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Control of attention in sport: attentional approaches

Control of attention in sport: attentional approaches

October 28, 2020

There are several key psychological aspects for an athlete to be good at what he does. The self-confidence one has in oneself and in situations, motivation, stress, level of activation, emotional regulation and attention, are the most important. From this last one I will speak in today's article.

All these psychological variables exert direct and indirect influence between them. For example, Motivation can affect attention, or stress to self-confidence . So you have to take them into account so that an athlete can express the best version of himself in the sport he practices. There is good news: just as the tactical, technical or physical aspect, the psychological variables are trainable.


On what does the attention depend?

One of the main objectives of Sports Psychology is the study of the variables that influence sports performance. The issue has been approached from different approaches: reports from athletes and coaches, research that has focused on specific psychological variables, and field observations.

In terms of attention, it can be said that it is a decisive variable to be able to detect and interpret the demands of each situation , and that the correct attentional 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 ability to control the variables that interfere at the particular time . On the other hand, controlling the interfering variables, helps to control the level of activation.


How does attention affect sports performance?

In general, the correct control of attention will positively affect the performance of athletes in training and competition, which is decisive at the time of:

  • Receive information
  • Be alert and focused
  • Analyze the data
  • Take decisions
  • Act on time
  • Act with precision

A practical case of the importance of psychological variables in sports performance

To illustrate the importance of psychological variables (and the interaction between them), specifically attention, I'll give you an example. Imagine that a goalkeeper has had an unfortunate play on the way out of a corner kick while playing an important game, which cost him a goal in the first play of the second half, so his team loses by one goal.


As a result of that error, his self-confidence in corner kicks is diminished 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 in the following corners, he is late for all balls. On the other hand, when the centers are the result of an elaborate play, the goalkeeper arrives on time. This happens because his attention is focused on the mistake he has made (what is known as internal attention) when you should be aware of the stimuli that occur in the game (external attention).

Attention approaches: direction and breadth of attention

Taking into account the previous case, we can see that there are different attention approaches . Knowing them and changing them when necessary will increase sports performance. This means that the athlete must carefully and accurately select what they must attend at all times, so that their performance is appropriate.

There are four attentional dimensions in which there are different stimuli and responses to which an athlete could attend. These dimensions can be classified and combined between two variables: the direction and the amplitude .

The direction of attention

The direction of attention It refers to internal and external attention. The internal attention is When an athlete focuses on aspects that take place in his own body (thoughts, self-talk, sensations or movements). External attention refers to when an athlete focuses on issues foreign to him . That is, what happens around him.

Internal attention is positive for: learning and improving skills (and putting them into practice); the analysis of their own performance, the work in imagination, the control of thoughts or sensations that may favor or impair performance, etc.

The external attention is useful when it is necessary to pay attention to the movement of the rivals in a match, when it is necessary to attend to the instructions of the coach, etc.

The breadth of attention

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

Broad attention will allow the athlete to take into account a greater number of stimuli . While the reduced attention will allow a greater concentration. For example, broad attention can be useful for learning complex skills with different movements at the same time 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 forming different types of attentional approaches:

Internal-reduced : The focus is 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, since he must focus on the movements and not on the basket (that is, whether he guesses correctly or not).

Internal-wide : The focus is on a large number of stimuli or responses that occur in the athlete's body. For example, when a player analyzes what happened in the last competition. It should be used when you are not actively competing and you have time to analyze.

External-reduced : The focus is on a small number of stimuli unrelated to the athlete. For example, look at the basket when you are going to shoot a free throw in basketball.

External-wide : The focus is on a large number of stimuli external 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 sports care

Each task requires a different attentional approach, and incorrect use will harm the optimal performance of an athlete. Sometimes, it may be due to a sensory deficit, but when this does not happen, it is possible that the cause is a bad learning (and, therefore, a misuse), an excess of information at the same time, interfering cognitive activity ( for example, a bad past experience), deficits or excess levels of activation, or interfering attentional conditions (for example, boos from the rival public).

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


Sensation & Perception: Top-Down & Bottom-Up Processing (October 2020).


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