What exactly is attention? How do you “stay focused?” And what are the differences between attention, focus, and concentration? We often hear cues from coaches to ‘focus up’ and ‘concentrate.’ But how do we focus? And what do we concentrate on? In this chapter we discuss theories of attention, focus, and concentration, as well as how to actually do them.
There are four main types of attentional focus: broad, narrow, external, and internal. Broad attentional focus allows athletes to perceive multiple stimuli concurrently. Think of a goalkeeper scanning the field. Narrow attentional focus is used to focus on one or two cues. For example, the goalkeeper would focus on the ball as she prepares to kick it. External attentional focus is based on outside objects, such as the ball. Internal attentional focus is directed inward, and has to do with thoughts, feelings, and sensations. Athletes can engage in an internal attentional focus when analyzing or preparing for competition. Combinations of these types of attentional focus become appropriate in varying situations. For instance, the goalkeeper who is scanning the field would have a broad, external focus. When she has the ball and is preparing to kick it, her focus would be narrow, external. Lapses in concentration can often be attributed to an attentional focus which is inappropriate based on the given situation.
Concentration is the ability to focus on what is most important, when it is important. It is a skill that can be learned and improved upon with practice. A further breakdown of concentration includes:
Selective attention: The ability to to focus on relevant cues and information.
The ability to maintain attentional focus over time.
Awareness of the situation.
The ability to shift attentional focus.
Maintaining concentration can be very difficult, especially considering the relatively short attention span of the average person. Situational awareness, an understanding of what is going on around us, is key in helping us decide what is important in a given situation, and whether or not it deserves our attentional focus. Situational awareness also helps us understand when we need to shift our attentional focus, and when we can switch our concentration off and back on.
Dealing with Distractions
Some distractions come from within, in the form of thoughts and emotions. Internal distractions can be even more harmful than external distractors. Internal distractors often increase in situations when pressure is particularly high. Imagine you're a basketball player, the game is tied with 2 seconds left, and you step to the free throw line. Is your focus on the external factors you should be concerned with, like the ball and the basket? Or is it increasingly narrow and internal, focusing on your fear of missing or other worries? Athletes who are able to attend to task-relevant cues in critical moments are able to perform under pressure, while those who focus on cues which are not relevant to the task, such as their fears or emotions, struggle under pressure. As arousal increases, so does an athlete's need to be able to determine what is most important, and hone in on it.
External distractions are environmental factors that divert athletes' attention from performance or task-relevant cues. There are visual distractors, such as other players, coaches, and fans. There are also auditory distractors, such as crowd noise, and music in some sports. It has been found that athletes who have trained to ignore external distractors can perform better.
Some of the best ways to limit the effect of distractions, internal or external, are through self-talk and cue words. When athletes use instructional self-talk, the emphasis returns to task-relevant focus. Athletes can also use a cue word as a trigger to "dial in" to the task when the mind begins to wander toward irrelevant internal or external factors. Performance routines are another excellent protectant against distractions. Refer back to chapter two, and use the performance readiness worksheet to develop your performance plan, and set yourself up for success in dealing with distractions.