Concentration and attention control are psychological skills that most athletes are aware of, but many neglect to develop. How many times has a coach told you to “Focus!” or “Pay attention!”? But what does that mean, and how do you “focus” or “pay attention” when and how you need to? Comprised of four components – selective attention, maintaining focus, situational awareness and adjusting attention – there is tremendous payoff if you make the decision to sharpen your concentration skills.

Briefly explained, concentration is the ability to attend to the task at hand, and minimize the internal and external distractions that can have a negative impact on your performance. In other words, paying attention to the right thing…at the right time. For example, think about the impact that may result from intense crowd noises (external) or negative self-talk after a mistake (internal). At the same time, you need to be able to notice and respond to important cues in your environment in order to perform at your highest level. How do you block out the visual distraction of rowdy fans while at the same time notice the way the defense is setting up? What are the adjustments that need to be made when weather is unpredictable, or when you’re not feeling 100% but still need to perform? The ability to shift focus as needed while rejecting unnecessary or unhelpful input will increase your chances of success.

There are two dimensions of attention: width (broad and narrow) and direction (internal and external), resulting in four types of attentional control: a) external broad b) internal broad c) external narrow and d) internal narrow. Awareness of your own strengths and weaknesses in each of these areas, as well as the internal and external factors that tend to be most distracting for you, can help you strengthen your concentration skills.

How many things are you paying attention to at once?

  • External, broad: quarterback quickly scanning the field for receivers
  • External, narrow: focusing only on one or two external cues (i.e. focusing on the ball)

Is your attention focused inwardly, on your thoughts and feelings, or externally, on the environment?

  • Internal, broad: quickly developing a plan or strategy based on the environmental conditions and cues
  • Internal, narrow: controlling your emotional state by using breathing techniques

What are the kinds of distractions that you find yourself struggling with?

  • Internal:
    • Negative self-talk
    • High anxiety
    • Fatigue
    • Worry (about the past or future)
  • External:
    • Visual (crowd, camera flashes)
    • Sound (talking, laughing, boos)
    • Behaviors (intentional fouls, trash-talk)

Here are four ways to build your concentration both in practice and on the field.

  • Learn your attention style during practice:Take the time during practice to understand where you apply your focus and the impact it has on your performance.
  • Develop a pre-performance routine:A pre-performance routine provides focus while also creating a sense of familiarity that can help reduce anxiety.
  • Practice in varied conditions:Prepare for potential distractions such as increased crowd noise or challenging weather conditions by simulating those environments.
  • Develop cue or focus words:Pair certain cue or focus words to an action, behavior, or an emotional state (i.e., “breathe” or “hands back”) to serve as a reminder. Keep in mind that you must practice this pairing for it to be effective in a competition situation.

Concentration and attentional control are skills that many people think they either have or they don’t. However, they are skills that with effort and intentionality can be developed and expanded. Take some time to learn your current skill level, and establish a plan to help you maximize this skill!

References: Nideffer, R. & Sagal, M. (2006). Concentration and attention control in training. In J. M. Williams (Ed.), Applied sport psychology: Personal growth to peak performance (pp. 382-403). New York, NY: McGraw-Hill