Concentration: Staying focused in sport is one of the key pillars of athletic performance

by Weaver • November 22, 2016 • No Comments

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concentration performance

Many sport scientists distinguish between four aspects of athletic performance: Physical, Technical, Tactical and Psychological. One of the familiar but yet not fully understood domains is the psychological (or mental) aspect of sporting competition. The above shows you the paradox associated with psychology how can something be so familiar to everyone but not understood? This domain is familiar because every week we see athletes who make uncharacteristic errors (missing a 2ft putt for par, missing a penalty kick ect) these errors allow us to see the mental side of sport and allow us to catch a glimpse of lapses in concentration or performance due to psychological factors. The blog will look at some key areas and dimensions of concentration. The reason for this blog and my interest in concentration is linked to the Open championship which has been taking place over the past week and the Ashes Cricket where individuals require high levels of concentration over long periods of time for example Joe Root the opening test batsman for England batted for over 8 hours in making his 180 runs in the 2nd innings of the 2nd test at Lords.

Introduction

Most athletes have discovered from experience that concentration or the ability to focus effectively on the task at hand while ignoring distractions is one of the keys to effective performance (Moran, 2004). What has been noted in the research is that sports performers have developed informal ideas about how their concentration systems work while in competitive situations for example Gary Sobers the famous West Indies bowler refereed to concentration as a “shower. you don’t turn on until you want to bathe….You don’t walk out of the shower and leave it running. You turn it off, you turn it on…..It has to be fresh and ready when you need it” (White 2002, p.20). What is perhaps not surprising to note is that athletes informal ideas are interlinked with idiosyncratic techniques to concentrate their minds in close competitive situations. But is it possible to turn on the psychological systems in our mind such as concentration like a shower? but most importantly of all what  is concentration, why is it so important to athletes and why do athletes loose this psychological variable so easily in competition?

The importance of concentration in sport

Firstly we must define what concentration is, Moran (2004) states that concentration refers to a persons ability to exert deliberate mental effort on what is most important in any given situation. In an applied sporting context, Perry (2005)  states that this can typically can be broken down into four parts, (1) focusing on the relevant cues (2) maintaining attentional focus over a sustained period of time (3) having awareness of the situation and (4) shifting the attentional focus when needed. Why then is concentration important in sport? Research by Jackson & Csikezentmihalyi (1999) found that 3 of the 8 identified components of exceptional performance were linked to concentration. Research that has compared less successful athletes with successful athletes and has consistently found that attentional control is an important discriminating factor in success. Moran (2004) revealed that successful athletes are less likely to become distracted by irrelevant stimuli and maintain a high level of task-oriented focus as opposed to worrying or focusing on the outcome. Even early on in the research into concentration Gould et al. (1992) concluded that optimal performance was highly correlated to concentration. With concentration being the ability to focus, have a high degree of involvement in the task along with an awareness and complete absorption in the task at hand.

The importance of concentration in sport is linked with this idea of a “flow” state or a “peak athletic performance” state where the physical, technical, tactical and psychological components of sporting performance intertwine for the athlete in the given performance.  However these experiences are few and far between in sport and the reason for this is that our concentration system is very fragile with studies showing the median length of time during which thought content remains on an object is approximately 5 seconds. therefore in a 16 hour day we could experience up to 4,000 distinct thought processes. This is because cognitive psychologists believe that concentration is controlled mainly by the central executive of our working memory whose job it is to keep small amounts of information active while we make a decision. The final piece of evidence to support the importance of concentration in sport comes from studies which manipulated athletes attentional focus in competitive situations. Mallett & Hanrahan (1997) found that sprinters who had been trained to use race plans that involved focusing on task-relevant cues ran faster than control groups. Similarly, the use of “associative” cues in which athletes are trained to focus on bodily cues like heart beat and respiratory signals was linked to quicker running performance (Morgan, 2000). Concentration has been echoed as an important pillar of sports performance by many researchers with Abernethy (2001, p.123) concluding that it is difficult to imagine any skill that could be more important to athletic performance than “paying attention to the task at hand.” But for the athlete how do we make concentration effective due it being heavy linked to the working memory?

