Concentration entails the ability to focus attention on the task at hand and not be affected or disturbed by internal or external distractions. Selective attention involves being able to choose to attend to specific things going on and to ignore others.
What are some examples of internal/external stimuli that might impair your ability to concentrate? Examples of external distractions which might distract you include an official making a bad call, the opposing team giving you a hard time, weather, poor field conditions, or hostile crowds. Internal distractions typically involve some form of negative self-talk or dwelling on a previous mistake or even thinking too much about the mechanics of executing or performing.
To be successful in competitive situations athletes must have the ability not to react or be disturbed by potential distractions. Instead, they learn how to focus attention and control thoughts. It's about being totally in the here-and-now. Peak performance occurs when athletes are able to voluntarily concentrate on the cues in their environment and perceive them to demand an action that is within their ability to execute.
Most sports require being able to shift between different types of concentration. Athletes need to be able to control the width of their attentional focus (e.g. narrow vs. broad) as well as the direction (e.g. internal vs. external) of their attention. Using width and direction as two dimensions of concentration allows us to separate different attentional skills into one of four categories:
- External, broad: this type of concentration involves assessing the environment to explore things like what kind of defense an opponent in using or how a golf hole is laid out.
- Internal, broad: this type of concentration assists in analyzing the current situation and developing a game plan.
- Internal, narrow: athletes' performance is enhanced by mentally rehearsing a specific shot or movement involved with the task at hand.
- External, broad: in most sports, to perform their best, athletes need an external, broad focus of concentration which allows them to accurately take in what is happening in their environments and react instantly without having to think.
One very useful approach to increasing focus and concentration is through the use of pre-performance routines. Such routines are commonplace among successful athletes and run the gamut from very subtle to very elaborate and, sometimes, peculiar. One thing they have in common is accomplished athletes use them consistently, regardless of whether things are going well or not. Performance routines work for a number of reasons including helping athletes block out irrelevant internal and external distractions by giving them something to focus on, assisting athletes relax by providing a sense of familiarity which helps remind them this is just another shot, serve, race, etc., and finally, providing athletes with a consistent approach to their sport which, in turn, helps maximize the potential for consistent performance.
Many athletes also find the use of Attentional Cues and Triggers to be effective tools in improving their ability to concentrate. Task-related cues help them center their attention on the most appropriate focus within the task at hand (e.g. keep weight/hands back). Cues can also help with more affective aspects of performance (e.g. relax). Usually no more than 1-2 cues should be used and their purpose should generally be helping athletes be focused in the present moment, ready to instinctually react. There are a number of exercises and techniques which assist athletes in developing and refining their ability to attend and concentrate. Contact us at 231-2556 or at firstname.lastname@example.org if you would like to explore more of these.
Bull, S.J., Albinson, J.G., & Shambrook, C.J. (1996). The mental game plan. Cheltenham, UK: Sports Dynamics.
Nideffer, R.M. (1993). Concentration and attention control training. In J.M. Williams (Ed.), Applied sport psychology: Personal growth to peak performance. Mountain View, CA: Mayfield.