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Readings Sports Pycholgy the Nature of Concentration

The Nature of Concentration
by Mike Stock

As players, coaches or spectators we have all at some time either been told to concentrate, told someone else to concentrate or heard another being told to concentrate. But what do we mean when we exhort, cajole or encourage someone to concentrate? Our ability to give attention, to concentrate or to be focussed is a vital skill if we are to perform to our potential. The words are synonymous yet they are not always fully understood, as this golfing joke illustrates;

FATHER: “You know George, if you want to improve your putting, you need total concentration”.
GEORGE: “How do I do that Dad?”
FATHER: “Well George, a dog barking, a passing train a car alarm or even the snap of twig can upset your concentration on the green. Do you get the picture?”
GEORGE: “O.K. then Dad. So should I cough during my opponent’s back-swing or just as he hits the ball?”!

William James in 1890 gave us an early definition of attention when he said, “Everyone knows what attention is. It is taking possession by the mind, in clear and vivid form, of one out of what seems several simultaneously possible objects or trains of thought: focalization, concentration of consciousness are its essence. It implies withdrawal from some things in order to deal effectively with others.”

Since that time other psychologists and researchers have added to the debate. There is now general agreement that loss of concentration is likely to impair sports performance. It is also recognised that maintaining concentration can be a problem. Concentration is about focussing the mind upon the relevant source of information and to the exclusion of others; however that focus must be appropriate. Take the golfer who has just missed an easy put and is still thinking about that, or is daydreaming and is listening and watching a plane passing overhead. Maybe he is concentrating but it is not an appropriate focus. Choosing what to concentrate on is what psychologists call attentional control and this is often considered to be the differentiating factor between elite performers and the less successful.

Why Concentrate?
As a player or athlete we need to be fully aware of all the changing situations that are happening around us, allowing only the most relevant and important things to be the centre of our temporary focus. Everything else should be excluded. This enables us to respond promptly with the correct judgement and accompanying action or movement. If we practice concentrating it allows us to learn and understand what we need to deal with and what to ignore. Similarly it enables us to become familiar with those parts of our performance that are within our control and those that we have no control over.

When to Concentrate?
Obviously whilst we are playing or competing, but the nature of many games and sports is such that we are involved in periods of activity followed by periods of inactivity. The inactivity can be a few seconds or a few minutes, as in games such as tennis and golf, so working out how best to maintaining an appropriate focus during the periods of inactivity is essential. Failure to do so exposes us to distractions that will prevent us from keeping or getting back to the level of concentration that is required to allow us to perform at the level we desire.

A Theory of Concentration
One of the most comprehensive explanations of concentration is provided by Nideffer (1976). He categorised attention into two key elements; internal and external. These are further sub-divided these into broad and narrow focus.

External in this context means the environment in which the athlete is operating.
For example, a footballer operating a broad external focus would be aware of the position of his team mates and the opposition and capable of scanning the field to identify the best passing option. While a competitive archer would use a narrow external focus to block out distractions and remained focused on his specific target.

Nideffer describes internal attention as the way in which a sport person mentally rehearses potential actions. For example, a downhill skier is likely to use a broad internal focus whilst analysing the problems he is likely to encounter racing the course. However, an 400m hurdler would use a narrow internal focus to remain concentrated on his own personal stride pattern.

Nideffer’s work has been further developed by Moran (1996) and others who describe concentration as the need for attentional control. He explains this in terms of focused and divided attention. The notion of focused attention suggests that we are selective in the source of information we are going to pay attention too. We use this type of attention in closed skill sports such as shooting, athletic field events or golf when it is necessary to exclude other information and distractions.

In team games such as rugby, netball or basketball the nature of the game dictates that we will use divided attention. When we are in possession of the ball we will be paying attention to the visual information that is available to us, such as the position of team-mates and the opposition players, but we will also be aware of audible information from our team mates or that which the coach provides.

It is important for us to have an understanding of how our brain is able to deal with the different sources of information and the factors that can interfere with the way we process that information. Research has shown that we are selective and use cues or stimuli in a sequential manner, unfortunately this process has only a limited capacity in the amount of information it can deal a given time Other theories suggest that the information we use is dealt with at two levels. Firstly at an automatic level, where we are able to utilise relevant information and deal with it without apparently thinking about it. This is believed to be the result of extensive practice of related skills; skills that we are able to perform naturally and without any conscious thought.. The second level we work at is the controlled level. Controlled processes are limited by the capacity of the brain to deal with the information that is available to us. When the capacity is exhausted performance declines. Evidence suggests that the automatic processes are able to operate in a parallel fashion, and because of this they are quicker than the controlled processes. Again there is however a drawback, they have the disadvantage of being relatively inflexible because the routines and motor programs that operate them have been so well learnt.

Heightened arousal, whether it be nervousness due to the competitive situation or a cognitive fear, will both interfere with the effectiveness of our decision making. There are several explanations as to how we are able to remain focussed, whilst at the same time take account of the information the game or competition situation is providing at any given time.

Arousal is a state of awareness and energising that can be either a negative or positive effect on how we perform. Too much arousal will interfere with our concentration and will often affect the way we play in a negative way. Most sports people have at some time experienced the butterflies in the stomach and feelings of nausea often associated with over arousal. Conversely too little arousal and our mind is likely to wander and our focus will be distracted. Knowing how to control our levels of arousal is therefore very important. When we are able to achieve this we have then created additional capacity to employ and use other mental skills that will assist us to remain focussed and concentrated.

For the sports person there are a range of mental skills that can be used to aid concentration. Research suggests that these skills are trainable, and a plethora of literature supports the claim that these techniques work, however it is important to understand the context and environment in which the athlete will be operating in order to select the most appropriate intervention.

References and Further Reading
Hardy,L. Jones,G. and Gould,D.(1996). Understanding Psychological Preparation for Sport: Theory and Practice of Elite Performers. Chichester: John Wiley
Buy this book from
Search for titles by Lew Hardy, Graham Jones and Daniel Gould

Moran,A.P.(1996). The Psychology of Concentration in Sport Performers.Hove: Psychology Press
Search for titles by Aidan Moran

Syer,J, and Connolly,C.(1992).Sporting Body, Sporting Mind. Sydney: Simon and Schuster

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