What is effective concentration?

Abernethy (2001) in researching the relationship between attention and athletic performance identified 5 principles of effective concentration, 3 of which relate to the establishment of concentration and 2 relate to how concentration is broken and lost. The first principle is that a focused state of mind requires deliberate, mental effort and intentional effort from the athlete. Therefore an athlete must prepare to concentrate rather than stand around and wait for it to occur. The second is that an athlete should only focus on one thought at a time even though research has shown that skilled athletes can divide there attention to more than one concurrent action, this one thought process is linked to our working memory and is short in nature. The third principle is related to the idea of “flow” and states that an athlete is optimally focused when they only concentrate on actions that are specific, relevant and under there control. For example Tiger Woods would be only concerned with execution of the perfect drive on the 18th at Augusta national and not how his favorite basketball team is doing in the NBA. The final two principles relate to how athletes loose concentration. The first of these states that athletes loose concentration when their focus drifts away from relevant cues or they focus on events outside of there control. The final principle of effective concentration states that focus can be broken by the disruptive nature of emotions such as anxiety. For example anxiety impairs and disrupts our concentration system by overloading the the working memory with worries in addition it restricts athletes ability to focus on task-relevant cues. Interestingly Perry (2005) states that anxiety hampers optimal performance by inducing athletes to rely on explicit conscious control of their skills. What we see is that although these principles aim to explain what is needed to have effective concentration, what must be asked is why do athletes lose their concentration?

Why do athletes lose their concentration?

What we have seen from above is that when athletes focus on factors that are irrelevant or beyond their control they loose concentration and this results in a performance drop. However many cognitive psychologists believe that concentration is never lost but is redirected to a irrelevant task or cue (Moran, 2000). So what we see is that athletes concentration lapses are cause by inappropriate attentional focus. In general there are two sources of distraction to athletes internal and external.

Internal distractions come from within ourselves, our thoughts, worries and concerns. Jackson & Csikezentmihalyi (1999) showed that internal distractors such as worries or irrelevant thoughts caused elite performers to lose concentration. Let us look now at three key internal distractors.

Attending to future events

Concentration issues can encompass attending to future events or a form of fortune-telling within ourselves. This is where we worry or think about the outcome of the event. For example a 54 hole leader at a major championship thinking about winning the event rather than what they need to do to attain the success. Statements such as “what if i miss this putt?” “What if I let my team-mates down?” this future-orientated thinking and negative worrying will affect an individual’s concentration, and effect optimal performance levels. Another interesting point to note is that sometimes our minds can just wonder. For example many athletes have reported that in the heat of competition, there mind is on something irrelevant to the task such as their family or what they did yesterday at lunchtime. These irrelevant thoughts are often involuntary and sudden and player’s concentration becomes distorted and performance is diminished.

Attending to past events

Some people fail to erase what has just happened and dwell on poor performances or poor technique (Orlick, 2000). For example Gary Evans a former professional golfer was leading at the Open Championship at Murfield in 2002 going up the 17th he hit his second into the deep rough and although he saved par on that hole he stated later that “my head was gone after that” he was so focused on past events that he could not focus on the present and his concentration was broken. He eventually made bogey on the 18th and missed out on the play-off for the championship. Research from Perry (2005) has shown that those who attend to past events produce a diminished level of performance compared to those who focus on the present. This study took place on Olympic level archers. However one of the interesting mental challenges experienced in individual sports is the ample amount of time for reflection on poor performances (Orlick, 2000).

