Focusing attention on concentration

Attentional control in sport

An athlete of no less acclaim than Michael Johnson has described concentration as the single most important factor in world-class sports performance. In this article, Drs Costas Karageorghis and David-Lee Priest consider the fundamental nature of attentional control and present some of the latest research findings.

Foremost among the many definitions of attentional control is perhaps the one given by American sport psychologist Dr Robert Singer: “attentional control is an individual’s readiness in a particular situation to selectively perceive and process information.” The concepts of attentional control and concentration are synonymous. The reason we retain the term ‘attention’ is because concentration is often associated with narrowing one’s focus whereas attentional control pertains to either narrowing or broadening focus as the situation requires. Perhaps the key concept in Singer’s definition is that of selectivity; the cues we need are all there, but like a person completing a wordsearch, we need to attend to the right ones.

In sport, the skill of focusing on what is important and ignoring the irrelevant is often what separates the champions from the also-rans.

For example, there are many documented instances of performers who were rattled in competition by the inadvertent behaviour of spectators and became fixated by this, thereby losing focus on the task at hand.

The greatest British golfer of the last 30 or so years, Sir Nick Faldo, wrote in his autobiography that his Achillean weakness as a young competitor was a failure of concentration(1). This perceived inadequacy propelled the Hertfordshire-born golfer to seek the services of a sport psychologist in the late 1970s, many years before such practices were deemed acceptable by his peers. The problem Nick had was that he expended a lot of energy trying to ignore spectators and other aspects of the playing environment such as the weather conditions. This contributed to a somewhat dour and joyless demeanour that attracted much opprobrium in the press tent; it was an image he would never truly shake off. The rigidity of his focus meant that, were he addressed by a fan or a steward, he would find it almost impossible to acknowledge them or interact, and this proved to be a source of considerable anxiety for the young Nick.

The intervention that cured Nick’s malaise consisted of a process of meditation and visualisation which took place in the hours before competition. During this time, the neophyte golfer developed the capacity to effectively ‘switch’ his attention away from the immediate task – an impending tee shot, for example – and briefly acknowledge others in his vicinity before decidedly snapping his attentional focus back onto his pre-shot routine. He used the image of a light switch being flicked on and off to perpetuate this mentality. This anecdotal example is a good springboard for us, as it demonstrates that attentional control can be learnt to some degree, and instinctive failings can be corrected through accurate diagnosis, apt intervention and diligent application.

Two further principles shine through in this golfing example. Firstly, attentional control is related to the personality of the athlete concerned. Fiery extroverts such as tennis great John McEnroe actually thrive on the stimulation that comes from distraction whereas more inward-looking competitors (McEnroe’s nemesis Björn Borg springs instantly to mind) are more liable to suffer decrements in performance when distractions crop up in their immediate environment.

This brings us neatly to the second principle we wanted to foreground: attentional control is often a matter of dealing with the unpredictability of sporting encounters. As with life, sport is a soup of rather chaotic and unprecedented occurrences, and it is the skill of maintaining appropriate attentional control in the face of these events which can ultimately aid our performances. A recent Chinese study by Yongjun Sun and Xiufeng Wu underlined this point. They conducted structured, in-depth interviews with 14 world-class athletes. Precise attentional control was found to be a hallmark of successful performances(2).

As can be seen in the above list, there are a variety of different strategies that can be directed towards the attentional challenges that sport throws up. In the summer of 2011, Usain Bolt made headlines for all the wrong reasons; accused of allowing his concentration to drift before false starting and being thrown out of the final of the 100 metres at the World Championships in Daegu, South Korea. Some commentators felt, rightly or wrongly, that he had allowed his flamboyant display ritual before the race to impede his focus in the seconds leading up to the start. In other words, he had failed to ‘switch’ his attention effectively.

Clearly, the ‘tunnel vision’ needed by a sprinter such as Bolt is very different from the ‘scanning’ form of attention required by an NFL quarterback; the lynchpin-player in a highly interactive sport. Attentional demands vary considerably even within a single sport: in basketball, the narrow focus demanded by a free throw stands in stark contrast to the broader focus required during a fast break.

How does attention actually work?

The examples we have given of different attentional foci lead naturally into an explanation of the way attentional control functions. Perhaps the most popular explanatory model was proposed by Dr Robert Nideffer, another American psychologist (see Figure 1). He argued that four types of attentional focus can be experienced. More specifically, he suggested that attention has two separate dimensions of width and direction, which are independent of one another. The width dimension ranges from a narrow focus, characterised by attending to a specific thought or object, to a broad focus in which one is aware of a variety of stimuli.

