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.
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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.
- Kremer, J. M. D., Moran, A. P, Walker, G., & Craig, C. (2012). Key concepts in sport psychology. London: Sage.
- Moran, A. P. (1996). The psychology of concentration in sport performers: A cognitive analysis. Hove, East Sussex, UK: Psychology Press.
- 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.
- Moran, A. P. (2012). Sport and exercise psychology: A critical introduction (2nd ed.). London: Routledge.
- Wegner, D. M. (2009). How to think, say, or do precisely the worst thing for any occasion. Science, 325, 48–51.