Fatigue

Within all sports the interaction of mental and physical effort will invoke fatigue. Given the definition of attention, which involves mental effort, it is not surprising that fatigue will play an important role in a reduction of focus and loss of concentration. Everyone in their daily lives has experienced the effect fatigue can have on concentration to a task. When we are tired our concentration levels reduce. In a sporting arena this can lead to reduced performance. The results of which include impaired decision making processes, lack of focus and poor technical performance of a task. In essence fatigue reduces the amount of available processing resources for the athlete. This in turn results in failure to meet the demands of the task (Wegner, 2002)

External distractors are stimuli from the enviroment in which we are present in that divert our attention from relevant cues for our performance of a task, below I will look at two key distractors however unfortunately for sports individuals a variety of these external distractors exist

Visual Distractors

One of the more difficult aspects of maintaining concentration on the relevant cues for a competitive athlete is the level of visual distractions in the environment that athletes are competing in weather it be banners or flags visual distractors are always present at sporting events. Orlick (2000) showed that the slightest engagement of athletes to visual distractors can lead to performance decrements. With increases in physiological variables such as heart rate noted with a noted decrease in relevant task orientated focus. Baumeister (1984) noted that spectators can have a noted impact on concentration. This research showed that increased self-consciousness elicited by home crowds can influence athletes to over focus on the control processes (Movement patterns, Technical aspects of performance) causing a reduction in performance levels. For some however a crowd can improve there performance levels however for most individuals knowing people in the crowd is a powerful distraction. Other visual distractors include leaderboards or scoreboards.

Auditory Distractors

Most sporting events take place in environments where auditory distractors are common place these include crowd noise, airplanes flying overhead (US Open Tennis), mobile phones, public addresses and electronic devices making noise. One of the famous auditory distractors is the grunt in tennis with many of the top players in the world accompanying there forehand or backhand with a grunt. There have been reports from tennis players that grunting from opponents has distracted them during competition with many woman’s players in the early 1990’s complaining about the excessive grunting of Monica Seles’. Accordingly athletic success may hinge on an athletes ability to block out the auditory distractors or train in an environment in which these are common place an example of this is the Munster rugby team who when faced with an away trip to Toulouse trained with crowd noise so that line-out called and back-line calls where made in an environment that was distracting in nature. This allowed players to ignore the auditory distractors and allowed them to focus on task relevant cues for performance. In team sports auditory distractors are common place these distractors are usually only detrimental to performance in the individual sporting arena in sports where silence is a custom such as golf, tennis and snooker.

Conclusion

To conclude concentration is ultimately one of the key pillars of sporting performance without which performance levels would fall.  But what is interesting is that in sport this variable is tested time and time again. It is tested by both our own internal distractors but also those external distractors also such as crowd noises, gamesmanship, grunting ect. What practitioners and athletes a like need to do is to implement ways in which to improve concentration such as pre-performance routines and self-talk or cues. Another interesting training tool is training in an environment which tests an athletes concentration skills. What athletes should always do is pay attention to relevant cues for performance while trying to block out the distractors whether internal or external in nature.

References

Abernethy, B., 2001. Attention in Sport. The Sport Psychologist, 12(5), pp. 121-129.

Jackson, S. & Csikszentmihalyi, M., 1999. Flow in sport. Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics.

Mallett, C. J. & Hanrahan, S. J., 1997. Race Modelling: An effective cognitive strategy for the 100m sprinter. The Sport Psychologist, Volume 11, pp. 72-85.

Moran, A., 2004. Sport and Exercise Psychology: A Critical Introduction. New York: Routledge.

Morgan, W. P., 2000. Psychological factors associated with distance running and the marathon. In: D. R. Lamb & R. Murrary, eds. Marathon Medicine. Carmel, IN: Cooper Publishing Company, pp. 293-310.

Orlick, T., 2000. In persuit of excellence: How to win in sport and life through mental training. 3rd ed. Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics.

Perry, C., 2005. Concentration: Focus under Pressure. Journal of Sport Psychology, 12(5), pp. 173-186.

Wegner, D. M., 2002. Thought suppression and mental control. The Sport Psychologist, 14(3), pp. 159-166.

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