How many times have you heard your coach say, pay attention, focus out there, or concentrate? I am guessing more times than you can count on one hand. Now think about how many times your coach (or anyone for that matter: teacher, parent, mentor, etc.) has explained what these are or how to pay attention, focus or concentrate. Teaching athletes how to concentrate and manage distractions is just one of the mental skills I teach at Fuller Mindset.
Although it is easy to assume these three components are all the same, each is quite unique. The process of moving from attention to focus to concentration can be thought of as a funnel. Attention is the broad scan of the environment (Lodato, 2021). The athlete is taking in what’s happening, but they are still attending to too many cues and signals (the opposing team inbounded the ball and is heading down court). Focusing is the narrowing to one or two relevant and important cues or signals (paying attention to where the ball is and the offensive players coming toward you). As an athlete works down the funnel, they then concentrate on the most important cue or signal (concentrating on the opponent driving in to shoot).
Concentration is made up of two types of focus: width (broad and narrow) and direction (internal and external) (Williams & Krane, 2021; Lodato, 2021). Throughout a performance one’s attention shifts from one type of attention to another. Some individuals may be more capable of developing a narrow attention in which they are unlikely to be distracted while others are more apt to take in and analyze more information.
So how might a performer improve how they concentrate and manage distractions in sports? To become more familiar with the different attentional styles, a starting point for athletes is to expand their awareness. To do this an athlete can practice drills that move them from the different types of attention: narrow-external, broad-external, narrow-to-broad external, narrow-internal, broad-internal, narrow-to-broad internal (Williams & Krane, 2015). Overall focusing on one of these at a time teaches an athlete about each one and then trains them on how to shift from one to another.
Another important aspect of concentration that we should consider is arousal and activation. As a performer’s arousal and activation levels rise the individual’s attention begins to narrow (Weinberg & Gould, 2015). If an individual does not have enough arousal his attentional focus is likely to be too broad and, on the other hand, if his arousal level is too high his attentional focus becomes more narrow. Arousal not only affects attention and focus, but it also plays a role in decision making, anticipation to a specific signal, and reaction time. For example if a sprinter is in their starting blocks on the starting line, if over-aroused may over-anticipate the starting gun and jump the start; if under-aroused they may fail to get off the line quickly (Lodatao, 2021). Finding the optimal arousal level that leads to optimal focus is vital to performance.
As athlete’s play they are constantly scanning the environment for information and distractions are inevitable. Distractions occur when attention drifts and athletes attend to information or signals that are irrelevant (Lodato, 2021). When this happens, it is important for athletes to display selective attention in which they shift their focus back to relevant information or signals. Once an athlete directs their attention back it is important that they maintain their attentional focus over time. In addition, athletes need to have an awareness of their situation and performance errors. Being able to shift attention from past errors or future anxiety back to relevant cues is vital.
If you’d like to learn more about how to concentrate and manage distractions, click here to schedule a consultation!
Weinberg, R. S., & Gould, D. (2015). Foundations of sport and exercise psychology (6th ed.). Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics.Williams, J. M., & Krane, V. (2015). Applied sport psychology: Personal growth to peak performance. New York, NY: McGraw Hill.
“Don’t let your worst enemy live between your own two ears.”