Sport Psychology: Attention & Concentration

Updated: Aug 3


In this article we are delving into the topic of attention and concentration. This is part two of a four part series covering aspects of Sports Psychology which impact and can improve your sports performance. Even if you are not an athlete, we hope that these articles can help you find ways to improve your performance in day to day life.


Attention & Concentration

Athletes are exposed to an infinite number of variables (stimuli) during competitive events. It is hugely important that athletes can focus on only the stimuli that are important in the moment in order to achieve their objective.


These stimuli are inevitably difficult to manage as they can come from both within the athlete themselves (internal stimuli) and also from the athlete’s environment and other people (external stimuli).


Examples

Internal stimuli:

The athletes thoughts and emotions;

  • Predicting other players’ movements

  • Worrying that your play wont go as planned

  • Fearing loss

External stimuli:

  • Weather & playing surface

  • Taunts from competitors

  • Noise from the crowd

In this context the definition of attention is to be able to pick out the relevant stimuli whilst ignoring distractions. Concentration can be defined as ‘attentional focus’ and refers to when the mind is focussed on a particular stimulus. Selective attention or attention narrowing is focusing on particular stimuli, and this is a skill that you can train and improve.


“Attention and concentration control must be one of the objectives to consider in any psychological training program and an ability that must be refined by both athletes and trainers” - Dosil 2004

It has been seen in research that the more experienced the athlete, the better their selective attention. This is partly due to their training in this area, having more experience and also their greater technical ability. The more automatic the physical task becomes, the easier it will be for the athlete to focus on other stimuli.


Training attention and concentration

Trainers and coaches are becoming increasingly aware that they must use tools derived from Sports Psychology to increase their athlete's selective attention and concentration. Training these qualities will help to improve athletic performance but also decrease the anxiety and doubt felt when an athlete loses the feeling of control. Ultimately, what is practiced in training, will carry over to competition.


As previously mentioned, research shows that experienced athletes have better attention and concentration skills. It is very possible to learn how to improve your attention and concentration abilities over time. As with techniques for all psychology topics you must be open to trying new things and also to sticking with the process.


Theories suggest that the athlete’s attentional focus style, the way they perceive and handle the stimulus in the situation, varies from person to person. Therefore, it is important for the coach and the athlete to have an understanding of which types of stimuli tend to distract, and which they find helpful to focus on.


If a coach realises that they have an athlete who finds it particularly hard to stay focussed or they cannot hold their attention for very long, it is important to get to the bottom of why this is. Knowing the cause will greatly help in deciding how to train to improve these aspects. An example is that the athlete has not previously trained in an environment where their attention was required for long periods of time, and monitored too - this would show a lack of habit and thus it would be important to get them into the habit of paying attention during their whole training session.


Below, we will cover several tools that are used in sport to improve athlete's attention and concentration skills.


Technique Toolbox


Thought-Stopping and Thought-Centering:


There are two techniques that athletes must be aware of for keeping their focus on track; ‘thought-stopping’ - generating positive thoughts to stop negative thoughts taking over, and also ‘thought-centering’ - shifting the attention to set aside negative thoughts. The athlete must be able to identify their dysfunctional negative thoughts and feelings by considering two things: ‘is it helpful to think like this?’ and ‘will these thoughts help me to achieve my objective?’. When the answer is no, the thoughts need stopping and centering.


Thinking “I haven't trained well, I’m achy, everyone else has worked harder so will be better” vs “I am ready, I feel calm, I have trained well and I’m sure I will do my best”.


Techniques used by athletes for thought-stopping and thought-centering:

  • Positive Affirmations: create a written list of positive thoughts which energise you and boost the mood. Reading through this list can then become part of the athlete's routine, and when needed these affirmations can be recalled mentally to replace negative thoughts

  • Breathing techniques: breathing has been long associated with calming the mind. A common technique is to breath in deeply and exhale slowly, imagining the exhale removing negativity

  • Focusing on your own center of gravity: to help avoid thinking of external stimuli which cause distraction

  • Centering the attention on a relevant external cue: provides a strong focus and gives the mind a stimulus to serve as a distraction from the athletes own negative thoughts. An example in weightlifting would be: focusing your sight only on the bar when you walk towards it, tightening your wrist wraps or chalking your hands


Other techniques for improving concentration and attention:

  • Practice simulation: the idea here is to simulate competition variables during training sessions as much as possible. The more similar the conditions the better as the athlete will learn to cope with and ignore external stimuli. Examples of this could be getting teammates to act as opposition athletes, or playing recordings of crowd noise whilst training

  • Using keywords: the coach and athlete can come up with verbal cues that cater to the athletes individual preferences. These can be used to reinforce attention, motivation and confidence. You may often hear weightlifting coaches at high level competitions shouting certain cues to their athletes as they lift

  • Visual control: this requires the athlete to pick a physical location to focus on, which does not represent any stimuli that impair their performance. An example could be focussing on the wall ahead at eye level whilst lifting at a competition as you know that nothing will get in your eyeline and distract you

  • Technique mastering: as previously mentioned, the more the athlete masters their physical skills the more they will be able to pay attention to other stimuli. They can then focus more on what the scenario requires, rather than how to perform the necessary movements

  • Focusing on the present: being able to remain in the moment is paramount for athletic performance. Focusing on the past can be very distracting, for example looking back over something that has just happened in the game (missing a goal), instead of where to go now (the next shot on goal)

  • Audiovisual samples: watching videos of competitions can allow the athlete to see what elements they find distracting. Once the athlete and coach are aware of these they can work to re-focus on other stimuli


Wrapping up:

Sports psychologists provide athletes and coaches with the tools that they need when they face high pressure, high performance situations. Attention and concentration are key for remaining in the moment and facing tough scenarios head on. Sport provides incredibly dynamic events, where many stimuli are thrown at you at a rapidly changing pace. Being able to only focus on what is key to your goals is incredibly important if you want to achieve them, whether in sport or in life.


- Team Canterbury Strength


References


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Dosil, J. (2004) Psicologia de la Actividad Fiscia y del Deporte. Madrid: McGraw-Hill.


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