Improve Mental Health · Achieve Performance Goals

Boost your Performance in Sport and Exercise with Attention Control

Learn what attention control is, why it is important for sport and exercise performance, how to train it, and what are its benefits and limitations.

Boost your Performance in Sport and Exercise with Attention Control

Imagine you are a soccer player who is about to take a penalty kick in a crucial match. You have practiced this skill many times, but now you feel nervous and anxious. You hear the crowd booing and chanting, you see the goalkeeper moving and waving, you think about the possible consequences of missing or scoring. How do you cope with all these distractions and focus on the task at hand?

Or imagine you are a runner who is participating in a marathon. You have trained hard for this event, but now you feel tired and sore. You see the distance markers and the clock, you feel the heat and the wind, you think about how much longer you have to go or how well you are doing. How do you deal with all these stimuli and maintain your motivation and pace?

These are examples of situations where attention control is vital for optimal performance and participation in sport and exercise activities.

Attention control is the skill of regulating your focus of attention on relevant stimuli and ignoring irrelevant or distracting stimuli in a given situation.

Attention control helps you to cope with various cognitive and emotional demands in performance psychology contexts. Simply put, attention control is the ability to focus on relevant stimuli and ignore irrelevant ones in a given situation. It is a crucial skill in sport and exercise psychology domain, as it affects many aspects of physical and mental health. For example, attention control can enhance skill execution, decision making, coping with stress and anxiety, and preventing errors and injuries. Conversely, poor attention control can impair performance, reduce motivation, increase anxiety, and lead to burnout.

Sport and exercise contexts pose various attentional demands and challenges for participants. Depending on the type and level of physical activity, they may require different dimensions of attention, such as internal vs. external (i.e., focusing on one’s own thoughts and feelings vs. the environment) and broad vs. narrow (i.e., focusing on many things at once vs. a specific point). They may also involve different types of distractions, such as noise, opponents, spectators, media, negative self-talk, emotions, and pain. Therefore, participants need to be able to adjust their attention according to the changing situations and cope with the potential interference.

In this article, I will review the current research on attention control training, which is a systematic and deliberate practice of improving one’s attention skills. I will also provide practical strategies and exercises to improve attention control in sport and exercise settings, and discuss the benefits and limitations of attention control training. I hope this article will be relevant for a wide variety of audience, including students, researchers, athletes, and coaches.

Attention Control Training: What is it and how does it work?

Attention control training is a systematic and deliberate practice of improving one’s attention skills. It involves developing intervention strategies that help participants avoid undue stress by controlling their attention and to focus it more effectively. The training includes learning to recognize different attentional styles, learning to understand individual attention strengths and weaknesses, and learning to identify the specific attentional demands of a given sport or exercise context, and to identify factors that can affect attention (e.g., competitors, spectators, weather, etc.).

Attention control training can be broken down into two major categories: focused attention and open monitoring. They are very different, yet complementary, practices. Focused attention exercises cultivate the brain’s ability to focus on one single object, such as one’s breath, a word, or a sound. The goal is to maintain this focus for as long as possible, and to gently bring it back when it wanders. Open monitoring exercises train the brain’s ability to observe the present moment with awareness and without emotional reactivity. The goal is to notice whatever arises in one’s mind and body, such as thoughts, feelings, sensations, or impulses, without judging them or getting attached to them.

The theoretical mechanisms and empirical evidence of how attention control training can enhance performance in sport and exercise are still being investigated by researchers. However, some possible explanations are:

• Attention control training can optimize arousal level by reducing stress and anxiety, which can impair performance by narrowing attention too much or too little.

• Attention control training can reduce cognitive interference by minimizing negative self-talk, rumination, or worry, which can distract attention from the task at hand.

• Attention control training can increase self-regulation by enhancing self-awareness, self-confidence, self-control, and self-efficacy, which can improve motivation, goal setting, and coping skills.

• Attention control training can facilitate motor learning by improving attentional focus, attentional switching, attentional stability, and attentional flexibility, which can affect skill acquisition, retention, and transfer.

Some examples of attention control training methods and tools are:

Mindfulness meditation: a practice of paying attention to the present moment with awareness and without emotional reactivity. It can be done in various forms, such as sitting meditation, walking meditation, body scan meditation, or mindful movement (e.g., yoga or tai chi).

