  on  task-relevant  information and  controllable  actions.  Support  for  this  conjecture  comes  from  studies  that  have  contrasted psychological  variables  associated  with  sports performers’  best  and  worst  competitive  performances. One finding from these studies is that collegiate  athletes  reported  performing  worst  when they  were  preoccupied  by  result  goals  but  best when they focused on performance goals.

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Adhering to Preperformance Routines

Sport  is  a  highly  ritualized  activity.  To  illustrate, most   top-class   athletes   display   characteristic sequences of preparatory actions before they perform key skills: Golfers tend to waggle their clubs a  consistent  number  of  times  before  striking  the ball  and  tennis  players  tend  to  bounce  the  ball  a standard  number  of  times  before  serving.  These preferred  action  sequences  or  repetitive  forms of  behavior  are  called  preperformance  routines and  are  typically  followed  prior  to  the  execution of  self-paced  skills—actions  that  are  carried  out largely at the performer’s own speed and without interference from other people.

As  in  the  case  of  performance  goals,  preperformance  routines  should  facilitate  concentration because  they  encourage  athletes  to  stay  in  the present  moment,  focusing  only  on  specific,  controllable  actions.  Implementing  this  theory,  many soccer goalkeepers go through identifiable prekick routines in an effort to block out external distractions such as hostile noise that is directed at them by  supporters  of  opposing  teams.  Unfortunately, despite  their  potential  value  as  attentional  strategies,  preperformance  routines  often  overlap  with superstitious  rituals  in  the  minds  of  athletes.  So, what exactly is a superstition?

In psychology, a superstition can be defined as the  belief  that,  despite  evidence  to  the  contrary, certain behavior is causally related to certain outcomes. Research shows that athletes are notoriously superstitious—perhaps  because  of  the  capricious nature  of  success  in  their  field.  For  example,  in competitive matches, the tennis star Rafael Nadal appears  to  believe  that  he  must  have  two  water bottles beside the court, perfectly aligned and with the  labels  facing  the  baseline.  Psychologically, routines  and  superstitious  behavior  differ  on  two key criteria—control and purpose. The essence of superstitious  behavior  is  the  belief  that  one’s  fate is  governed  by  factors  that  lie  outside  one’s  control. But the virtue of a routine is that it allows the player to exert complete control over preparation. Indeed, players often shorten their preperformance routines  in  adverse  circumstances—as  happens, for example, when a competitive event is delayed unexpectedly.  Unfortunately,  the  converse  is  true for  superstitions.  They  tend  to  grow  longer  over time as performers chain together more and more illogical links between behavior and outcome. The second  criterion  that  may  be  used  to  distinguish between routines and rituals concerns the technical role of each behavioral step followed. To explain, whereas each part of a routine should have a rational basis, the components of a superstitious ritual may not be justifiable objectively.

Returning to routines, at least three psychological  factors  have  been  postulated  to  explain  their apparent  efficacy  in  enhancing  athletic  performance.  First,  some  theorists  believe  that  routines are effective because they encourage athletes to prioritise task-relevant information over other available stimuli, such as penalty takers in soccer who may follow prekick routines to remind themselves to focus only on the target that they are aiming at rather than on distractions such as the movements of  the  goalkeeper.  Second,  routines  may  be  useful  because  their  sequential  nature  helps  athletes concentrate on the present moment rather than on past events or on possible future outcomes. Finally, paying attention to each step of a routine involves conscious  mental  effort  and  consumes  short-term or  working  memory  resources.  Therefore,  adhering  to  a  preperformance  routine  may  prevent athletes  from  devoting  too  much  attention  to  the mechanics of well-learned skills—a habit that can unravel automaticity and precipitate skill failure in certain circumstances. In short, routines may work by  helping  athletes  to  suppress  the  type  of  inappropriate  conscious  control  that  often  occurs  in pressure situations.

Some  empirical  evidence  to  support  the  attentional  benefits  of  preperformance  routines  has emerged  in  recent  years.  Research  has  shown that  amateur  international  golfers  reported  using routines  explicitly  for  focusing  purposes  such  as attempting  to  switch  on  and  off  when  required and trying to stay in the present while playing.

Using Trigger Words as Cues to Concentrate

Many athletes talk to themselves covertly as they train or compete—usually in an effort to improve their  concentration  and  performance.  Such  self-talk,  or  what  athletes  say  to  themselves  silently, may  involve  praise,  criticism  or  instruction.  An example  of  the  instruction  type  of  self-talk  is  the use  of  trigger  words,  which  are  short,  vivid,  and positively  phrased  verbal  reminders  to  cue  athletes  to  focus  on  a  specific  target  or  to  perform a  given  action.  An  example  would  be  gymnasts may  say  the  word  forward  silently  to  themselves as  a  reminder  to  push  their  bodies  upward  when executing  a  floor  routine.  A  graphic  example  of athletes’  use  of  trigger  words  occurred  during the  2002  Wimbledon  ladies’  singles  tennis  final between  the  Williams  sisters,  Serena  and  Venus. During  this  match,  Serena  (who  defeated  Venus 7–6,  6–3)  was  observed  by  millions  of  television viewers  reading  hand-written  notes  as  she  sat down  beside  the  court  during  the  change-overs between games. Afterwards, she explained that she had written these notes to herself as instructional reminders  to  hit  in  front  or  stay  low  during  the match. Another example of trigger words in action occurred  recently  when  Paula  Radcliffe,  who holds  the  current  women’s  world  record  time  for the  marathon,  advocated  a  trigger  word  strategy involving silently counting her steps in an effort to maintain her concentration in a race.

