Concentration and Attention Control Training

Sports Psychology

In the field of Sports Psychology, concentration is one of the most important skills required for overall performance. Concentration (or selective awareness) means focusing one's attention on a task. Trying to concentrate or actively shielding oneself from distraction is not concentrating. Concentration involves being totally in the here and now while passively ignoring detractions from either external or internal stimuli.

Lapses in concentration permit fear and self-doubt. This worry and anxiety can lead to continued lack of concentration, thereby creating a vicious cycle that can result in failure. Concentration is a skill that can be improved through training and practice. When a distraction occurs, concentration training can enhance one's ability to rapidly refocus their attention back to the task at hand.

Dimensions of Attention

Individuals have different aptitudes and affinities toward particular dimensions of attention.

Narrow Perform
Focus & follow-through
Environmental awareness
Real time problem solving
Strategic planning

Coping Scenarios

Most Effective Least Effective

Before Event:

  • Adopt a "Just do it" mind set
  • Interpret pressure as a positive challenge
  • Discuss, think through, and rehearse strategies

Before Event:

  • High expectations and excessive focus on event outcome
  • No strategy and ineffective mental and physical preparation
  • Negative thoughts including dreading event and feeling out of control

During Event:

  • Focus on process rather than outcome
  • Focus on technique and proficiency

During Event:

  • Feeling powerless over ability to control performance.
  • Resignation and mentally giving up on achieving goal.

Sports Concentration

Many athletes report that peak performance occurred when they focus on the process, or task at hand, and eliminate all thoughts of winning. Conversely, some athletes have problems with under-arousal during segments of their performance. They may instead need to focus more their outcome goal (eg: winning) in effort to perform optimally. See Inverted-U hypothesis and Psychological Reversal.

Assess Ideal Response Patterns During Retraining

  • Identify Situation
  • Attentional Focus
    • Initially identify detracting internal and external cues
    • Retrain to focus on relevant cues
  • Physical Sensations
    • Arousal, muscle tension, body position, etc.
    • Adjust body and thoughts accordingly
  • Performance Consequences

Steps for Retraining Athlete

  1. Observation, Interview, and Education
    1. Relationship between focus of attention, physiological arousal, and performance
    2. Possible written evaluation (TAIS) and sports-specific ACT Workbook
    3. Let athlete choose problem that they feel is most important to address
  2. Observation, Evaluation, and Initial Training
    1. Assess chosen problem and ideal response patterns
    2. Introduction to training techniques
      1. Centering: alterations in breathing and tension in various muscle groups
      2. Attentional refocusing
      3. Make it simple and structured
        1. Find associated words or cues to trigger ideal response patterns
      4. Practice during both real simulated activity and via visualization
  3. Practice under Observation
    1. Provide athlete with support, encouragement, and corrections if needed.
  4. Reevaluation
    1. Individual feedback from athlete and coach
    2. Consider addressing next most important problem

Strategies to Maintain Concentration

External Factors

  • Rehearsal of Simulated Competition Experience
    • Recreate atmosphere of real competition experience
    • Recorded soundtrack from actual competition over loudspeaker
    • Recreate worst possible scenarios
    • Wear competition uniforms
  • Use mental rehearsal (aka: visualization or imagery) to practice concentration
    • Training partner attempts to distract athlete during mental rehearsal without physical contact
    • Athlete rates their achieved concentration on a scale
    • Used by athletes trained in relaxation and imagery skills

Internal Factors

  • Attentional Cues and Triggers
    • Best to use verbal or kinesthetic cues that focus on positive present or immediate upcoming moment
    • Recentering using verbal and task-relevant kinesthetic cues
    • Must be individualized
  • Turning Failure into Success
    • Train mentally to refocus on successful performance rather than think about failed attempt
    • Learn from mistakes
    • Visualize successful performance instead of past failures
  • Biofeedback Training (eg: Electrodermal feedback)
    • Monitor and control anxiety during visualization
    • Facilitate concentration training
  • Focusing and Refocusing training
    • Hold attention on predetermined task
      • Tasks can include thought, point in picture, object in video, grid exercise
      • Gently guide attention back if mind begins to wonder
    • Time concentration durations
    • Have training partner create detracting noises during task
  • Performance Protocols
    • Develop ideal pre-performance concentration ritual
    • Practice protocol consistently allowing it to trigger subsequent focused performance
    • If attention lapses, personal protocols can be used to refocus


  1. Learn strategies to attain optimal arousal for performance.
  2. Use positive thoughts instead of self-doubt and negative talk.
  3. Learn where and how to best focus attention in particular scenarios.
  4. Use associated cue words or feelings to trigger concentration.
  5. Develop rituals or protocols to trigger concentration.
  6. Practice in a simulated competitive environment.
  7. Practice dissociation.


Baltzell A, & Sedgwick W (2000). How elite rowers cope with competitive pressure and expectations to perform. U.S. National Team Rowing Summary Report for Coaches and Athletes. A USOC Sport Science and Technology Grant Project.

Nideffer RM (1993). Concentration and Attention Control Training. Arousal-Performance Relationships, Applied Sport Psychology; Personal Growth to Peak Performance. Williams JM, Landers DM, Boutcher SH. 243-261, 2.

Schmid A (1993). Training Strategies for Concentration. Arousal-Performance Relationships, Applied Sport Psychology; Personal Growth to Peak Performance. Williams JM, Landers DM, Boutcher SH. 262-273, 2.

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