Biofeedback: a technique of using electronic devices to measure and display physiological signals (e.g., heart rate, skin conductance, muscle tension) that reflect one’s emotional state. It can help participants learn to regulate their arousal level and cope with stress by providing feedback on their physiological responses.

Mental imagery: a technique of using one’s imagination to create mental representations of situations or events. It can help participants enhance their performance by visualizing and rehearsing skills or strategies mentally before executing them physically.

Self-talk: a technique of using verbal cues or statements to influence one’s thoughts or actions. Positive self-talk can help participants improve their performance by enhancing their confidence, motivation, concentration, or mood.

Cue words: a technique of using short and specific words or phrases to direct one’s attention or trigger a desired response. It can help participants improve their performance by focusing their attention on relevant cues or aspects of the task.

Music: a technique of using sound or rhythm to influence one’s mood or behaviour. It can help participants improve their performance by reducing stress and anxiety, increasing arousal and motivation, or synchronizing movement patterns.

Video games: a technique of using interactive digital media to engage one’s cognitive and motor skills. It can help participants improve their performance by enhancing their attentional focus, attentional switching, attentional stability, and attentional flexibility.

Practical Strategies and Exercises to improve Attention Control

Attention control training can be applied in various sport and exercise settings, depending on the goals and needs of the participants. However, some general guidelines and tips for applying attention control training are:

⇢ Create a goal-setting plan by setting specific and realistic goals for improving attention skills, such as increasing the duration of focused attention, reducing the frequency of mind wandering, or enhancing the quality of attentional switching.

⇢ Choose appropriate tasks and exercises that match the level of difficulty and challenge of the sport or exercise context, such as using simple or complex stimuli, varying the speed or intensity of the task, or introducing distractions or interruptions.

⇢ Monitor progress and evaluate outcomes by using objective or subjective measures of attention performance, such as reaction time, accuracy, errors, self-reports, or feedback from others.

⇢ Practice regularly and consistently by incorporating attention control training into daily routines or schedules, such as before, during, or after sport or exercise sessions.

⇢ Seek guidance and support from experts or peers who can provide advice, feedback, or encouragement for improving attention skills.

Some specific exercises and activities to improve different aspects of attention control are:

Focusing and refocusing training: holding attention on a predetermined task (e.g., a thought, a point in a picture, an object in a video) and gently guiding it back if it wanders. This can help participants improve their attentional focus and stability by reducing mind wandering and distraction. For example, one can practice mindful breathing by sitting in a comfortable position and focusing on the sensation of breathing for as long as possible. [check out this article on how mindfulness may help during crisis for two examples of mindful practices]

Attentional switching training: shifting attention between different stimuli or tasks (e.g., counting backward while dribbling a ball) or between different dimensions of attention (e.g., internal vs. external, broad vs. narrow). This can help participants improve their attentional switching and flexibility by enhancing their ability to adapt to changing situations and demands. For example, one can practice switching between different types of cue words (e.g., motivational vs. instructional) while performing a skill.

Attentional stability training: maintaining attention on a constant or predictable stimulus or task (e.g., breathing rhythm while running) or resisting distraction from irrelevant stimuli (e.g., noise from spectators). This can help participants improve their attentional stability and focus by increasing their resistance to interference and disruption. For example, one can practice centering by altering their breathing and tension in various muscle groups while performing a skill.

Attentional flexibility training: adapting attention to changing or unpredictable stimuli or tasks (e.g., reacting to opponents’ moves while playing tennis) or adjusting attention according to situational demands (e.g., scanning the environment while cycling). This can help participants improve their attentional flexibility and adaptability by enhancing their ability to cope with uncertainty and complexity. For example, one can practice attentional refocusing by using associated words or cues to trigger ideal response patterns while performing a skill.

Benefits and Limitations of Attention Control Training

Attention control training can have various benefits for sport and exercise performance, as well as for general health and well-being. Some of the main benefits are:

Improving concentration: attention control training can help participants maintain their focus on the task at hand and avoid distractions that can impair their performance or enjoyment.

Enhancing confidence: attention control training can help participants develop a positive self-image and belief in their abilities, which can boost their motivation and resilience.

