Attention control in sport: attentional approaches
How does the ability to maintain attention affect athletes?
Several psychological aspects are key for an athlete to be good at what he/she does. The self-confidence one has in oneself and in situations, motivation, stress, activation level, emotional regulation and attention are the most important ones. I will talk about the latter in today's article.
All these psychological variables influence each other directly and indirectly. For example, motivation can affect attention, or stress can affect self-confidence.. So they must be taken into account so that an athlete can express the best version of himself in the sport he plays. There is good news: just like the tactical, technical or physical aspect, psychological variables are trainable.
What does attention depend on?
One of the main objectives of Sport Psychology is the study of the variables that influence sport performance. The question has been approached from different approaches: reports from athletes and coaches, research that has focused on specific psychological variables, and field observations.
With regard to attention, it can be said that it is a decisive variable to be able to detect and interpret the demands of each situation, and that the correct attentional control of attention is essential to be able to detect and interpret the demands of each situation.The correct attentional control will provide an improvement in decision making. Attention depends, at least in part, on the level of activation of the athlete (more activation, more attentional narrowing), the ability to pay attention to the relevant stimuli of the moment, and the ability to control the variables that interfere in the specific moment. On the other hand, controlling interfering variables helps to control the level of activation.
How does attention affect sports performance?
In general, the correct control of attention will positively affect the performance of athletes in training and competition. in training and competition, so it is decisive when it comes to:
- Receiving information
- Being alert and focused
- Analyzing data
- Making decisions
- Acting in time
- Acting with precision
A case study of the importance of psychological variables in sports performance
To illustrate the importance of psychological variables (and the interaction between them), specifically attention, I will give you an example. Let's imagine that a goalkeeper has had an unfortunate play at the exit of a corner kick while playing an important game, which has cost him a goal in the first play of the second half, so that his team loses by one goal.
As a consequence of that mistake, his self-confidence in corner kicks is diminished by the criticism he has received from his teammates, and there are still 35 minutes left to play.and there are still 35 minutes left to play. This event is affecting his activation level and, in turn, his attention, because in the following corner kicks, he is late to all the high balls. On the other hand, when the crosses are the result of an elaborate play, the goalkeeper arrives on time. This happens because his attention is focused on the mistake he has made (known as internal attention) when he should be paying attention to the stimuli occurring in the game (external attention).
Attentional approaches: direction and breadth of attention
Taking into account the previous case, we can observe that there are different attentional approaches. Knowing them and changing them when necessary will increase sports performance. This means that the athlete must select carefully and correctly what to pay attention to at each moment, so that his performance is appropriate.
There are four attentional dimensions in which there are different stimuli and responses that an athlete could attend to. These dimensions can be classified and combined between two variables: direction and amplitude..
The direction of attention
The direction of attention refers to internal and external attention. Internal attention is when an athlete focuses on aspects that take place in his own organism (thoughts, self-talk, sensations or movements). (thoughts, self-talk, sensations or movements). External attention refers to when an athlete focuses on external issues. outside issues.. That is, what is happening around him/her.
Internal attention is positive for: learning and perfecting skills (and putting them into practice); analyzing one's own performance, working on imagination, controlling thoughts or sensations that may help or hinder performance, etc.
External attention is useful when it is necessary to pay attention to the movement of the opponents in a match, when it is necessary to pay attention to the coach's instructions, etc.
Breadth of attention
It is not only the direction in which an athlete focuses his or her attention that is important, but also the breadth, which can be broad or narrow.
Broad attention will allow the athlete to take into account a greater number of stimuli.. While reduced attention will allow for greater concentration. For example, broad attention can be useful for learning complex skills with different movements at the same time that must be coordinated. On the other hand, reduced attention can be useful for greater precision in execution.
Combination of the different alternatives
These alternatives are combined to form different types of attentional approaches:
Internal-reducedAttention is focused on a reduced number of stimuli or responses occurring in the athlete's organism. For example, when a basketball player tries to improve his technique for pumping the ball, since he must focus on the movements and not on the basket (i.e., if he hits or misses).
Internal-broadThe attention is focused on a wide number of stimuli or responses that occur in the athlete's organism. For example, when a player analyzes what happened in the last competition. Should be used when not actively competing and time is available for analysis.
External-reducedThe attention is focused on a small number of stimuli outside the athlete. For example, focusing on the basket when shooting a free throw in basketball.
External-broadAttention is focused on a large number of stimuli external to the athlete. For example, a soccer player when performing a counterattack and must observe the best position of a teammate to make a pass.
Problems related to attention in sport
Each task requires a different attentional focus, and incorrect use will impair an athlete's optimal performance. Sometimes it may be due to a sensory deficit, but when this does not occur, it is possible that the cause is poor learning (and therefore misuse), too much information at once, interfering cognitive activity (e.g., a bad past experience), deficits or excesses in arousal level, or interfering attentional conditions (e.g., heckling from the opposing crowd).
In order to correct these problems related to athletes' attention, intervention can focus on two possible solutions. On the one hand, training athletes in attentional skills. On the other hand, the environmental manipulation, by the coaches, of the relevant stimuli (for example, giving fewer instructions at a given moment). In this way, a correct attentional control can be achieved.
(Updated at Mar 28 / 2023)