In our earlier examples, the sprinter was adopting a narrow focus whereas the quarterback required a broad one. Direction refers to whether one focuses externally, on objects outside of the body, such as a tennis net or the frame of a goal, or internally upon one’s own thoughts and feelings. A simple mathematical calculation (2 x 2) leaves us with four different attentional styles: broad internal (analysis), broad-external (scanning), narrow-internal (mental rehearsal), or narrow external (focusing). The key to successful attentional control in sport is being able to identify quickly the correct style for the situation you are in, and being able to switch to it without delay. Now spend a few minutes considering the attentional demands of your chosen sport.

Research findings

In this section we present some key research findings published in international journals and periodicals over the last two years. We begin in Berlin, Germany, where a team led by Dr Ingo Fietze has documented the link between concentration and sleeping patterns(3). The team studied a sample of elite professional ballet dancers over a 67-day training cycle and found that a reduction in sleep duration and quality directly predicted a failure to concentrate. The intervention the researchers proposed to alleviate the problem was targeted rest periods prior to afternoon training.

Sleep is not the only routinised health behaviour which directly affects concentration. Hydration is very important too. A recent review by Dr Barry Popkin and colleagues from the International Life Sciences Institute in Washington DC revealed convincing evidence that even mild dehydration can result in dramatic concentration deficits(4). The researchers concluded that these deficits were particularly pronounced in the very young, very old, those living in hot climates and those engaging in vigorous exercise. Hence the value of adequate hydration in training and competition is paramount if we are to optimise attentional control.

Figure 1.

Despite their undoubted effectiveness, water and sleep are somewhat unexciting recommendations. In contrast, a characteristic of sport psychology in 2012 is the tendency to embrace new interventions, some of which sound outlandish at first. With this in mind, we draw your attention to a group of researchers from Florida State University led by Itay Basevitch, who investigated the effects of different smells on performance and attentional states during a grip strength task(5). The task involved maintaining grip pressure (which represented 30% of each participant’s maximum) for as long as possible. While the peppermint and lavender odours used did not enhance performance, it was found that they enabled an attentional switch to occur. In particular, the lavender scent distracted participants from the internal sensations of effort and muscle strain (see Figure 2). To invoke Nideffer’s model, this represents a switch from a ‘narrow internal’ towards a ‘narrow external’ focus.

There is one problem with this study, though, in that we’re not sure whether the inmates of the weights room where we train would be happy about wearing a lavender scent during their workouts! Joking aside, the principle behind the intervention is interesting because it may apply to other sensory inputs. For example, work we have done with music has shown that, when working up to moderate exercise intensities, carefully-selected motivational music can distract exercisers from internal sensations of fatigue and effort (6). Above the threshold of ~75% VO2 max, internal feedback predominates owing to its sheer intensity. This avenue of work certainly draws us towards the conclusion that, during repetitive aerobic training work, a key strategy to improve performance and render training more enjoyable would be the use of sensory distraction. This perhaps explains the prevalence of television screens in gymnasia; a subject that has received surprisingly little research attention to date.

Earlier in the article we discussed the idea that attentional styles differed according to personality. This was borne out to some extent by the recommendations of Dr Seana Adamson, a dressage riding coach based in America(7). She advocated specific interventions that are tailored to the attentional style of the rider. For example, for riders who over-analyse their performances and mental state, she suggests using ‘keywords’, which condense a complicated idea into a single unit of language. The focus of the keywords is on the ‘feeling’ of performing the manoeuvre correctly. For this reason, they are often kinetic in nature, for example ‘stretch’, ‘snatch’ or ‘glide’. It is not the words themselves that are important, they are merely signposts. Rather, it is the sequence of moves they represent.

What if the athletes you are working with experience some form of ongoing attentional impairment such as Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD)? Researchers Andrea Taylor and Frances Kuo from the University of Illinois have considered this question(8). They worked with a group of children diagnosed with ADHD, ranging in age from 7 to 12 years. The youngsters were exposed to various different stimulus environments ranging from time spent in the city to a walk in the park. Taylor and Kuo found that the children experienced marked improvements in concentration after the walk in the park intervention. The implication is that, if you work with children who have an ADHD diagnosis, exposure to natural training environments may allow them to enhance their attentional control.

Figure 2.

Strategies to enhance attentional control

In this section we offer five complementary techniques we have used to good effect in channelling attention. Each is presented in the style of an exercise that you can perform yourself or (if you are a coach) teach to your athletes or players:

Exercise 1 – ‘Holding an Image’

This exercise develops the skill of maintaining a narrow focus of attention for extended periods. Ask athletes to find an object or image from their sport which they should attempt to visualise in every detail; a cricketer might envisage a bat or a shiny red cricket ball. It is important to notice the colour, the shape, the texture and the nature of the background on which it lies. When they have a clear image of this picture in their mind, they should start a stopwatch and as the image fades, the watch is stopped. With time and practice, attention span can be gradually increased. We often use this as an introductory exercise.

