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).
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.
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.
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