Post By: Rachel Hoeft, M.A. | Wednesday, June 3, 2020

sport psychology performance STRESS focus

Distractions are inevitable, and every athlete needs tools to learn how to filter through the irrelevant stimuli that fight for their attention. The better we get at zoning-in on what matters, the easier it will be for us to find our flow state and get in the zone for successful performance.

First, we need to talk about distraction and how it happens so we can be more aware of what goes on in our minds. Our brain has a limited capacity for attention, so if multiple stimuli are present and we choose to focus on something irrelevant, we prevent ourselves from being able to see and respond to what is important (Horn, 2008). This is why texting and driving is illegal because we cannot give both tasks our full attention, thus making our driving poorer. In sports, if we are focusing on anything besides the developing play, we put ourselves at risk for tactical mistakes where our opponents can score or even injury if we are not noticing the environment around us, like a ditch in the ground or an oncoming linebacker.

Distraction theories state that even a single moment's lapse of concentration can result in a mistake that decreases performance (Horn, 2008). This concept is what many fans use in hopes of helping their home team at a game. For example, the large face cutouts, noisemakers, or obscenities that fans utilize during an opposing team's free throw are intended to distract the player for a split second, just long enough to impact their form or confidence. When these distractions stack up one on top of another, the athlete is likely to reach a level of distraction that impairs their ability to compete effectively. This may be caused by too few stimuli as well as too many. The Inverted U Theory posits that an athlete's peak level of performance varies by the person, but requires enough stimuli to demand their attention, yet not too many that they are overwhelmed (Teigen, 1994).

To improve your concentration, try these mental skills:

Imagery. Imagery is a great tool to improve concentration levels because it allows you to practice focusing on the relevant stimuli in advance, making it easier to do so “again” during your games. Do your best to create an image in your head that is as physically and psychologically accurate as possible, so when the time comes you can identify which stimuli are important in the moment.

Directive Self-Talk. If you find your mind wandering, directive self-talk is a great way to get back on track. When you notice your train of thought leaving the present moment in your game, instruct yourself on what to focus on. For instance, when I played soccer and the ball wasn't nearby, I would sometimes find myself distracted by people on the next field over. When I recognized that my focus was elsewhere, I would give myself step by step directions to bring my attention back to the right place. These sometimes sounded like “Figure out where the play is moving” or “Find your man and stick to them” or “Get into position to be the next option.” By directing myself, I found that it was easier to get back into focus much quicker because the steps immediately replaced whatever else I was previously thinking about.

Mindfulness. Mindfulness is a great tool to learn about how our thoughts progress and then work on our willpower. Try to take 5-10 minutes every day to sit with your thoughts. This could be in the form of meditation, or simply quietly being with yourself during dinner, watching the sunset, driving, or sitting on the couch. Notice how your mind moves between topics and then when you are ready, work to concentrate on one topic. It will take time and your mind will wander, but the more willpower you build to come back to the desired topic, the easier it will be to do so in tough moments of practice and competition.

There are so many ways for us to easily be distracted at any point. The more conscious effort we put into concentrating on what matters, the easier it will be for us to be in the zone during our games. Stay in the present and practice sorting through the stimuli around you. It will be tough, but you are tougher. Of course, feel free to reach out to a performance enhancement on demand coach for help in leveling up your concentration.