There are several key psychological aspects to an athlete being good at what he does. Self-confidence in oneself and in situations, motivation, stress, level of activation, emotional regulation and attention are the most important. I will talk about the latter in today’s article.

All these psychological variables directly and indirectly influence each other. For example, motivation can affect attention, or stress self-confidence . Therefore, they must be taken into account so that an athlete can express the best version of himself or herself in the sport he or she practices. There is good news: just like the tactical, technical or physical aspects, the psychological variables are trainable.

What does attention depend on?

One of the main objectives of Sports Psychology is the study of the variables that influence sports 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.

As regards attention, it can be said that is a decisive variable for detecting and interpreting the demands of each situation , and that correct attention 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 capacity to control the variables that interfere at the specific moment. On the other hand, controlling the interfering variables, contributes to control the activation level.

How does attention to sports performance affect?

In general, the correct control of attention will positively affect the performance of athletes in training and competition, and is therefore decisive when it comes to training:

  • Receive information
  • Be alert and focused
  • Analyze the data
  • Making decisions
  • Acting on 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 move from a corner while playing an important game, which has cost him a goal on the first move of the second half, so his team loses by one goal.

As a result of this error, his self-confidence on corner kicks is undermined by the criticism he has received from his teammates , and there are still 35 minutes left to play. This event is affecting his level of activation and, in turn, his attention, because on the following corner kicks, he is late for all the high balls. On the other hand, when the crosses are the result of an elaborate play, the goalkeeper is on time. This happens because his attention is focused on the mistake he has made (what is known as internal attention ) when he should be paying attention to the stimuli that occur 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 carefully and correctly select what he must 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: the direction and amplitude .

The direction of care

The care direction refers to internal and external care. Internal attention is when an athlete focuses on aspects that take place in his own organism (thoughts, self-dialogue, sensations or movements). External attention refers to when an athlete focuses on issues that are foreign to him . That is, what is happening around him.

Internal attention is positive for: learning and perfecting skills (and putting them into practice); analyzing one’s own performance, working in imagination, controlling thoughts or sensations that may favor or harm 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 follow the instructions of the coach, etc.

The breadth of care

Not only is the direction in which an athlete focuses his or her attention important, but also the breadth, which can be wide or narrow.

Broad attention will allow the athlete to take into account a greater number of stimuli . While reduced attention will allow greater concentration. For example, wide attention can be useful for learning complex skills with different movements while they 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 care approaches:

Internal-reduced : Attention is focused on a small number of stimuli or responses that occur in the athlete’s body. For example, when a basketball player tries to improve his technique to pump the ball, as he has to focus on the movements and not on the basket (i.e. whether he succeeds or not).

Internal-wide-ranging : The focus is on a wide range of stimuli or responses that occur in the athlete’s body. For example, when a player analyses what has happened in the last competition. It should be used when one is not actively competing and there is time to analyse.

External-reduced : Attention is focused on a small number of stimuli unrelated to the athlete. For example, looking at the basket when shooting a free throw in basketball.

External-broad : The attention is focused on a wide number of stimuli that are not related to the athlete. For example, a footballer when making a counter-attack 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 approach, and incorrect use will impair an athlete’s optimal performance. Sometimes this can be caused by a sensory deficit, but when this does not occur, the cause may be poor learning (and therefore misuse), an excess of information at once, interfering cognitive activity (e.g. a bad past experience), deficits or excesses of activation level, or interfering attentional conditions (e.g. booing of the rival audience).

In order to correct these problems related to the care of athletes, the intervention can focus on two possible solutions . On the one hand, the training of athletes in attention skills. On the other hand, the environmental manipulation, by the trainers, of the relevant stimuli (for example, giving less instructions at a given time). In this way, a correct attentional control can be achieved.