Focus for the unfocused
Selective attention and concentration get seemingly mixed up and people get confused on the two. Concentration “entails the ability to focus on the task at hand and not be affected or disturbed by distractions” (Nideffer,1993). Whilst selective attention being “able to choose to attend to specific stimuli or ignore it.” (op cit). This meaning it is important to focuses on relevant stimuli in order to bring about optimum performance. For example, while I sit here, my colleagues are talking to each other yet I am selective attention is forcing on writing this instead.
Focusing on the wrong stimulus can cause a lapse in concentration (Wulf, 2007). To keep concentrated, we must focus on our ability to attend to the right stimuli. This comes through mental training practice.
There are mainly 2 types of attention, external and internal attention. An internal focus of attention is focusing on areas such as body movements and thoughts (focusing on muscles being used in a golf swing). An external focus of attention is focusing on the environment (focusing on the ball whilst swinging) (Wulf, 2007). Depending on what level of skill the athlete is, both types of attention can be used to produce maximal performance.
Novice athletes are preferably more prone to focus their attention internally to learn movement patterns effectively until they are competent in the skill execution. On the other hand, higher skilled athletes should focus more externally because they have the skill execution should be autonomous (Wulf & Su, 2007). Even though skilled athletes focus on the environment, it has to be relevant to prevent distraction.
So as a novice, when is the right time to focus externally instead of internally? If you practice a skill movement on your own, record yourself to see if the movement pattern is correct and if not, self coach yourself until you believe the movement is correct. However, if you have a coach, the coach should change your movement pattern if it is slightly wrong. As a skilled athlete, we should focus externally but still record and ask coaches for advice because practice makes permanent.
How can we train to become more focused?
Before we look into becoming more focused, it is essential to understand what the brain goes through in order to become more focused. First of all, you are in control in what you resort your attention to. Visually, you scan the environment and process the information and find out what you need to pay relevant attention too. For example, if a plane goes by whilst you are playing sport and you focus on that rather than the task at hand, it shows that you are not focusing on the right things. Have you ever been so into something and somebody shouts your name but you cannot hear them? This is because you are so in the zone of focusing your attention you ignore the environment around you.
Self-talk has been shown to aid motor skill learning (Hardy, 2006). If we feel our mind drifting and not focused on the task at hand, cue words may create a platform be being ‘on’ or ‘in the zone.’ Cue words can adjust focus of attention towards the task at hand (op cit). For example, Jonny Wilkinson saying ‘smooth’ before he hits his penalty kicks. Remember Dwayne Johnson’s famous ‘FOCUS’ videos when he was in the gym? This can be a technique used to shift attention to the task of lifting weights.
Using different types of self-talk will be different for each individual. Motivational self-talks helps to raise confidence via key words such as “come on” or “get your head in the game.” Whilst instructional self talk aids focus of attention and task execution such as “focus” or “smooth.” Develop your own list to keep attention.
Meditation and Visualisation
Meditation can develop focus by shutting out the world around us (from distractions) and focus on our muscles, thoughts and breathing (internal). By concentrating internally, train the mind to prevent unwanted distractions and narrow your attention to relevant stimuli during meditation. This is harder than it seems and it takes a while to learn but it will reap benefits in the long term. A technique that could be used is to play music or have the TV on and try ‘drown it out’ and focus internally (thoughts) rather than externally (music or tv).
While focusing internally, visualise your sport execution. This can be done whenever possible, the more you do it the better you will become of initiating it. Try make it as real as possible.
The ability to refocus on the relevant cues when we get distracted is key for sports performance. By practicing meditation and visualisation, it will help prevent distractions. But If we recognise when we get distracted, we can use self-talk to refocus and take action.
Nideffer, R.M. (1993). Concentration and attention control training. In J.M. Williams (Ed.), Applied sport psychology: Personal growth to peak performance. Mountain View, CA: Mayfield.
Wulf G., Su J. (2007). External focus of attention enhances golf shot accuracy in beginners and experts. Res. Q. Exerc. Sport 78, 384–389
Wulf G. (2007). Attention and Motor Skill Learning. Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics
Cutton, D. M., & Landin, D. (2007). The effects of self-talk and augmented feedback on learning the tennis forehand. Journal of Applied Sport Psychology, 19(3), 288-303.