A discussion addressing the concentration needs of an athlete within the team.
Describing the primary needs, attentional needs based on situations, and attentional shifts with literature support (text and additional sources).
In itself, skill and ability, although outwardly seem to be on the forefront of sporting performance, are by no way the be all and end all when it comes to sporting success.
There are numerous examples of athletes across a number of sports that are not necessarily as skillful or technically accomplished as some others, but that have had more consistent success in their field and on the world sporting stage.
Whether or not the difference that separates these two sets of athletes is the ability to concentrate and to concentrate specifically, is outside the scope of this discussion, however the research certainly shows that it can at least be a major contributing factor.
When talking about concentration, one may interpret it as the ability to solely focus on what the athlete needs to do in order to optimize their performance at the exclusion of all stimuli, internal and external, that are surplus to this objective.
This can go even further because stimuli can change and also the focus of one’s own attention can shift over varying time frames within a game or practice session.
For example, in soccer, a center back may be focusing on keeping his defensive shape and movement in accordance with the flow of the play in front of him as he sees it, taking his visual cues and reference points from various players and the ball.
This may go on for 10 minutes or so before he is called upon, then he may find himself with the ball in a pressure situation where his attentional focus now shifts.
For 10 minutes his thought processes, concentration and focus were all on defending, now within a couple of seconds he must ‘shift’ this attention and focus to being an offensive player, under pressure looking for a long pass forward.
Here we can see that the player has had to change his focus of attention, shifting it from one task to another instantly with the time frames between the two tasks being extremely different, one lasting 10 minutes, one lasting maybe 2 to 3 seconds, but both requiring intense concentration, Williams (2010).
Working with elite and non-elite level players from the 2005 age group I, as a coach, have to work very hard to help these players maintain their mental robustness, some more than others, and all too easily they are distracted during practice sessions and games by both internal and external stimuli.
Typically, external stimuli works its way ‘inside’ the players and these distractions range from parents on the side-lines, friendships, not having their water out or shoes tied properly, getting out of the car and having played a video game or watched YouTube the whole journey etc, all leading to a general state of lack of focus.
Regardless of the cause, once their concentration goes, that’s it. Game over.
So I want to help prevent this and ensure that their focus and effort are not wasted on pointless distractions and instead channeled in the right areas at the right time, Williams 2010.
There is not a sport that exists that does not require intense levels of concentration at the upper echelons of its competition.
The ability of an athlete to maintain concentration for increasingly long periods of time, and then instantly being able to switch the focus of that attention when they are required to do so, is recognized as being a critical part of success for athletic performance.
Wilson et al (2006) states that concentration lies in one’s own ability to focus attention on the task immediately at hand, remaining totally focused and unaffected by external stimuli. In short being able to discriminate between relevant and irrelevant stimuli.
So, the ability to control ones emotions, thoughts and even subconscious whilst competing can prove to be the difference in milliseconds, inches or goals that differentiate one athlete in peak condition, from another, when faced with a sporting situation.
All things being equal, the better mentally-prepared athlete will perform better.
Nideffer (1976) proposed that Attention Control Training is based on four different and specific modes of concentration, those being;
By identifying and understanding these four 'pillars' of concentration, it allows coaches and educators to more easily understand how to catch, keep and focus an athlete’s attention in to enhanced performances.
By contrast Castle and Buckle (2009) proclaim that concentration is to be found in the following principles;
Maintaining focus over a sustained period of time
Developing an acute awareness of the situation around you
Being able to instantly and seamlessly alter and 'shift' the focus of your attention as and when required
Nideffer & Sagal (2006) surmise that professional athletes are required to constantly shift the focus of their attention across the parameters required to meet the attentional demands of the situation at hand and I have a personal anecdote, coupled with academic research, about the constant shifts in attention that athletes need to have and develop to be effective at their chosen sport.
A rugby player that I played with when I was younger, called Jonny Wilkinson, played a grueling 80 minutes of the most frantic, relentless and tiring rugby I have ever seen against Australia in the 2003 world cup final.
For 80 minutes he tackled, ran and passed his way around the field.
In the dying moments of the game, he stepped up to strike a dropped goal from about 30 odd yards out, his body fatigued to the point of exhaustion.
He struck it successfully and England won the World Cup.
His ability to be able to shift from a totally open environment where 6 ft 5 beasts weighing over 250 pounds were running at him, to being in a fairly closed skill environment where the delicacy and accuracy of being able to strike the ball perfectly with a small part of his foot, shows a terrific, and possibly unrivaled-in-his-sport, ability to shift attentional focus and perform two completely separate skills.
Such sentiment is expressed much more succinctly by Wilson et al, 2006 where he essentially states that an effective athlete will be able to block out and ignore all irrelevant stimuli, and focus only on those that are pertinent to his task in hand.
It is such an obvious statement, but one that I know from personal experience is extremely difficult for an athlete to manifest.
This leads me to the players in my team whom I am going to focus on, the midfield.
It could easily have been the goal keeper, with sometimes 90 minute periods of having to do absolutely nothing, and the potential for being called into action in a split second always looming on the horizon.
They have so many stimuli all around them throughout the whole game sometimes I am surprised they even remember to run.
They have off-the-ball movements, where the defenders are, where the strikers are, where their team mates are, the ball, the space on the field, small space, open space, trying to press forward but also not leaving the team exposed defensively, passing lanes, passing patterns, forward runs etc.
The key is to train this by having their attention and focus 'stressed' and tested in variable and conditions in practice, effectively teaching them how to 'multi task'.
As Wilson et al, 2006 put it, the players need to be placed in scenarios and situations where they are out of their comfort zone with regards to the number of stimuli they have to deal with and the time and space in which they have to do it in.
To practice in these kind of environments is to become more adept at overcoming the feeling of being overwhelmed by the intensity, complexity or magnitude of what is going on around you.
The environments that I would place my midfielder in would cover Nideffer's four pillars of concentration;
II would do this to ensure that the exposure was broad and rounded not just highly situational and specific.
Working with my players I typically incorporate interference in to all of my sessions.
So for example I would never have a straight line drill or an unopposed drill. Never. If I use pattern play, which is rare, there will be some form of interference in there, usually defenders, in order to sharpen the focus and raise the intensity.
This will have the effect of preventing players dropping attention and focus on the task in hand. This should also have the effect of ‘desensitizing’ the athlete to external stimuli or at least reduce focus on it to an appropriate level in order to increase focus on the task.
There is a lot more to be said on this subject and I have just completed a Neuroscience course with Barca Universitas which talks a lot about multi-tasking during repetitive activities to get certain parts of the brain to stop focusing on movements and instead have them become virtually automated which leaves this part of the brain to focus on, say, the tactical solution needed in that moment.
A very simple activity to work this would be dribbling to a team mate and when passing over the football, also throwing him a tennis ball. The receiver now needs to deal with both stimuli simultaneously.
More about this in a future blog.
Any questions or comments, let me know.
Wilson, V. E., Peper, E. & Schmid, A. (2006). Training strategies for concentration. In Williams, J. M. (ed). Applied Sport Psychology: Personal Growth to Peak Performance, 5th edition. Boston: McGraw Hill, 404-422.
Nideffer, R. & Sagal, M. (2006). Concentration and attention control training. In J. M. Williams (Ed.), Applied sport psychology: Personal growth to peak performance (pp. 382 – 403). New York, NY: McGraw-Hill.
Castle, P. and Buckler, S. (2009). How to be a Successful Teacher: Strategies for Personal and Professional Development, Sage Publications: London.
Williams, J. M. (2010). Applied sport psychology. Personal growth to peak performance. New York, NY. McGraw Hill.