Written by Dr. Scott Silverman Wednesday, 10 June 2009 17:37
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Quick - in five seconds take a pen and circle the numbers from 1-10 in order starting with number 1.
How long did it take you? Five seconds? 10? 20?
This is an actual example of an exercise high-level athletes perform regularly to improve their concentration skills!
Concentration is crucial in helping athletes strive for peak performance. If two athletes have equal skill and ability, it is quite certain that the one who is able to best focus on the task at hand will be the one whose performance prevails. Concentration means focusing attention on what you are doing regardless of external, and sometimes internal, distractions. Athletes who are skilled at concentrating on a task have the ability to focus intensely on some things while blocking other things out.
Both external and internal distractions are an inevitable part of being an athlete. Examples of external distractions might be bad referee calls, the noise of crowds and fans, disrespectful opponents, bad weather or a rut on a field. Examples of internal distractions might be negative thoughts, dwelling on a mistake, tense muscles or over thinking strategy.
The best athletes learn how to control their thoughts and focus their attention. They are able to concentrate on the present. There are several ways that athletes can learn to focus and concentrate. All of them take commitment and hard work. It takes about two-three months of practice to see some results.
Relax. It is almost impossible to focus and concentrate if you are not relaxed. Stressed athletes have a hard time controlling their thoughts, which is imperative to concentration. Relaxation techniques will differ depending upon the athlete, but some ways of relaxing before a match or game include meditation, listening to music or learning relaxation techniques.
One example of a relaxation technique is “tense/release.” Sit in a quiet place, close your eyes and, starting with your face, squeeze all your muscles tight. Next, count to four and slowly release the tightened muscles. Do this with all your muscle groups working your way down to your feet.
Practice. If an athlete tends to lose focus when they are tired, they should arrange practices so that they are fatigued. Then the athlete must practice concentrating while being fatigued. If an athlete cannot focus when the other team is yelling at them, then they should have their own teammates yell at them during practice. Most of all, athletes should approach practices as if they were game situations. Every time an athlete goes out onto the court or field, they should go out there focused and ready to perform.
Use pre-performance routines. These can be something simple or elaborate. Routines help increase concentration and focus because they help block out both internal and external distractions. That’s why many athletes listen to music to pump themselves up. The consistency a routine provides also helps the athlete perform consistently. Think of Mohammed Ali’s Float like a butterfly-sting like a bee. That was a pre-performance routine to focus his mind.
Use visualization and imagery. Athletes who use visualization and imagery feel more in control of their situations, and are therefore able to concentrate and focus. Imagine that you are in a distracting situation such as a fan yelling at you, then visualize yourself acting in a way that leads to a positive outcome. This may include looking at the fan and taking a deep breath, then turning away. When faced with the situation it will feel familiar and you will be more confident that you can deal with it. This will help the athlete focus on the task at hand instead of being distracted by possible bad outcomes.
Use cues and triggers. These are effective tools in improving the ability to concentrate. Cues that are task-related help the athlete focus on exactly what they are doing and keep them in the present. For example, a tennis player having trouble with their forehand might use the cue follow through to get back on track. A lacrosse player having trouble pushing off their instep may say feel the dirt.
Athletes who use these techniques to concentrate and focus will find themselves competing at higher levels of performance.
Dr. Silverman is the districtwide athletic coordinator for Glen Cove schools. He has a degree in sport and exercise psychology from Boston University. He has worked with high school to professional athletes on performance enhancement and has appeared on a number of sports programs discussing the topic of youth sports. He has a passion for making athletics the best possible experience it can be for all young athletes, as well as ensuring all youth have an opportunity to use sport as a learning tool about life and health. Dr. Silverman is a fitness buff who still is an avid ice hockey player.