• Attentional narrowing
  • Being in the zone
  • Measuring attentional focus
  • Attention control training
  • Associative versus dissociative attentional styles.

Attention Narrowing

An athlete’s ability to attend to appropriate stimuli during competition has been termed attentional focus. The concept of attentional focus includes the ability of an athlete to both narrow and broaden her attention when necessary. For example, in cricket, a fielder attempting to run out a batsman must be able to broaden his attentional focus in order to see other teammate who will be collecting his throw and hitting the stumps. The same player must be able to narrow his attentional focus while batting in order to block out distractions from the crowd. The notation of attentional narrowing is best understood in terms of cue utilization. Environmental cues provide the athlete with needed information for a skilled performance. In any sport task, many cues are available to the athlete. Some are relevant and necessary for quality performance; others are irrelevant and can damage performance. Under conditions of low arousal, the athlete picks up both relevant and irrelevant cues. The presence of irrelevant cues should result in a decrement in performance. As arousal increases, the athlete’s attention begins to narrow. At some optimal point, attentional narrowing gates out all of the irrelevant cues and allows the relevant cues to remain. At this point performance should be at its best. If arousal increases still further, attention continues to narrow and relevant cues are gated out, causing deterioration in performance. High levels of arousal may also lead to the phenomenon of distractibility. In addition to gating out potentially relevant cues, high arousal may also decrease an athlete’s ability to selectively attend to one stimulus at a time. Distractibility has the effect of decreasing the athlete’s ability to discriminate relevant and irrelevant cues, and to focus upon relevant cues. The athlete who is suffering from distractibility tends to experience sudden and significant decrements in performance. Performing in an athletic event requires an athlete to narrowly focus upon the task at hand in order to realize success. Too much arousal undermines the athlete’s ability to narrowly focus attention in a quality manner, while too little arousal may introduce unwanted competition between irrelevant and relevant cues. Most recently, Janelle, Singer, and Williams (1999) reported the results of an experiment in which increased arousal decreased performance on both a central car driving task and a peripheral reaction time task. Similarly, research conducted by Williams and Elliot (1999) showed that under conditions of increased and decreased attentional narrowing, athletes alter the way in which they scan peripheral information. Under conditions of low arousal, athletes used peripheral vision (broad focus). Under conditions of high arousal they use peripheral scanning (narrow focus). Attentional flexibility refers to the ability of athletes to quickly and effectively shift their attention from one location to another. Another characteristic of attentional flexibility is the ability of individuals to shift from a very narrow attentional focus to a very broad focus. Cognitive interference is defined as “thoughts of escape” and “task-irrelevant thoughts”. Any random thought or event that would tend to break an athlete’s concentration could be considered cognitive interference.


When Athletes Are In the Zone

When the body is brought to peak condition and the mind is completely focused, even unaware of what it’s doing, an individual can achieve the extraordinary (Tolson, 2000). The concept of a zone of optimal functioning was first introduced by Russian psychologist Yuri Hanin (1980) when he presented his theory of optimal functioning relative to state anxiety. Another individual who is often mentioned in discussion of the “zone” is Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, (1975) who generated the concept of FLOW. Being a “physical genius” is not just being in the “zone”, it is perfecting your game mentally and physically, so that you are in the “zone” when you need to be. In learning a new sport skill, an athlete must focus upon controlled processing of information. This means that the athlete must attend to the details of executing the skill to be learned. For example, a beginning basketball player’s attention is focused on learning how to dribble a basketball, to the exclusion of other important cues. Controlled processing is relatively slow and effortless, consuming most of the available information processing capacity of the individual. Once a sport skill is mastered, it comes under automatic processing. The execution of the skill is still being monitored by the brain, but because it is well learned it requires little conscious attention. Now, the basketball player will be focusing most of the available information processing space on other basketball related cues. The perfect execution of a sport skill is best thought of as an elegant interaction between mind and body.

