We have not been sufficiently focused, and we have paid the price with our defeat. This phrase has been made up, but it doesn’t sound strange to many of you. In any competition, lack of concentration can decisively influence the result. It does not matter whether a team’s fitness level is optimal, or the team members’ mastery of technique is objectively better than their opponents’. If the players are not focused, not only will they have to beat one opponent but two.
What to Focus on
Attention is the ability to correctly detect the environment stimuli. In a football game, for example, there are numerous and varied stimuli. They may be external and game-related, such as the audience cheers, the coach’s instructions, the position of the ball and opponents, or the game time. There may be also other external stimuli but not related to the game itself, for instance, previous press conferences, an opponent’s controversial statements, a relative’s health, or a player’s contract renewal in the short run. Last but not least, there are internal stimuli which may range from our mood to our own thoughts. Many times, they may also take our minds away from the now and space completely.
Concentration consists in keeping that attention focused on specific stimuli. But on which ones? That will depend on our objectives. The attentive reader will assume that good concentration means focusing on relevant information to the athlete’s objective, and they are right. However, it would be inappropriate to assert that the more focused, the better the performance. There must be a fair balance. And we will illustrate this with a discipline where attention and concentration are everything: magic.
Before continuing reading, I invite you to watch this video. Ready? As you can see, a magic trick always plays with our focus of attention. Besides, the video has two tricks where what it is intended to show is not much of the card game taking place in the foreground but what takes place in the background. After understanding Dr. Wiseman’s objective, can we say we have not been focused well on our task?
Not at all. Magic plays with illusion, and in some way, our objective is to avoid being tricked. Even though we are asked to focus on a given task, the video intends to show our lack of attention on the other stimuli instead. We get distracted when watching one hand, meanwhile the other hand is actually doing the trick. But that does not mean our brain or senses do not work correctly. It simply shows our ability to stay focused on a specific task or to be in the zone—as it is colloquially known in sports.
Therefore, not paying attention to the two people changing their clothes in the video, the backdrop, or the colour of the cloth shows that we chose some stimuli instead of others in order to perform our task. Similarly, in a football game, athletes must learn to avoid irrelevant information by means of selective attention and so to focus on the appropriate stimuli. Although there are people who get more distracted and others who are more focused, everything can be trained. In this case, the objective would be increasing or diminishing the attention when the player intends to do so.
What is interesting about training our concentration is that it can be done both psychologically and physically, for example, by teaching players to recognise what is called cognitive interference, which is no more than a thought that is irrelevant to the task. It may come across as a simple proposal, but it takes a lot of effort to focus on what is exclusively important for our objective. In terms of physical training, if a player can manage to automatically learn some movements through practice and improve their technique, they will no longer have to focus on them, which means they can draw their attention to external demands. It would be like learning to drive and stop focusing on the clutch and gears. At a brain level, the cortex is free so that it can pay attention to the environment and thus make better decisions.
Here and Now
However, if we talk about training our concentration, lately there’s been a trend in sports which is meditation. Living in the present moment (here and now), has been very helpful for many elite athletes who have been able to focus and improve their competitive performance through this practice. It is not a matter of mysticism or spirituality, but of learning to focus and devoting some time to do so during the day or even before a game. In fact, all differences considered, reading, listening to relaxing music or walking in the mountains, to give some examples, may produce similar results to those of meditation in many aspects. Borussia Dortmund forward Erling Haaland, stated that he meditates before taking the field in order to increase relaxation. As a matter of fact, he affirmed that he meditates as much as he trains, allocating a significant amount of time to this practice in his daily routine. The same happens to Pau Gasol, who claimed to read a lot about zen philosophy and meditate in order to see everything from a different perspective, develop self-awareness, live in the moment, and stay calm.
It is true that improving meditation correctly can reduce stress and anxiety as well as enable better emotional control. And this is of great importance. Negative thoughts can distract us and reduce our performance. According to some research, emotions such as happiness or excitement are more closely related to concentration as they are more likely to lead and promote a better performance focus as well as automating physical movements. In short, meditation helps to manage the external aspects of the competition as well as to improve our performance. Ask to the multi-award-winning NBA coach Phil Jackson, who was the head coach of Jordan’s Chicago Bulls and Bryant’s Los Angeles Lakers. In his staff, he had George Mumford, a meditation teacher (mindfulness specifically) for the team’s training sessions.
We are surrounded by stimuli which try to catch our attention and make us lose focus on the tasks we are performing. Learning to select the important ones and ignore the irrelevant ones, as well as to develop techniques to manage all that information, is essential for an elite athlete. Otherwise, losing focus on what matters the most will lead to a distraction that will negatively affect the outcome of the competition. As mentioned at the beginning, not only losing focus will force us to face our opponent ahead but also our internal one, who can put an end to any personal aspiration. After all, it is not a less important opponent to look down at.
Vast, R.L., Young, R.L. & Thomas, P.R. (2010) “Emotions in sport: Perceived effects on attention, concentration, and performance”, Australian Psychologist, 45:2, 132-140.
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