Concentration Part 1: The Skill of Focusing Attention
Posted by: Barbora Kijasova | University of Denver Sport Psychology
“Where are you? Here. What time is it? Now. What are you? This moment.“ – Dan Millman
At any given time, our senses detect information from millions of sources: images through our eyes, sounds through our ears, aromas through our nose, pressure and temperature on our skin, our emotions, our body movements, and, often most importantly, thoughts running through our heads. Millions of signals each second. What information gets through depends on what we focus on. Efficient focus/concentration helps us select the information that matters in the moment and allow us to perform at our best.
Playing soccer demands quality concentration. A soccer player must effectively focus on the positioning of teammates, reading opponents’ moves and tactics, and controlling the ball, while analyzing current situations and predicting upcoming ones. Some of us would be overwhelmed, focusing on only one of these aspects! An elite soccer player not only avoids getting overwhelmed, but also is skilled in attending to the most relevant cues within a game.
In this blog, you will learn about specific types and qualities of concentration and how they can help you perform better in competition. The most important piece of information to keep in mind throughout the rest of the article is this: concentration is a skill. This means that we can get better at it with appropriate practice and instruction (the HOW of concentration – how soccer players can practice and develop effective concentration skills – will be the topic of next month’s blog). Specifically, concentration is the skill of focusing one’s attention. Because concentration is essentially applied attention, we will begin with a discussion on the function of attention and attentional styles.
Functions of Attention: Alertness & Selectivity
We can look at attention as a skill of two functions – alertness and selectivity. Imagine the light of a torch; alertness is the intensity/brightness of the light, while selectivity is the direction that the light is shining and what it is illuminating. Both of these aspects can be trained.
Alertness (or readiness) defines how strong our focus is, and is heavily dependent on our emotional state. In general, the more anxious we get, the harder it is to maintain quality attention. In such situations, a soccer player can totally miss the run their teammate is making. Even though the player looked around while moving forward with a ball, they did not see their teammate at all – their focus was not clear enough.
Do you remember the millions of pieces of information available to us each second? Selectivity helps us reduce this number by filtering out the unimportant stuff, which ideally allows us to focus on the information relevant to our task. For instance, as a player, you may have experienced thinking about the crowd cheering for the opponent’s team, thinking about your parents and wondering how they’re viewing the game, or thinking about re-injury. Even though there might be specific times when we should keep this type of thing in our minds, focusing on these aspects can often be detrimental to performance because they distract from what is important. Without selectivity, we would not be able to shift our focus. The important aspects of our game would get lost in the cloud of everything else.
Narrow vs. Broad Focus of Attention
Imagine a torch and a laser aiming on a wall. Which light will light up a bigger area of the wall? The torch, of course. Now imagine that the light represents your attention. The same as with the light, the focus of your attention can be broad or narrow (or anything in between). Focus on a ball, and your attention gets narrower. Focus on all your teammates, and your attention widens. Why is this important? Because different sports, different players, and different situations require different widths of attention.
Soccer generally requires a broad focus, given the 22 other players on the field plus a coach guiding you from a bench. Archery, on the other hand, demands a narrow focus – the middle of the target, given that there are not many external objects to be concerned about (besides wind). You as a soccer player want to be aware of what is happening on the field (i.e. teammates, opponents, the ball, voices). Your focus should therefore be relatively broad. At the same time, you likely wouldn’t want it to be so broad as to include potential distractions, such as frustrating commentary from sideline observers. Herein lies the balance: a soccer player’s focus of attention should be whatever width that allows for the intake of information helpful and pertinent for performance.
There might be situations when narrowing your focus would be helpful. Consider penalty kicks. Imagine getting ready for the kick, without any players around, any disturbing noises, any notion about the time or score in your mind. Just you, the goal, the goalkeeper, the ball, and your target. In this instance, it is easy to see how a more narrow focus of attention would be of greater benefit to performance.
Internal vs. External Focus of Attention
Simply explained, an internal focus means paying attention to what is happening within yourself – your thoughts, emotions, bodily sensations, etc… Looking within yourself tells you how warmed up your body is before playing, warns you about painful tired muscles, and allows you to recognize how excited you feel about the game. Internal focus can be extremely useful, especially when you want to check in with how you feel before the game, during the break, or before the penalty kick to be able to adjust for optimal performance. If you are stiff, you might want to take more time for the warm up; if you feel tight due to nerves, you might want to take a couple of deep breaths to bring your activation down.
External focus, on the other hand, is simply a focus on anything outside yourself – for a soccer player, it generally means focusing “on the game”.
All Together, Now!
Finally, both our external and internal focus can be broad or narrow. Utilizing the most appropriate attentional style can be crucial for selecting the right cues for our game. An example of a very broad external focus is focusing on everything that is happening on and off the field (i. e. players, the ball, the crowd), while a very narrow external focus can look like paying attention only to the ball, while ignoring everything else. A broad internal focus helps us to be aware of our whole body. When we check in with ourselves, that is when our focus is broad internal. Paying attention to one muscle (i.e., a cramping calf) is a narrow internal focus.
In general, it is not helpful to remain on one extreme or the other. The “magic” happens when we know what is relevant to our game and subsequently adjust our attention accordingly. Typically, a soccer player’s focus should be broader external to cover the important portion of the field and all of the key parts of the game while excluding off-field distractions.
Time Matters: Focusing on the Past, Present, and Future
Not only can we shift our attention spatially, but also among different times by thinking of the past, the present, or the future. You may have heard that the only thing that matters is the present. But is that always the case?
The answer is that it depends. It depends on what type and how much focus helps you to be a better performer. In psychology, it is called workability. Workability asks whether certain thoughts are useful (workable and worth our attention) or detrimental.
Think of a big mistake you have made in one of your past games. It might be helpful to recall the situation in practice and train to manage a similar situation better next time. But what if you recall the mistake during a similar situation in the next game? Well, it can either help you make sure you execute the task correctly this time, or it can make you anxious, which might lead to another mistake. This situation is very individualized, and you need to know yourself well to determine which of the outcomes relates to you more. A high level of concentration and confidence is required to be able to pull only the “helpful information” out of the past and quickly refocus on what is happening now. Generally speaking, we do not want to focus too much on the past when the “now” matters so much.
How about thinking of the future? The same logic stands. Planning and expecting how the game will progress is part of future thinking that is crucial for a strategic teamwork. However, when we start thinking of whether we will miss the penalty kick or not, we might get lost in our anxiety. Though a present focus is generally preferred, it is always recommended that you consider whether a specific thinking process/focus is helpful or detrimental to your performance (workability!).
That Was a Lot!
Congratulations! You got through the theoretical basis of concentration! Though we know this blog was information-heavy, we hope it will help you learn about your go-to attentional style and perhaps see areas for adjustments and improvement. From this foundation, we will be able to build and develop our skill of concentration through instruction and intentional practice.
We hoped you enjoyed learning more about the theoretical foundations of concentration. Make sure to check out next month’s blog in which we’ll cover specific techniques for improving your concentration that you can use both on and off the field! Thanks for reading!
- Cox, R. H. (2004). Sport psychology: Concepts and applications (7th edition). McGraw-Hill.
- Murphy, S.M. (Ed.) (2005). The sport psych handbook. Human Kinetics Inc.