Concentration Part 2: The Skill of Focusing Attention
Posted by: Hunter Soens | University of Denver Sport Psychology
Last month, we learned about concentration as a skill, functions of concentration, and the four different dimensions of concentration (narrow vs. broad and internal vs. external). We also learned why working on concentration is important and how valuable it is in the game of soccer. For this month’s blog, we will dive deeper into training concentration. Remember, concentration is a skill that can be practiced and improved, just like a physical skill. Keep this in mind as you are reading this blog and understand that training concentration will take deliberate practice, time, and effort. Just like physical training, this process will likely involved building the skill of concentration from the ground up. I will primarily be concentrating on five topics to consider when training your concentration.
- Planning for Distractions
- Controlling the Controllables
- Prioritizing Your Attention
- Practicing Mindfulness
Before we get into talking about concentration, it is important to set yourself up for success. Similar to physical training or preparation for a game, you must take care of yourself first and foremost. This will look different for everybody, but it is vital to figure out what your self-care looks like and what works to put you in the best position to perform. This is something you will have to explore and experiment with on your own. However, I can give some general self-care tips and examples. To begin, eat a well-balanced diet and get plenty of sleep. These two things are huge factors in not only physical performance, but also in mental performance. Fuel your brain and body correctly and you will have the energy and resources to dedicate to improving your craft. Other than taking care of your body and mind, self-care can be a simple five-minute distraction or decompression after a long day. This may be video games, reading, or chatting with a friend to name a few. Again, the key here is finding what works best for you.
Planning for Distractions
When working on concentration, distractions will inevitably arise. There are one million things that you could be doing at any given time throughout the day. If you know that you have to concentrate on one thing, plan ahead and try to predict some of the distractions that may come up and try to derail you. For example, if you have to get a homework assignment done tonight, but you know your friends are all going to the movies, what will you do to make sure your attention remains on the task at hand (homework)? Plan how to handle this by playing the scenario out in your head; make predictions about how you may respond and how others may respond to you. You can also write down your plan so that you can see it and it becomes more real. Making a plan allows you to be prepared to deal with distractions when they come up, so you are less likely to be thrown off your game and break concentration.
Controlling the Controllables
This topic fits very nicely with planning for distractions. As I mentioned, distractions are inevitable, and you often have no control over them. That is one of the main reasons I suggest focusing on planning how you will react to the distractions, instead of planning on how to avoid distractions all together. It is an unproductive use of your time and energy to worry or focus on things you have no control over. Taking the time to shift your focus to something you have no control over only distracts you from focusing on what is within your control. Just like in the example above, if you were to instead focus on how to completely avoid the distraction of going out with your friends and figure out a way to hunker down on your assignment, you will likely waste more time planning that scenario out rather than accepting distractions are part of life.
A great example of this is having a game with bad or biased referees. Sure, this is extremely frustrating and may end up costing you the game, but what can you really do about it in the moment? If a ref makes a bad call, you have two choices: you can either argue that call because you feel it was so bad, or you can move on and focus on the game and task at hand. Trying to control the refs will take energy and time away from what you can control, such as focusing on your first touch or passing. Concentrating on one or a few things during a game is extremely difficult with all the potential distractions going on. It is all about maximizing this energy and directing it to the right places that will give you the best chance to be successful. If you decide to worry about things you can’t control, such as refs, the weather, or the crowd, you will only be setting yourself up for an uphill battle to success.
Prioritizing Your Attention
When you are thinking about concentration, start with one simple question: what is the MOST IMPORTANT thing to focus on RIGHT NOW? You can ask yourself this question at any point during the day or specifically during a game. It is a great way to hold yourself accountable and check back into where your focus is at in the current moment. As I said earlier, there are one million things you could be doing and focusing on throughout a day. It is important to know what is at the top of this list so you can prioritize your focus.
Think about a game. At any given point, you have to focus on multiple things at once. You, of course, aren’t fully focusing on all of those things at once though, right? You probably prioritize your attention without even noticing. If you are dribbling up the field, the most important thing might be where the closest defender is. Or maybe it’s where the closest teammate is. Or maybe it’s paying attention to your touches. You can practice this skill throughout the day. Maybe when you wake up, you think about all the things you have to do and prioritize them before beginning anything. Practicing this skill when you have the time to think about it will help make it even more automatic when it comes time to perform.
A great way to practice this is by going through a focus progression. An example of this can be going through the four areas of focus. Start with a narrow internal focus, such as focusing on your breath. Move to a broad internal focus, such as how your body is feeling overall. After this, go to a narrow external focus, such as how the ball feels on your foot. Finally, move to a broad external focus, such as looking at the defensive placement on the field. Shifting through these four areas is a great way to practice directing focus and controlling your concentration, and will help you get better at making these shifts quicker in game.
Finally, one of the best ways to enhance your concentration is to practice mindfulness. Practicing mindfulness is a way to build meta-attention, or the ability to pay attention to where your attention currently is. All of the previously discussed methods of practicing concentration work significantly better when you have built up the awareness to know when you are not concentrating and when you need to bring your focus back. As I said before, distractions will come, it is important to notice these distractions and redirect your concentration to what is most important now.
Now when I say mindfulness, I know many of you are probably picturing meditation. While this is one well-known form of mindfulness, there are plenty of other ways to practice mindfulness. One of the reasons I believe this is such a valuable tool is because you can practice being mindful anywhere and at any time. You can mindfully walk, noticing how your feet feel on the ground and how your legs move. You can mindfully eat, noticing how the food feels as you chew and all of the different tastes. This is an easy tool to incorporate into your everyday life.
Another thing to think of when practicing mindfulness (and concentration in general!) is that breaks are okay! If you are having trouble focusing, take a break and re-center yourself. This is like self-care in that it will look different for everybody and will take some experimenting to find what works for you. It is also important to keep in mind what works in everyday life may not work during a game. A great tool to help re-center yourself during a game is to take a centering breath. This could be one large deep breath allowing you to disconnect for just one second and bring your focus back to what is important.
To Wrap It Up
Throughout this blog, I hope you have noticed one common theme: learning how to be aware of when you are not concentrating is almost, if not as important, as learning how to train concentration. All these skills work best after you build that ability to be aware of where your focus is. Once you have this down, you can begin working on how to bring that focus back to what is important. This will likely be a long and tough process, but it is possible! Keep working at it and I hope these blogs have given you something to take into your everyday life and game.
We hope you enjoyed learning more about how to implement a variety of strategies to enhance your ability to concentrate. Stay tuned for next month’s blog where we kick off our series on a topic crucial for all of us, on and off the field: energy management. Thanks for reading!