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Managing Focus during Performance

I want to start this article by outlining some definitions on the subject of concentration. The terms are often used interchangeably, and I think it’s important to highlight the differences between them. Concentration simply refers to a person having the ability perform a task with a clear and present focus, focus refers to the central point of a person’s attention and attentional focus refers to the focus a person’s attention is on in a particular moment. I want to emphasize something very essential that can be misunderstood at times. Players will often say “I lost my focus!” and refer to focus as something that can disappear. However, it is not possible to lose your focus. Your focus never goes away completely. Rather than disappearing your focus shifts to something else. Your attentional focus has two dimensions of direction (internal or external) and width (broad or narrow) (Nideffer & Sagal, 2006). Your attention will always be in one of the four boxes below I have outlined examples of how that might look in a game situation too. As you can see, your attention needs to be able to quickly shift between the boxes during a game to be able to perform to your best. You can’t just stick to one box.

Focus; broad and external (scanning the pitch, looking at the crowd, weather conditions, teammates and oppositions),  broad and internal (tactical decisions, response to missing a shot, response to fatigue, anger), narrow and external (keeping your eyes on the ball, focusing on kicking technique), narrow and internal (self-talk, performance routine, your heartbeat)

Problems can arise when we start to focus on nonfootball example could be the referee. They could make a wrong decision and you begin to think about how you should have had a penalty. This shifts your focus into internal and narrow as you begin talking to yourself and replaying the situation in your head. Remember, you can only be in one box. You can only focus on one thing at a time. That event has now taken away from you using your focus more productively ball related or irrelevant factors. Players that have excellent attentional focus can quickly shift that focus back onto the game and what’s important for that moment. Whereas, players with less control over their attentional focus can struggle to shift the focus back from irrelevant thinking. 

Can we control our thoughts?

There is nothing wrong with something irrelevant coming into your head, it’s not possible to suppress all our thoughts. It would waste more energy to try and suppress them and can even have the opposite effect when you do. If you get a thought, acknowledge it and move on. You cannot control how many thoughts you have but you can control whether you engage with them or you let the thought pass you by. It only becomes a problem if you begin to think about your thought. If you explore the thought, then you are giving it your focus. Concentration requires mental effort and if you focus on something “out of your control” or not relevant, you cannot focus on the more important tasks. You have limited resources. You must use them wisely! 

What can I do to manage my focus better?

Hopefully, by reading this article you are now more aware of how your focus works. By understanding this process you should be able to manage it better. Remember, that your thoughts are not the enemy. Focus on things during the game that you can control if another thought comes into mind, acknowledge and move on. Uncontrollable factors could be the weather, the referee, the performance of your teammates, the pitch etc. If you are thinking about them, you can’t be thinking about something else. Cue words can be excellent for helping you stay on track. Concentration cues or trigger words are used to shift your attention and block out distraction! The trigger words you use should either be an instructional, motivational, emotional or psychological. The use of an acronym can serve well as a verbal cue. “W.I.N” = “What’s Important Now?”. This can help shift your attention to the present and avoid thinking about the past and future. The cues you use must be specific to you. Try to design a list of concentration cues for when you find yourself engaging with negative or irrelevant thoughts during a match. Challenge yourself to work on these things during training and matches. Set goals for yourself around how you engage with your thoughts. Don’t hope that you will remember this information when it comes up in a big match, you need to work on it before then.