Concentration: What it is and how to improve it
Have your athletes ever had a hard time focusing? Do they get easily distracted? Concentration is one of the most important aspects of an athlete’s performance as well as one of the hardest things to control. This month’s newsletter will discuss what concentration is and how to help athletes improve it.
Simply put, concentration is paying attention to the right thing at the right time. Athletes will know they are focused when their thoughts are in line with the specific task they are about to perform. This is easier said than done. Different sports require different levels of focus as well as different styles of attention. Attention can be broken into two main categories: width and direction. Width of focus can be broad or narrow and direction of focus can be internal (inside one’s self) or external (outside one’s self). It is important to understand which styles are most important for the sport and athlete’s position as well as which style(s) are the athlete’s strengths and those that could use work. Knowing this can help direct the athlete’s mental training practice. However, the most important aspect is the ability to shift within the different styles thus mentally being “in the right place at the right time”. Sports are very dynamic and most athletes will find better success if they are able to shift between the different styles of focus rather than being stuck in one specific style.
In order for athletes to improve concentration they need to learn to distinguish between relevant and irrelevant cues. Once they know what they should pay attention to it will be easier for them to focus. Knowing what to pay attention to will also help decrease the effects of distractions. Replacing irrelevant cues with relevant cues can help athletes ignore distractions and maintain focus on what is important so they can achieve success. It is important for athletes to stay focused in the present moment and make a conscious decision to be committed to focusing. At the same time it is also important for them to be flexible enough to notice changes in the game or practice environment.
With this new understanding of what focus is and the importance it plays in an athlete’s success it is important to know how to help athletes improve their focus. Listed below are some techniques that can be practiced and used to assist athletes in improving their concentration.
- Focus on what is in your control – It is important to help athletes become aware of things that are in their control and let go of things that are outside of their control. An athlete’s energy should be focused on what is within their control instead of wasting it on things they have no control over.
- Breathe – Focusing on your breathing can help an athlete calm their mind and help them stay in the present moment and focus on what is happening right now in the game. This can be done by taking deep belly breathes in through the nose and out through the mouth.
- Positive self-talk – When athletes have positive self-talk they are more motivated and focused on their game and being successful. When self-doubt sneaks in they may focus on their mistakes or their weaknesses. This may cause them to become distracted and lose focus, which will decrease their ability to play successfully. When this occurs athletes will need to recognize the negative self-talk and replace it with positive self-talk; something that is meaningful and believable to them.
- Park your thoughts – Athletes can decrease negative and intruding thoughts (i.e., homework, chores, projects, new plays, etc.) by “parking” them in a safe place and picking them back up after the game/practice. They can do this by writing down any unwanted thoughts, worries, or things that may be distracting and leave it in their locker or equipment bag. Also, they can park their thoughts before they step into a game/practice by leaving anything not pertaining to the game/practice at the door to be picked up afterwards.
- Distraction control – Help athletes learn what the important and unimportant aspects of the game are. Once athletes know what the relevant cues are they can focus on them. If their focus is pulled away by distractions have them gently bring it back to what is important at the moment. Keeping the mind interested can also help decrease the pull of distractions.
- Cue words – Have athletes come up with a word that is powerful and has meaning to them. Cue words can be used to trigger a specific response and can help athletes focus on what is important at the moment, what they need to pay attention to, and help get their mind ready for the game or practice. They can also be used to help athletes refocus. An example could be “game time, right here right now, center”. Cue words can be instructional (e.g., “Follow through”, “Head up”, “Elbow in”) or emotional or motivational (e.g., “Relax”, “Get tough”, “Explode”).
- Learn to maintain concentration – The amount of time an athlete can focus can be improved through practice. Have your athletes practice sitting in a quiet room with a piece of their equipment. Have them focus on the piece of equipment and see how long they can concentrate before they lose their focus or a distracting thought enters. Have them practice this every day and see if they can increase the amount of time they stay focused or decrease the amount of distracting thoughts. Once they can maintain focus for 5 minutes have them practice with distractions present.
- Create a pre-performance routine – Help athletes find the steps they need to take before each game that will help them achieve the success they desire. Don’t let them leave their warm-up and preparation to chance. It is also important for athletes to practice the same focus, under the same conditions, in practice that they will need in competition.
Concentration is an important aspect of any athlete’s performance. The right amount of focus can lead an athlete to a better performance and more consistent success. It is important that athletes learn the amount of focus they need to be successful. Concentration can be thought of like a mental spotlight. It can cover a large space or it can be narrowed and the light can be focused and shine on one specific spot. The light will shine where-ever the spotlight is pointed. It is important for athletes to learn where to shine their spotlight and how much light is needed for a specific task. It is also important for athletes to give their mind a “mental vacation” and relax it during a break in competition/practice. This will help them have a more intense focus and maintain it longer when play begins again. By practicing the above techniques athletes can learn to improve their focus and shine their spotlight where it will be most useful.