Further to my last article on “attention” I decided to come back to the more specific aspect of concentration. Despite it being one of the more obvious mental skills that athletes utilise to perform at their best, a loss of it is often blamed for poor performance. On the other hand athletes also contribute a good performance to their ability to focus at the right time. This article will attempt to define the mental skill of concentration and outline the factors that can influence an athlete’s concentration in competition. I will also outline some useful strategies and training exercises which can help to improve focus at the vital time.
As stated in my previous article, concentration is one aspect under the broad term of attention. It relates to the ability to exert deliberate mental effort in a given situation. For example a rugby kicker would focus on picking a spot either a few feet in front of them or between the posts to aim at when kicking a penalty or conversion. Exerting mental effort in a given situation means that concentration doesn’t extend beyond that situation. In other words the rugby kicker would maintain his/her focus for the period before and during the kick, but not after. It’s important to remember that in order to avoid fatigue; athletes need to be able to switch their focus on when it’s needed and off when it isn’t.
Much research has been conducted detailing the benefits of a mental skills programme (including concentration techniques) on athletes’ performance. Sheard & Golby (2011) studied the effects of a psychological skills training (PST) program on young swimmers performances and positive psychological development. Thirty six national level swimmers followed a 7 week long PST programme which involved learning skills such as visualisation, relaxation and concentration among others for 45 minutes per week. A significant improvement was found in 3 swimming strokes and the swimmers post intervention psychological profiles which demonstrates how beneficial a brief period of PST once a week can have on physical and psychological performance.
Although it’s always a good idea to have these strategies in your game plan sometimes other aspects of competition can interfere (positively or negatively) with confidence levels as Vast, Young & Thomas (2010) found during their study on the perceived effects of emotion on concentration, attention and performance. They examined how both positive and negative emotions impacted on concentration and found positive emotions like excitement and happiness were more likely to lead to performance related concentration than negative emotions such as anxiety and anger. They also reported that the more intense the emotion, the greater the link.
It’s very likely that the following concentration exercises were practiced in the above mentioned studies as a means to improve athlete’s focus in preparation for competition. At some stage in their life an athlete has imagined him/herself performing at the highest level in their sport, whether it’s the winning goal in the world cup final or a serve to be Wimbledon Champion. However visualising yourself in these types of situations and simulating them in practice situations also serves the athlete to concentrate and cope more effectively in pressure situations when they happen for real. Matlin (2002) found people’s recall of information is improved when conditions resemble those in which the original encoding took place. This can also be applied to the sporting world where often athletes train at the location where a major event is taking place.
Setting goals can also enable athletes to improve concentration especially when the goals are performance based and not results based (Winter & Martin 1991). It makes sense that focusing on something that is controllable (your actions) rather than something that largely isn’t (the outcome) can improve concentration and ultimately, performance. Jackson & Roberts (1992) found collegiate athletes actually performed worst when focusing on results goals compared to performance goals when they performed a great deal better. Kingston & Hardy (1997) also found golfers performance and concentration improved when focus on specific action goals.
The use of routines also plays a huge part within the realm of improving concentration. It’s not very hard to find athletes who use routines in their sport and they may do this for several reasons. Firstly routines may work as a way of settling nerves as you are relying on a routine that has been practiced again and again in many different stressful and nervous situations. It can also enable concentration on the task at hand (the performance goal) rather than the result (outcome goal). There is evidence in the literature to suggest that performance routines can improve concentration. For instance Shaw (2002) reported that a golfer who had been using a pre performance routine experienced more focus during each shot and was less affected by distractions.
Hopefully this article has provided an accurate overview of how concentration is defined, what affects it and how it can influence performance. The research surrounding mental skills training highlights the ways in which an athlete’s focus can be improved through practicing concentration exercises. Some concentration exercise have also been included which athletes, coaches or parents can use as a part of training to develop and practice focus.