Careless mistakes caused by distractions are all too common in football, and sports psychology may have the best answers to this problem. Two important elements of attentional control, selective attention and concentration, are discussed followed by tips for improving attentional control during games for players at every position. Enjoy this education in mental toughness training.
We are constantly bombarded by an endless array of internal and external stimuli, thoughts, and emotions. Given this abundance of available data, it is amazing that we make sense of anything! In varying degrees of efficiency in top sports, we have developed the ability to focus on what is important while blocking out the rest. This process of directing our awareness to relevant stimuli while ignoring irrelevant stimuli is termed selective attention. Some sport psychologists believe that selective attention is the most important cognitive characteristic of successful athletic performance.
Concentration, on the other hand, is the ability to sustain attention on selected stimuli for an extended period of time. Although this might appear to involve great strain and exertion, the reverse is actually true. Effective concentration has been described as effortless effort, being in the zone, a flow state, and a passive process of being totally absorbed in the present and fascinated by the object of fixation. Working on the mental skills in football may pay bigger dividends than physical training.
Concentration is a difficult skill to master because our minds tend to shift focus when presented with novel stimuli. Known as the orienting response, this bias toward new sights and sounds alerted our ancestors to dangers in the wild, but often makes us the prey to meaningless distractions on the football field. A split second loss of concentration during a critical play can spell the difference between winning and losing.
Careful planning and practice are required to gain supremacy over our attentional faculties. Fortunately, selective attention and concentration are skills that can be learned, refined, and perfected just like razor sharp passes or perfect blocks. Since few players invest quality time on attentional skills, there is an immediate and tangible reward for those who do! I believe the struggle with oneself over attentional control and mental toughness is even more fundamental than the clash with the opponent, for only after preparing ourselves for battle are we ready to take it to the enemy.
Here are 10 specific ways of improving attentional control in football:
1. Avoid negative thoughts and feelings, as these are needless distractions which rob us of limited attentional resources. Stay positive and realize your objectives.
2. Remain focused on the present, attending to what is immediately important and blocking out past and future concerns. Following a mistake, briefly note any changes necessary then move decisively to the next play.
3. Recite key words or phrases to yourself prior to the play to remind yourself to concentrate (e.g.,focus, attack, hit the hole).
4. Be task rather than outcome oriented. Thinking about the score or how you look are common distractions. The outcome only improves when you ignore it and attend to the immediate needs and circumstances.
5. Slightly relax in between plays while avoiding external distractions. Some players achieve this by staring at a specific area (e.g. , opposing runner’s mid section) and visualizing terrific execution.
6. Recharge your batteries in between plays. Replenish your energy and calmly gear yourself up for another great play.
7. Add a ritual, or consistent routine, to your performances. This might be the way you adjust your feet, tap the ball, or set your mind, and it all helps to fight off needless distractions and keep your mind from wandering.
8. Be particularly vigilant when fatigued. Players often lose their focus when tired and you can also exploit this fatigue in your opponent if you see it.
9. Attention and arousal are closely related. Avoid becoming overly excited while remaining focused on executing and implementing your strategy to football perfection. Brief breathing and/or relaxation can help prepare the way for great focus on the play.
10. Football coaches should make practices interesting by frequently varying the drills and routines in a realistic manner. This variety usually increases motivation which also leads to improved focus. Yelling rarely helps focus, but doing things to naturally improve focus like this help a lot.
Good luck and I hope to hear from you as your game continues to get better and as you continue to invest in sports psychology techniques.