Does  empirical  research  support  the  claim that trigger words can improve attentional skills? Unfortunately,  although  studies  have  shown  that instructional  self-talk  is  one  of  the  strongest  predictors  of  successful  performance  among  U.S. Olympic  athletes,  there  is  a  dearth  of  empirical evidence  on  the  efficacy  of  trigger  words  as  concentration  cues.  However,  it  seems  plausible  that instructional  self-talk  could  enhance  attentional skills  by  reminding  athletes  about  what  to  focus on in a given situation. For example, novice golfers  may  miss  the  ball  completely  on  the  fairway in  the  early  stages  of  learning  to  swing  the  club properly.  So,  in  an  effort  to  overcome  this  problem,  golf  instructors  may  advise  learners  to  concentrate on sweeping the grass rather than hitting the ball. This evocative trigger phrase ensures that learners focus down on the ball instead of looking up  to  see  where  it  went  after  they  had  struck  it. Research  suggests  that  for  optimal  effectiveness, trigger words should be short, vivid, and positively phrased. They should also emphasize positive targets  (what  to  aim  for)  rather  than  negative  ones (what to avoid).

Mental Practice

In  psychology,  the  term  mental  imagery  refers  to the cognitive simulation process by which we can represent  perceptual  information  in  our  minds  in the  absence  of  appropriate  sensory  input.  If  you close your eyes, you should be able to see yourself in your mind’s eye throwing a bright yellow tennis ball up in the air (a visual mental image), feel yourself  catching  it  (a  kinesthetic  mental  image)  and then bouncing it (a motor mental image). In sport, many athletes use motor imagery or mental practice to cognitively rehearse their skills. This technique involves seeing and feeling a skill in one’s imagination  before  actually  executing  it.  Jenson  Button, the  Formula  One  star  who  won  the  2009  World Drivers’  Championship,  regularly  rehearses  his gear shifts by sitting on a Swiss ball with a steering wheel in his hands—imagining himself navigating the course. Although there is considerable empirical evidence that such mental practice can facilitate skill  learning  and  competitive  performance,  their value  specifically  as  a  concentration  tool  remains unproven. Anecdotally, however, mental imagery is used widely by performers to improve their focusing skills. Swimmer Michael Phelps, who has won more Olympic gold medals than any other athlete in history, uses imagery to see and feel his strokes and turns before a race. Such use of imagery helps sports performers to prepare for various hypothetical  scenarios,  thereby  ensuring  that  they  will  not be distracted by unexpected events. However, this hypothesis has not been tested empirically to date. Therefore, despite the fact that mental imagery is known to improve athletic performance, its status as a concentration technique is uncertain.

Simulation Training

The  term  simulation  training  refers  to  the  idea of   practicing   under   conditions   that   replicate key aspects of an impending competition. Certain football  teams  have  tried  to  simulate  the  noisy conditions   that   they   expect   to   encounter   in opposing teams’ stadia by training on their home grounds  using  giant  screens  playing  loud  music

and recordings of rival fans cheering. Intuitively, it seems plausible that simulation training could help skilled  performers  concentrate  because  research suggests that people’s recall of information is facilitated by conditions that resemble those in which the original encoding occurred. Based on this principle,  the  simulation  of  competitive  situations  in practice should lead to positive transfer effects to the competition itself. Another advantage of adversity training is that it may counteract the tendency for novel or unexpected stimuli to distract athletes in  competition.  Interestingly,  simulation  training was  used  by  the  renowned  swimming  coach  Bob Bowman, who admitted deliberately breaking the goggles of Michael Phelps during practice so that he  could  learn  to  swim  calmly  without  them,  if necessary, in a competition. Remarkably, this situation  actually  arose  in  the  2008  Olympics  when Phelps  won  the  200-meter  butterfly  event  even though  his  goggles  had  been  broken  for  the  last 100m of the race.

To  summarize,  the  ability  to  pay  attention  to what  is  most  important  in  any  situation  while ignoring distractions is vital for successful performance in sport. We have reviewed five attentional strategies that are intended to help athletes achieve a  focused  state  of  mind  in  which  there  is  no  difference  between  what  they  are  thinking  about and  what  they  are  doing.  Empirical  research  evidence  is  available  to  support  the  efficacy  of  four of  these  strategies—setting  performance  goals  (or actions  that  lie  under  the  control  of  the  athlete), adhering  to  preperformance  routines,  using  trigger  words  (or  covert  verbal  cues),  and  engaging in mental practice (or seeing and feeling a skill in one’s  imagination  before  executing  it).  The  fifth attentional  strategy—simulation  training—has  a plausible  theoretical  rationale  but  currently  lacks relevant empirical validation.


  1. Cotterill, S. T. (2010). Pre-performance routines in sport: Current understanding and future directions. International Review of Sport and Exercise Psychology, 3, 132–153.
  2. Hatzigeorgiadis, A., Zourbanos, N., Galanis, E., & Theodorakis, Y. (2011). Self-talk and sports performance: A meta-analysis. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 6, 348–356.
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