Sports can be an intense, ever-changing, fast-paced, and unpredictable environment that significantly impacts our performance, whether positively or negatively.
But how much control or influence do we truly have over these factors? What aspects are beyond our control? How much control should we strive for, and should we simply accept things as they are?
Let's first examine the uncontrollable variables, those aspects in which athletes have no control over or cannot influence the outcome in their favor. Examples include weather conditions, the opposing team, the venue, fans, remaining time in the game, and to some extent, the decisions made by referees or umpires. The list of uncontrollable factors seems endless.
Now, let's shift our focus to what we can control—the key being "US," specifically our Attention and Focus. Attentional control pertains to how athletes can direct their awareness toward the most relevant environmental stimuli during a task. The selective process of attending to the most important cues involves concentration.
Nideffer's Attentional Model provides a valuable framework for building athlete awareness and understanding. This model breaks down attention into two dimensions:
Width: This dimension offers two options—broad or narrow. Broad attention encompasses a vast amount of environmental information, while narrow attention focuses on one or two specific stimuli. This dimension reflects the variation in the amount of information processed.
Direction: This dimension determines the focal point of attention—either inward, directed toward the psychological state, or outward, focused on the environment.
These dimensions exist on overlapping continuums, resulting in four "quadrants" of attentional focus.
It's important to note that there isn't a definitive right or wrong position within this model. Instead of searching for a fixed answer, it's about cultivating self-awareness. Where do I need to be in this particular moment? What holds value for me right now? Can I transition between different quadrants as needed? So, when we talk about controlling the controllable, we can control our location within these quadrants and recognize when we need to switch from one to another. Taking the time to recenter ourselves, focusing on our breath, enables us to be where we need to be.
Attention and concentration in sports require adaptability, much like adjusting the zoom lens on a camera.
Maintaining concentration is critical for performing at our best. However, determining what to focus on and maintaining the appropriate attentional focus during performance is no easy task. This is where Nideffer's model proves useful.
Here are additional exercises to enhance concentration during competition:
Self-awareness of controllable versus uncontrollable factors: Create two lists—one for controllable factors, those within athletes' control, and another for uncontrollable factors, those elements beyond athletes' influence.
"What if" plan: Prepare yourself for obstacles or challenges you may encounter in the unpredictable sporting environment. Address your fears by listing them and then devising a plan for each scenario, considering if it's controllable or not and how you will respond if it occurs.
Concentration cues: Identify and develop a list of specific cues athletes should focus on when on and off the ball. Use trigger words or short phrases to reinforce these concentration cues for specific tasks or skills, such as "drop back" or "bend from your hips."
Incorporate pressure simulations in your training: Introduce games or drills that simulate pressure situations to train positive responses to adversity. This could include time pressure, being 1-0 down, or experiencing unfavourable officiating decisions. Place yourself in scenarios that you know you are going to face often.
Practice being positive in negative, tough, uncomfortable situations in your training but also in day to day life. Attitude can manifest itself to positive outcomes.
Commit to helpful actions in the presence of accepting uncomfortable, internal difficult experiences and thoughts.
Remember, athletes who can stay focused on the task at hand and avoid distractions have the greatest likelihood of success. Therefore, invest your time and energy into things you can control, such as attention. While you may never have complete control over everything, accepting the unpredictability and enjoying what you can control can lead to a more fulfilling and rewarding sporting experience. Great athletes are simply masters at distraction management.