Concentration is often a misunderstood factor in athletic success. Typically, people think of concentration as the ability to focus on one thing for a long period of time. It is much more complex. To understand concentration one must understand the "attentional field". This field includes everything within and without a person they could focus on at any given moment.
These would include external sights, sounds, smells and internal thoughts, emotions and physical sensations. Good concentration may be characterized as focusing only on performance relevant aspects of the attentional field or those things necessary for good performance. Poor concentration involves focusing on things irrelevant to performance. For example, thinking about the fans, the speed of opponents, the size of the trophy, etc distracts an athlete from what their focus should be on – performing in the moment.
Generally, there are two styles of concentration. 1. Internally focused. These players tend to think too much and ruminate on their thoughts and feelings. This obsession is often negative and hurts performance. Before game time, they like to go off by themselves and sit quietly. This type of athlete needs to work on directing attention outward to keep them from thinking too much about the competition.
2. Externally focused. These players tend to concentrate too much on external cues in the competitive environment. They are easily distracted. They constantly interact with others. For these athletes, it may be more effective for them to focus more on performance-relevant information such as quietly visualizing the upcoming event.
Recommendation: Coaches can assist players in developing a keyword that can be repeated to remind them of what they need to focus on. Using keywords has a two-fold benefit. First, since athletes can't think of two things at once, if players repeat keywords to themselves they eliminate distractions. Second, using keywords constantly prompts players to think of something that will help them play their best. Keywords can be motivational "go", technical "block" or psychological "calm".
Coaches can help players identify the most crucial factors for good play and then devise keywords to focus attention to that specific area. To boost the effectiveness of keywords players may want to write them down on a wristband or bat or racquet, etc.
An alternative to this approach is to identify a key object to focus on. Key objects stand out in the athletes "attentional field"; therefore they are easy to focus on.
For example, hitting their thigh with a fist provides a noticeable physical sensation and acts as an effective focusing tool. Another effective focusing tool is simple breathing. When a player is distracted, coaches can tell them to take several slow, deep breaths. This focused breathing relaxes the body, which results in a broadening of concentration and redirecting of focus away from anxiety. Concentration is also shifted from distracting thoughts.
Jim Taylor, Ph.D