Concentration – The Executive Mental Skill

Concentration can be referred to as the Executive Mental Training Skill because to some degree it controls all of the other mental training skills (Karageorghis & Terry, 2011). Effective concentration allows athletes to apply appropriate attention to internal and external stimuli in the performance domain (Perry, 2005).
When concentration is interrupted, our attention for an activity may be lost, not only in sports, but in other spheres of life (e.g., school, work, relationships). Concentration is very dynamic and constantly shifting (especially in fast paced environments and situations), so to be able to concentrate effectively, we must be able to remain focused on the right thing at the right time. The good news is, we can learn, practice, and train ourselves to concentrate more effectively, and in turn improve our performance.
Principles of Effective Concentration
Kremer and Moran (2008) outline five key principles for effective communication in sport:
1. Concentration is a Decision
You cannot force yourself to concentrate. There is a distinct difference between trying to force yourself to concentrate and making a deliberate choice to invest the adequate mental effort to improving performance and training your ability to concentrate.
2. Performers can only Focus on One Thought at a Time
Given that sports usually happen fast-paced, we can only focus consciously on one thing at a time in the moment. In this short amount of time, cue words or single direct phrases are best utilized to generate the proper feeling of the behaviour needed in that moment. As such, complex and technical instructions and directions should be avoided during participation and competition.
3. Performers’ minds are Focused when they’re doing what they’re Thinking
This principle illustrates the ideal connection between the body and the mind. When our minds are truly focused on what is important there is no difference between what we are thinking about and what we are doing in that particular moment. Some athletes describe this as Flow – the complete harmony between their thoughts and their actions – this combination of thought and action is expedited by concentrating on tasks that are relevant, specific, and controllable.
4. Refocusing is a Necessity to keep Minds on Track
As we know, there are lots of possible things that require our attention at any one moment while performing. As this is a constant issue, we must be able to snap our attention back to the present moment as often as required. This may have to be done numerous times as we develop our concentration ability.
5. When Anxious – Focus Externally
When we become anxious prior to competition or during competition an effective concentration tactic is to direct our focus externally or outwards on what we have to physically do, or something that we can physically have control over. By directing our focus outwards and specifically to what we have to do, it keeps us from focusing internally, which tends to make us self-conscious and self-critical, leading to self-doubt.
Improving Concentration in the Moment
Concentration is improved in the moment by either decreasing attention to irrelevant stimuli or by increasing attention to relevant stimuli. The following are several techniques and tools that can be used to improve Concentration.
Goals & Action Goals:
By deliberately focusing our attention toward process and performance goals as opposed to outcome goals (e.g., the result of a game or match), we impose more control over our present situation, which can help us maintain our concentration. When we find ourselves having issues remaining focused in the moment, quickly ask yourself, what are the relevant actions I need to complete right now.
Cue Words & Trigger Words:
One of the easiest ways to improve concentration is to verbalize the important cues of particular situations. We can use cue words to help us concentrate on the most important factors needed to complete a skill or task. Cue words can direct your attention to critical performance related situations. To help maintain our concentration, it can help to verbally say the important elements or steps needed in the situation.
Imagery is one of the most widely used mental training tools athletes use. By taking a moment to see ourselves complete the task before we actually do it, we can bring our attention to the important cues needed to perform the task successfully. This tactic is beneficial in practice and when learning a new skill.
Pre-Performance Routines:
Pre-performance routines help athletes focus on the task at hand and be in the moment to performance successfully (Kornspan, 2009). Pre-performance routines are designed to take the athlete from a thinking state to an action state – one step at a time, and can involve a combination of other concentration tools (e.g., imagery, cue words) (Moran, 2010).
Ongoing Concentration Training Techniques
The River (or Irresistible Flow: Karageorghis & Terry, 2011)
Follow the instructions below and practice on a regular basis to help improve concentration for longer periods of time:
1. Look at either one of your favorite sport action photos or an object from your sport (if you choose a photo, pick out one of the most important details from the photo).
2. Focus intently on the object in the picture or the object in front of you.
3. If any distracting thoughts enter your mind, patiently refocus your concentration by gently bringing your thoughts back to the relevant object.
4. Try to imagine your thought process as a wide, powerful river, where unwanted thoughts come floating along from time to time.
5. Rather than fighting against the flow or becoming frustrated, which only serves as fixing the unwanted thought in our consciousness, go with the flow by refocusing on your object while the unwanted thoughts drift away.
To improve your concentration, this should be practiced a few times a week while recording your progress by timing how long you can retain your focus on the object. In time this exercise can help avoid concentration lapses during your performance.
The Stork (Martens, 1987)
In this exercise, athletes practice standing on one foot and maintaining that position for as long as possible with their arms outstretched and eyes closed. Track how long you can do this for to help maintain focus. Be sure to train on both legs.
Dealing with Disturbances
Beckmann and Elbe (2015) suggest it is helpful to practice with athletes’ ways to deal with possible disturbances or interruptions they might face during competition. Athletes can develop coping strategies (e.g., cue words, pre-performance routines, etc.) that can keep their concentration intact during competition. To being, start by listing some of the more common disturbances you might deal with while performing ahead of time. For each disturbance document what you will do keep your concentration intact and what is important in that situation.
Concentration Cards
Using a standard deck of cards, shuffle and place each card face down in four rows of 13 cards each. Each player takes turns by turning two cards over. If the cards match, the player picks them up. If they don’t match, the cards are turned back over and the next players has their turn.
Anything that steals our attention away to another time or to non-relevant details has the ability to impact our performance (Karageorghis & Terry, 2011). Moran (2010) tells us that concentration can never be lost, but it can be directed at the wrong targets. Concentration can be effected by physical conditions such as fatigue, exhaustion, or improper diet, and different types of sports and activities require different styles of concentration. Our concentration is a skill that needs to developed and practiced just like any other skill in order to improve. Performance is composed of an endless series of present moments. By improving our ability to concentrate and maintain our focus on the important elements in the moment we put our self in situations with a higher probability to succeed.
Beckmann, J. & Elbe, A.M. (2015). Sport psychological interventions in competitive sports. Newcastle, UK: Cambridge Scholars Publishing.
Karageorghis, C.I. & Terry, P.C. (2011). Inside sport psychology. Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics.
Kornspan, A.S. (2009). Fundamentals of sport and exercise psychology. Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics.
Kremer, J. & Moran, A. (2008). Pure sport: Practical sport psychology. London, UK: Routledge.
Martens, R. (1987). Coaches guide to sport psychology. Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics.
Moran, A. (2010). Concentration/Attention. In S.J. Hanrahan & M.B. Andersen (Eds.), Routledge handbook of applied sport psychology (pp. 500-509). New York, NY: Routledge Taylor & Francis Group.
Perry, C. (2005). Concentration: Focus under pressure. In S. Murphy (Ed.), The sport psych handbook (pp. 113-125). Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics.