Ask yourself … how long can you sit still and focus your attention on your breathing (or an object), before becoming distracted?
How much of the day do you spend immersed in the present moment, rather than reviewing what has already happened or thinking about what might happen?
How much energy do you waste focusing your attention on things that are uncontrollable or detrimental to performance?
Is Choking Under Pressure related to Poor Focus?
Self-focused attention (self-monitoring), as a result of anxiety, is a major cause of choking under pressure in sport.
When we become focused on how we are performing a skill in a high-pressure context, due to the importance we place on successful performance, we send competing signals from the brain to the body that disrupt performance. When we are self-focused we try to consciously control skills that have become highly automatic from training, resulting in disruption in communication from the brain to the body at each step of skill execution.
Attention skills to reduce self-focused attention and improve present-moment task-focussed attention improve the performer’s ability to manage anxiety, and reduce the detrimental effects of pressure on performance.
They can also increase the performer’s likelihood of getting in the zone. Task-focused attention allows full sensory processing of the situational demands of performance and enables the mind-body or perception-action link to occur, maximising things like hand-eye coordination, split second decision-making and reaction time.
How Can I Improve my Concentration in Sport?
Attention can be thought of as the spotlight of consciousness at any given moment. This can be narrow (like looking at a tennis ball coming at you) or broad (like taking in an entire crowd before a match).
It can be internal – on our own body, thoughts, identity, memories and feelings; or external – on our sensory information coming from the world.
It can be in the past and future due to memory and imagination; or it can be in the present moment reality. In honing focused attention for performance excellence we aim to improve two areas, which we refer to as self-awareness and concentration.
Self-Awareness – To Know Thyself
Self-awareness is the ability to self-monitor our own thoughts or focus at any moment.
Self-awareness is the harness that allows us to track and dictate how we use attention, which is crucial to the success of a focus plan (mapping out the competition or performance timeline and environment to maximise the use of attention resources).
It is a skill that takes practice and comes more naturally to some than others. This skill helps us to learn valuable information about how our mind responds to pressure and fatigue so we can better prepare for shifts in attention that are disruptive. Self-awareness is a key element of honing focused attention, because without knowing what you are attending to, you cannot make strategic adjustments if and when needed.
There are several ways to build self-awareness such as reflection activities during and after training, to discuss or journal about attention and thoughts and their influence on the mind and body during a session.
We can also build self-awareness through mindfulness activities in daily life, and in the performance environment. Both reflection and mindfulness practice can lead performers to value self-awareness more so that if their attention becomes self-focused, distracted or results-focused, they respond quickly and efficiently with mental skills – by noticing this shift, letting it go and re-focusing.
Concentration is like a Muscle
Focused-attention can be strong and lock onto a target with unshakable force to any distraction. It can be flexible, adjusting to the demands of the situation quickly by narrowing or broadening or switching targets; and it can have endurance, like a muscle holding to a target with will, until the challenge is complete.
But most importantly, because concentration, or focused attention is a limited capacity system like a muscle, it can fatigue and tighten up or become overwhelmed due to emotional states or situational demands.
If it is a limited capacity commodity that is vital for consistent high quality performance, then it is important to understand how it is limited and how we can train this muscle to improve its capacity. I think of concentration as limited in three ways:
- Quantity – Focused attention can only deal with a handful of things at one time before performance suffers, requiring us to simplify performance focus to the task at hand. I remember hearing about this for the first time in a first year psychology lecture on attention and memory, where Miller’s Law was being discussed. Miller’s law refers to the magic number 7. This refers to how many items the average human mind can work with and process at any one time (working memory) before becoming overwhelmed, which limits decision-making and performance. This is why we chunk information together similarly to the way we learn motor skills.
- Endurance – This is also limited in terms of the time we can sustain focused attention on a task without distraction or attention fatigue. This requires performers to rest and recover their minds when possible and value their limited capacity system with down time. When we are stressed, we become hyper-focused on potential problems, which is a big waste of this limited mental fuel.