Increasing arousal and motivation: attention control training can help participants regulate their emotional state and energy level, which can optimize their performance and satisfaction.

Improving mood and well-being: attention control training can help participants reduce stress and anxiety, prevent depression, and increase happiness and life satisfaction.

Facilitating learning and memory: attention control training can help participants acquire new skills and strategies, retain information, and transfer knowledge to different contexts.

However, attention control training also has some potential limitations and challenges that need to be acknowledged and addressed. Some of them are:

Individual differences: attention control training may not work equally well for everyone, as people may have different preferences, needs, goals, abilities, and personalities that affect their response to the training.

Transferability issues: attention control training may not always transfer effectively from one situation to another, as different sport and exercise contexts may have different attentional demands and challenges that require different skills or strategies.

Time constraints: attention control training may require a considerable amount of time and effort to practice regularly and consistently, which may not be feasible or desirable for some participants who have busy schedules or competing priorities.

Measurement difficulties: attention control training may be difficult to measure objectively or reliably, as there may not be valid or standardized tools or methods to assess its effects or outcomes.

Therefore, attention control training should be applied with caution and care, taking into account the individual characteristics, needs, goals, and preferences of the participants, as well as the specific features, demands, and challenges of the sport or exercise context. Moreover, attention control training should be complemented by other interventions or approaches that can support its effectiveness and sustainability.

Conclusion

Attention control is the ability to focus on relevant stimuli and ignore irrelevant ones in a given situation. It is a vital skill for sport and exercise performance, as it affects many aspects of physical and mental functioning, such as skill execution, decision making, coping with stress and fatigue, and preventing errors and injuries. Sport and exercise contexts pose various attentional demands and challenges for participants, depending on the type and level of activity. Therefore, participants need to be able to adjust their attention according to the changing situations and cope with the potential interference.

Attention control training is a systematic and deliberate practice of improving one’s attention skills. It involves developing intervention strategies that help participants avoid undue stress by controlling their attention and to focus it more effectively. The training includes learning to recognize different attentional styles, understand individual attention strengths and weaknesses, and identify the specific attentional demands of a given sport or exercise context. Attention control training can be done in two major categories: focused attention and open monitoring, which are different yet complementary practices. Focused attention exercises cultivate the brain’s ability to focus on one single object whereas open monitoring exercises train the brain’s ability to observe the present moment with awareness and without emotional reactivity.

Attention control training can have various benefits for sport and exercise performance, as well as for general health and well-being. It can optimize arousal level by reducing stress and anxiety, reduce cognitive interference by minimizing negative self-talk or worry, increase self-regulation by enhancing self-awareness or confidence, and facilitate motor learning by improving attentional focus or switching. It can also improve concentration, motivation, enjoyment, mood, and memory. However, attention control training also has some potential limitations and challenges that need to be acknowledged and addressed. For instance, it may not work equally well for everyone, as people may have different preferences, needs, goals, abilities, and personalities that affect their response to the training. Similarly, it may not always transfer effectively from one situation to another, as different sport and exercise contexts may have different attentional demands and challenges that require different skills or strategies. It may also require a considerable amount of time and effort to practice regularly and consistently, which may not be feasible or desirable for some participants who have busy schedules or competing priorities. Also, it may be difficult to measure objectively or reliably, as there may not be valid or standardized tools or methods to assess its effects or outcomes.

Therefore, attention control training should be applied with caution and care, taking into account the individual characteristics, needs, goals, and preferences of the participants, as well as the specific features, demands, and challenges of the sport or exercise context. Moreover, attention control training should be complemented by other interventions or approaches that can support its effectiveness and sustainability.

The main take-home message for improving attention control is that attention control is a skill that can be learned and improved with practice; however, there are vital personal and environmental factors that must also be taken into account.


If you enjoyed reading this article, you may also like this article that summarizes 10 Effective Mental Strategies for Sports Performance Enhancement:

10 Effective Mental Strategies for Sports Performance Enhancement
Discover ten powerful mental strategies backed by scientific research to enhance sports performance. From goal setting to visualization, positive self-talk, and more, optimize your mental game for success.

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If you are serious about achieving peak performance, get in touch today! Together, we can create a tailored plan for you to take your performance to the next level.

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