Measuring Attentional Focus

Landers (1988) identified three primary ways in which attention may be measured by sport psychologists. In method one a behavioral assessment of attention is made using the reaction time probe technique. In this procedure, attention demands of a primary are estimated based on a subject’s performance on a secondary reaction time task. The second method used by sport psychologists for assessing attention is the use of psychological indicators. Psychological arousal and attentional focus are closely related. As the level of arousal increases, an individual’s attentional focus tends narrows. The third method is through the use of the self-report. The self report method is more of an indicator of attentional focus as a personality trait or disposition

Attention Control Training

Sport psychologists have written extensively about attention control training (Nideffer, 1992; Nideffer & Sagal, 1998; Schmid & Peper, 1998; Zinsser, Bunker, & Williams, 2001). The primary component of attention control training (ACT) is the process of narrowing or widening attention through arousal management strategies.

Focusing Attention

As an athlete prepares for competition, she will focus her attention internally, as she considers thoughts and feelings associated with analyzing and rehearsing; and externally, as she assesses the situation, teammates, and opponents. Attention control required for actual competition is generally externally focused and ranges from narrow to broad, depending on the situation.

Thought Stopping and Centering

In addition to arousal management, attention training must teach the athlete how to eliminate negative thoughts. Self-talk is an attentional strategy designed to focus an athlete on positive thoughts and behaviors. It is critically important that the athlete learns to use attention to stop negative thoughts and to focus on positive thoughts. Attention control is a technique designed to keep the athlete from slipping into a cycle of anxiety and self-doubt. It is important for an athlete to approach every sport situation with a positive attitude and belief that she can win. When negative thoughts come into consciousness, they must be removed or replaced by positive thoughts. The process of stopping a negative thought and replacing it with a positive one is referred to as thought stopping (Zinsser et al, 2001). It is a basic principle of psychology that an athlete cannot give quality attention to more than one attention-demanding task at a time. Once the negative thought has been displaced, the athlete centers her attention internally. The process of centering involves directing thoughts internally. Many athletes accomplish this by taking a deep breath and exhaling slowly.

The following basic steps are used in the thought-stopping and creating procedure:

1. Displace any negative thought that comes into your mind with a positive thought.

2. Center your attention internally while making minor adjustments in arousal.

3. Narrowly focus your attention externally on a task-relevant cue associated with proper form.

4. Execute the sport skill as soon as you have achieved a feeling of attentional control. Learning the thought-stopping and centering procedure takes practice. The critical point to understand is that negative thoughts can be displaced, and that though the process of centering, the thoughts that capture attention can be controlled. The conscious process of thought stopping and centering will divert the athlete’s attention from threatening thoughts and anxiety-producing stimuli. Selective attention will effectively gate out the unwanted thoughts if the correct thoughts are pertinent and meaningful to the athlete.

Associative Versus Dissociative Attentional Style

Morgan (1978) hypothesized that marathon runners adopt one of two attentional styles to assist them in training and competition. The associators internalize the directions dimension of attention and focus on the body’s sensory feedback signals. The dissociators externalize the direction dimension of attention and gate out or block sensory information from the body.

Measurement of Attentional Style

Masters and Ogle (1998a) noted that researchers have utilized six different methods of measurements. Methods of measurement include:

1. Pencil-and-paper inventories

2. Structured interviews

3. Tape recording during running

4. Objective data

5. Subjective data

6. Experimenter rating Pencil-and-paper inventories include the Running Style Questionnaire (RSQ; Silva & Appelbaum, 1989); Brewer, Van Raalte & Linder, 19996), and the Thoughts During Running Scale (TDRS; Goode & Roth, 1993).


Cox, H. Richard. (2002). Sport Psychology: Concepts and Applications. (Fifth Edition). New York: McGraw-Hill Companies Lavallec. D., Kremer, J., Moran, A., & Williams. M. (2004) Sports Psychology: Contemporary Themes. New York: Palgrave Macmillan Publishers

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