Motor Sport: the importance of concentration levels

Success in motorsport requires high-level decision-making skills and the ability to manage risk

Success in motorsport requires high-level decision-making skills (1). It also involves managing risk, as racers place their lives at risk in pursuit of sporting success. Although physical danger is an antecedent of anxiety, many athletes indicate that their primary source of anxiety relates to a desire to achieve personal goals (2).

Motor sport racers are no different. This perception might seem counterintuitive when the apparent dangers of the sport are considered. Winning racers go faster than their less successful counterparts, and, in doing so, must take greater risks. As a result, the winning racer is faced with many decisions on how fast to take certain sections of the course and, as each section carries a risk of falling off or crashing, racers need to make split-second decisions at speed, where the margin for error is minimal.

At a glance

What is concentration?

Concentration is a term used in everyday language. In post-event interviews with high-profile athletes, a failure to concentrate is a commonly cited explanation for poor performance. Not surprisingly therefore, concentration is a concept the layperson feels that they understand immediately. However, improving concentration skills is not simply a case of trying harder to concentrate. It is a case of knowing what to concentrate on and focusing attention on these factors.

Concentration is defined as ‘the process by which all thoughts and senses are focused totally upon a selected object or activity to the exclusion of everything else(3).’ It is worth emphasising here that concentration is a process that changes over time and that maintaining the intensity and focus of concentration requires effort. Recognising this factor is important because it means that concentration can vary in both intensity and focus. We can be focusing on the key parts of performance at one moment, but be distracted the next. It also suggests that expressing concentration in terms of a percentage is a helpful way of examining the concept.

The percentage of effort given to focusing on relevant cues is important. Figure 1 (overleaf) graphically illustrates the concentration profile of two racers. Both racers are concentrating equally hard, but, while one racer is focusing predominantly on relevant cues, the other is focusing on irrelevant performance cues. The key skill is to be able to identify the relevant performance cues at each moment of competition.

Given similar physical and tactical skills, and provided both racers were matched for equipment, Racer A is likely to win in a race-off. Racer A will be able to respond immediately to attacks, take corners using the best line, identify risks within the course, such as potholes, being blinded by the sun, and so on.

Figure 1 Concentration Profiles

Dimensions of concentration

Anecdotal reports from post-race analyses of racers often reveals the phrase ‘I needed to concentrate more’ being cited as a reason for poor performance. Thinking of concentration as a single phenomenon is not helpful. As a starting point, it can be broken down into broad versus narrow and external versus internal concentration. This leads to four possible combinations, revealing four different attentional styles (see figure 2 below).

It is important to highlight that all four attentional styles, are useful at times, and racers need to be able to switch attentional styles. Clearly, racers need to be able to switch attention – a broad-external style is useful for planning and deciding when to attack, a narrow-external style is needed to deal the vehicle immediately ahead of you. Examples of concentration errors applied to motor sport are described in table 1.

Table 1

Concentration and performance relationships

Many factors influence concentration. Motivation to succeed in the task is clearly important, and, when individuals increase effort, they tend to focus more sharply on the task-at-hand(4). Identifying relevant concentration cues is difficult. In fast changing motor sports, there are a multitude of different cues that person could be attending to. Reflecting on how to improve performance in terms of developing concentration plans can be helpful.
By reflecting on performance after each race, a racer can evaluate whether he or she was concentrating on relevant or irrelevant performance cues. Likewise, athletes should set concentration plans as goals for future races. If athletes set goals to concentrate on key performance cues and improved their skills accordingly, then improved performance should follow, since improved concentration and performance go hand in hand.

Figure 2

Emotion-concentration interplay

Emotions influence concentration. As emotions intensify, concentration tends to narrow. Initially, increased emotions, such as anxiety and excitement, can be helpful for concentration. Anxiety is characterised by feelings of nervousness and tension, coupled with negative thoughts about performance. Excitement is characterised by feelings of adrenaline and liveliness, coupled with optimistic thoughts on performance success. Both excitement and anxiety affect concentration in a similar way. Initially, high arousal narrows attention, making it easier to ignore irrelevant cues, with performance improving accordingly. However, as emotions intensify, both relevant and irrelevant cues are ignored and performance begins to deteriorate.

Individuals need to be able to control their emotions to reduce the risk of poor decision-making. For example, consider the case of a racer, overtaken because of lapses in concentration, who subsequently becomes angry. The racer may then increase efforts to reovertake. However, individuals tend to take poorly calculated risks when over-aroused, as their attentional control becomes clouded.

To illustrate how this can be detrimental to performance, we looked at the relationships between emotions and performance in subjects who filled in a concentration grid (5). (This is a numerical grid of 100 numbers that have been randomised, and is a simple method of assessing narrow-external concentration. The individual is asked to circle numbers in order, starting from an arbitrary number.)

We were interested in the effects of unpleasant emotions, such as tension and anger, on concentration. Specifically, we were interested in whether increased anger and tension were helpful for performance in a task requiring a narrow-external concentration style. We used a group of who scored high on a standardised competitiveness personality scale. The group completed a series of concentration grid tests. We manipulated emotions by having half the group perceive that they performed poorly after completing the first concentration grid test, with the other half believing they performed to expectation.

