How many times do you hear coaches, parents, or teammates yelling, “Concentrate!” “Keep your head in the game!” “Stay focused!” Most athletes probably hear these phrases repeated to themselves over and over again as well. I’ve often found that athletes want nothing more than to concentrate, stay in the game, and be focused but simply don’t know how. The ability to maintain concentration while immersed in the pressure of competition can be challenging, yet it is critical to optimum performance. If an athlete losses their focus to a sellout crowd, a distracting competitor, or their own self-doubt, the athlete is not only battling their opponents, they are battling themselves. Although many distractions can’t be eliminated, athletes can learn to take control of their performance by blocking out unnecessary distractions so that they can respond to the important cues.
To assist high school athletes in improving their performance, they must learn how to concentrate, whether their game is going well or not, and what to concentrate on. As I like to call it, The Game within the Game™ – there’s the game we play on the field and the game we’re playing between our own two ears! A key component of winning the Game Within the Game™ is concentration. This enables an athlete to “stay in the game!” A short and simple definition of concentration is paying attention to the right things at the right time. It is the ability to attend to relevant factors and disregard irrelevant ones. This is not an easy task. There are plenty of external distractions; the crowd, the opponents, the weather conditions, etc. And the internal factors – self-talk, doubt, nerves, etc. that are present in both practice and competition.
Learning to put focus on what’s important or relevant, in the moment, and disregarding the other irrelevant factors is something an athlete needs to bring awareness to. This awareness begins forming a mental game plan to utilize to improve concentration and focus.
To learn to increase concentration – an athlete must first identify what attentional demands their sport requires. A swimmer or track runner, for example, waits for the starter’s gun—how is their mind occupied? When they are at the midway point, what are they focusing on? What things break concentration? By identifying the specific and individual attentional demands of an athlete and their sport makes directing focus more effective.
Having a mental game plan for both practice and competition is the key to success. Knowing how to concentrate, what to concentrate on, and having a plan to use these effective strategies will allow for greater performance.