- Flexibility – Concentration is limited in terms of flexibility in an interesting way. Under pressure of competition or high stakes performance, it is difficult to control where attention goes due to changes in the body and brain when under stress. We become easily distracted and easily excited. So under the strain of high-pressure contexts, we require more flexibility to maintain control and power over attention.
Can I switch Focused-Attention off and on?
It is possible to build self-awareness and the capacity of concentration through mental skills training and practice.
It is also possible to anticipate the needs of a limited capacity system and make plans to reduce unnecessary waste of attentional energy in the performance arena (a focus plan). For instance, if I am a swimmer and between races I know I can become excited and overthink things, then I may be wasting valuable attentional energy I need for the race. Similar to running around in the sun before racing, it would sap my body of valuable energy. Switching on and off, or hitting the reset button during the event, will maximise the use of your limited attentional energy, a valuable ability in performance planning.
If I am a golfer and the putt on the 18th hole is for all the marbles, I would be more confident knowing I had used my attentional energy wisely throughout my day on the course. This would lead to trust in my skills and less self-focused attention when executing the putt, reducing the chances of choking. Any golfer knows that mental exhaustion and overthinking things when skill execution is not occurring (between shots) is a tough challenge to overcome. Someone once told me that 18 holes of golf happen in about 30 minutes, which is surrounded by 3 and a half hours of strolling in the park.
A Great Place to Start
Mindfulness is a set of practices and way of thinking about attention and the mind that has helped many sports people with honing their attention, self-awareness and concentration.
Mindfulness can involve meditation exercises to improve the ability to monitor attention and to practice letting go of judgment of events that all to often keep us stuck in the past or worried about the future.
It can also be practiced outside of formal meditation, through focusing on a particular daily activity or training situation with a specific mindset.
Mindfulness is a great way to improve the ability to stay in the present moment and, in doing so, keep the limited resource of attention on the task at hand so as to improve the probability of success.
Mindfulness can also be helpful in improving tolerance to fatigue and pain, reducing anxiety and emotional reactivity, and improving relaxation. Being present and viewing the world through a non-judging perspective helps facilitate mind-body connectivity and the likelihood of feeling “flow” in performance.
Mindfulness – Reaching Potential in Sport, Exercise and Performance
The Mindfulness-Acceptance Commitment Approach (MAC) introduced by Gardner and Moore in 2007, is a mindfulness program for sport and performance. This approach aims to enhance a performer’s non-judging awareness, present moment attention, and experiential acceptance. It focuses on task-focused attention and performance values regardless of negative internal experience.
This heightened present moment awareness and clear value-driven behaviour helps to reduce distraction, self-doubt and self-focused attention. Gardener and Moore suggest ideal performance occurs when we have minimal self-judgement, minimal attention to internal and external threat, and minimal future oriented focus on performance outcomes. Mindfulness and acceptance skills facilitate this state. Instead of controlling thoughts and emotions, one is trained to control where attention is allocated, regardless of the content of thought and the emotion or physical discomfort.
Mindfulness exercises can be integrated into gym workouts, stretching, yoga, music, art, and other creative performance domains to increase engagement, enjoyment, and to help push past fatigue or unpleasant feedback during the activity. Sport, exercise, and other performance areas require sometimes pushing past low mood, negative thoughts, and low energy to get long-term results. Mindfulness and acceptance skills can add to your mental toughness and increase the potential for success in reaching goals.
Author: Abra Garfield, BPsych, MPsych (sport & exercise), MAPS; Medicare ATAPS provider.
Abra Garfield is an endorsed Sport and Performance Psychologist, with a passion for helping others to achieve optimal performance whether on the sports field, in the classroom, home or office. By drawing on a range of therapeutic techniques including Mindfulness, Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, and Cognitive Behavioural Therapy and Motivational Interviewing, Abra helps many people with goal setting, motivation, and overcoming anxiety.
Abra is the Principal Sport Psychologist and founder of Summit Performance Psychology. Visit the Summit Performance Psychology website to learn more or like us on Facebook to receive Summit Performance Psychology Articles and event updates.
Psychologist Abra Garfield has moved.
Find his details on his website: Summit Sport & Performance Psychology.