The ability to focus the mind entirely on the right cues at the right times during competition is crucial to peak performance.
During competition, concentration can be especially difficult due to various internal and external distractions. Developing advanced concentration skills and managing internal distractions can help elite athletes focus and produce their best performance, or the performance required to win in events.
Types of distractions
Distractions are internal and external factors that can potentially reduce or disrupt concentration. Internally generated distractions such as thoughts, worries and concerns can take over the minds athletes and prevent them from concentrating on the right cues at the right times, leading to failure.
Sources of distraction can be:
- Thoughts that dwell on past performances
- Thoughts that obsess on future results, outcomes and consequences
- Negative self-talk
- High arousal and anxiety levels which can narrow attention and decrease the athlete’s ability to scan the environment
External sources of distraction are those that surround the athlete during performance or competition, potentially affecting concentration. These include visual, auditory and gamesmanship factors.
Auditory distraction: are the sounds of mobile phones, and people talking, shouting, laughing, and cheering.
Gamesmanship distraction: trash-talk
Strategies for improving concentration
Concentration and attention form part of mental strength and are aspects that can be developed and improved through a combination of sport and non-sport related strategies. These include:
Simulation training: This approach teaches an athlete how to manage specific distractions during competition by incorporating them during training.
Cue words: Mind coaches assign keywords and phrases that are used to prompt athletes on things they need to focus on and get back to the present.
Positive self-talk: This strategy deals with internal distraction coming from negative self-talk. Positive affirmations are used to keep negative thoughts away.
Switch On and Off: When elite athletes can “switch on” at a specific point, and learns how to direct focus and attention entirely to the given point. On the other hand, an athlete will “switch off” by shifting his attention to non-performance matters. This approach helps develop attention control that is crucial during competition.
Parking thoughts: “Parking” is used to set aside distracting thoughts to a later time by using visualisation techniques or positive self-talk which shelves the troublesome thought elsewhere in a secure and non-distracting location until after the performance.
“Here and Now”: Athletes are taught to view the present as the only timeframe that they can control unlike thoughts of the past and future. The goal of this strategy is to develop the athlete’s ability to focus on the present.
Developing concentration skills is not always easy. Athletes who wish to excel in their game may need the professional services of a sports psychologist or mind coach who can assess their psychological needs and create the best mind strategies for them.