As expected, students who performed poorly reported increased anger and tension towards the next concentration grid performance. Subsequent emotion-concentration grid relationships showed that high anger was associated with a range of unpleasant thoughts and other emotions, and also poor concentration performance. Specifically, anger was associated with unsuccessful performance coupled with feelings of fatigue and depression.

The key point is that athletes need to recognise the effects of changes in emotions during performance. One of the most powerful effects of changes in emotions is on the control of attention. In this study, athletes needed to engage in strategies to regulate their anger, refocusing thoughts before completing the next concentration grid. Athletes who managed their emotions successfully demonstrated better concentration.

Risk-taking

Taking risks is a necessary part of motor sport racing. Risk is the probability that a difficult situation will turn into a success or a disaster. In motor racing terms, risk is the balance between attaining sporting goals against incurring possible personal injury. Motor sport racers will push the boundaries of risk during competition. It is important to recognise the concentration skills of elite racers. The ability to make accurate decisions at speed requires knowledge of the likely consequences of making a poor decision. Elite racers identify parts of the environment that can influence their performance much earlier than novice racers. Further, they have learned to deal with difficult tasks through repeated success.

Research shows that emotions influence risk-taking behaviour. Intense and emotional states, such as anger and tension, lead to taking poorly calculated risks, with a low chance of success. People take much greater risks when highly emotional. Further, they take risks with a low chance of success. If a racer becomes angry because of being overtaken, his/her goal becomes to reduce anger by re-overtaking. This is, of course, a normal thought for motivated people. However, it is important to assess course conditions, the capability of the equipment, and the physiological state of the other racer when deciding when to overtake. If goal directed behaviour is focused on reducing anger by achieving a highly difficult goal, it is possible that poor performance will result due to over-arousal.

Arousal that is beyond the optimal level for the individual is associated with missing key performance cues. An awareness of the tendency to become highly emotional, and its impact on concentration, emphasises the value in learning strategies to manage concentration.

Concentration management strategies

Think back to a recent competition in which you performed well, and try to immerse yourself in how you felt and thought during this race. Spend some time doing this, and then write down how you felt at the start, in the middle, and near the end of the race. For example, if you felt nervous at the start, consider why you felt nervous. It might be that the race was very important, or it might be that you had set a challenging and, possibly, too difficult goal. It is common for athletes to become anxious when trying to achieve highly important and highly valued goals.

After you have done this, write down what you should be thinking about at the key stages in your next race. It might help if you picture yourself as a super elite racer and then ask yourself the question, ‘What will they be thinking of’? Write down what you think are the key performance cues to ensure success – these cues should be your goals for performance (see table 2).

Table 2

If you can direct all of your concentration to these performance cues, it is likely that successful performance will take care of itself. You need to be immersed completely in focusing on the key points needed in order to deliver the task successfully.

Self-talk focusing on concentration

Self-talk is a useful strategy to help a number of psychological concepts. In this instance, self-talk is used to improve concentration skills. An ‘if-then’ approach has been shown to be an effective method of aiding concentration (6).
Self-talk is effective when it is used frequently, and individuals need to remind themselves that positive self-talk can lead to positive emotions. It is worth emphasising that this should be an active process, whereby if-then rules are used on a daily basis and spoken out aloud as a strategy to reinforce your personal commitment to using them. Table 3 shows an example of if-then self-talk to help with self-doubts on the start line:

Table 3

Physiological effects of improved concentration

There’s an interplay between physiological and psychological factors, because physiological states affect concentration. For example, dehydration is associated with poor decision-making in numerous studies and athletes can potentially dehydrate, due to the physical nature of sport.

Motorsport racers are no different and, it has been well documented that motor sport needs high levels of physical fitness (7). Strength requirements are considerable, and given that races can last over two hours, it should not be surprising that dehydration can inhibit performance. Athletes should identify the extent to which they may be hampered by dehydration, and think about hydration status and performance during previous races and training sessions.
It follows, therefore, that improvements in physiological fitness will have a number of positive effects, including the possibility of improved concentration.

Summary

Motor sport racing requires high-level concentration skills. Concentration refers to the intensity in which a racer focuses their attention in terms of a width (broad-narrow) and depth (internal-external) continuum. The ability to control attention is crucial for success and the ability to identify the likely causes of poor concentration represent the starting point for intervention work. An awareness of factors that influence concentration, such as concurrent emotional and physiological states, is also important, and interventions that focus on enhancing and developing concentration-focused goals, using concentration focused self-talk and an awareness of physiological factors, are likely to be beneficial.

Andy Lane is professor of sport and learning at the University of Wolverhampton

 

References
1. The Sport Psychologist’s Handbook: A Guide for Sport-Specific Performance Enhancement, 527-548, 2005
2. Competitive Anxiety in Sport, Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics, 1990
3. The Winning Mind. Wellingborough, Northants, Thornsons, 1989
4. Staying focused in sport: Concentration in Sport Performance. In Moran, Sport and Exercise Psychology Textbook: A Critical Introduction, Routledge, 101-130,2004
5. International Journal of Sport and Exercise Psychology, 2, 133-145, 2004
6. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 43, 295-302, 2007
7. The Physiology of Training, Elsevier, 2006. 163-191

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