Exercise 2 – ‘Thought Replacement’

This exercise entails replacing any negative thoughts about performance with positive ones. Such a process will allow athletes to focus on the positive aspects of the job at hand rather than on distracting thoughts or feelings. Often in competition, when things are not going to plan or other competitors are resorting to gamesmanship, it is critical to remain positive. An example of thought replacement would be, “my opponent keeps trying to distract me when I’m over my putts” replaced by the thought, “I am going to focus on my own game and take all the time in the world”. Athletes should be empowered to work on replacing the negative thoughts that they commonly experience. A cautionary note, if negative thoughts are not a recurrent problem we would advise athletes not to use this exercise. It can be counter-productive and encourage them to actually focus more on negative thoughts! Always remember the adage of ‘if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it’.

Exercise 3 – ‘Identifying Distracters’

An awareness of the kind of irrelevant cues that interrupt flow helps to gauge if the mind is drifting off-track. A useful exercise is to create two columns on a piece of paper headed ‘Relevant Details’ and ‘Distracters’. Under the details column list relevant attentional cues for your event and in the second column list any thoughts or environmental cues that may distract you. Typical sources of distraction include other competitors, crowd noise, self-doubts or adverse weather conditions. Athletes might review the two columns on the day of competition to remind themselves of important cues such as focusing on the basket during a free throw rather than what the team coach might be thinking, or letting go of the anger associated with a poor refereeing decision so that it does not fester. Important occasions in sport can undermine attentional control via over-arousal: butterflies, increased heart rate, muscular tension, etc. Remember the old soccer cliché, it is essential to “play the match and not the occasion”. This exercise sensitises athletes to potential distractions and will aid them in adopting appropriate coping strategies.

Exercise 4 – ‘Using Triggers’

A trigger is an action that reminds athletes of the need to focus. For example, fielders in cricket may lose concentration owing to the slow pace and repetitive nature of the game. They cannot maintain intense concentration for an entire innings but instead use a behavioural cue to heighten their focus before each delivery is bowled. This behavioural cue or ‘trigger’ may consist of walking in towards the batsman, performing a shoulder stretch or spitting at the ground. Such triggers serve to focus attention towards those cues that the fielder has learned through experience offer the best chance of anticipating the ultimate destination of the ball. Tapping the cricket bat on the ground prior to a delivery serves the same function for batters. Triggers are helpful in many sports, particularly those of a long duration where there is a greater likelihood for attention to drift.

Exercise 5 – ‘Centering’

Centering was popularised by Dr Robert Nideffer after analysing the routines of martial artists. It involves focusing attention on the centre of the body, the area just behind the navel, as you breathe to a slow and even rhythm. This practice can have a calming and controlling effect in situations where athletes may become over-aroused or suffer lapses in concentration. Begin by standing with your knees slightly flexed, shoulders relaxed, and eyes closed. Inhale gently and evenly through the nose, feeling the air reach deep down towards your abdomen, then exhale in a measured way through the mouth noticing a calming and sinking feeling. A useful tip for those of you who work with young athletes is to refer to this exercise as ‘Jelly Belly'. Metaphors are a particularly effective way to communicate with youngsters.

Summary and practical implications

We have explored the idea that attentional control is essentially a matter of switching between different attentional styles in accordance with situational or task demands. There are different types of attention and these vary along two dimensions of direction (internal vs. external) and width (narrow vs. broad). Both the switching and the styles themselves can be effectively developed through appropriate mental practice.

Use the information presented in this article, and go further by scrutinising the attentional control techniques of the athletes with whom you work or compete. Try the five exercises that we have presented and adapt them to your own sporting needs. If you can direct the focus of your mental activity at will, you may exceed even your own high expectations.

Dr Costas Karageorghis PhD, CPsychol, FBASES is a reader in sport psychology at Brunel University and co-author of the book Inside Sport Psychology (available from Human Kinetics Publishers 2011; ISBN: 978-0-7360-3329-9).

Dr David-Lee Priest PhD is a freelance writer and research analyst working in the domain of sport and physical activity. He is the author of Against The Odds (available from Racing Post Publishers 2011; ISBN: 978-1-906820-86-2).


1. Faldo N. Life Swings. Headline Book Publishing, London 2003.

2. Soc Behav Person 2011; 39(8): 1035-44.

3. Chronobiol Intl 2009; 26(6): 1249-62.

4. Nutrit Revs 2010; 68(8): 439-58.

5. Sp Psychologist 2011; 25(2): 144-58.

6. J Sp Ex Psych 2009; 31(1): 18-36

7. Dressage Today 2010; July: 29-31.

8. Jnl Attent Disord 2009; 12(5): 402-9.

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