Preparing for last week’s Big South Conference tournament, Winthrop men’s basketball coach Pat Kelsey said, “You can’t focus on the results; you can’t focus on winning on Sunday. You’ve got to win that possession, you’ve got to win that walk-through, you’ve got to win this film session, and you’ve got to win, you know, everything.”
Underlying Kelsey’s words is one of the most central psychological skills for performance: concentration. The terms concentration and attention are used interchangeably; both describe the ability to focus on relevant information around you while blocking out distractions.
However, concentration can be fickle. For most people, concentration is an unpredictable beast, seemingly coming and going whenever it feels like it. An individual’s ability to focus is affected by daily distractions – thoughts, other people and the environment. These distractions take up valuable space in your brain, pulling your focus away from the important task in front of you.
The good news is that concentration is a learned skill that improves with practice, just like dribbling or shooting a basketball. Here are three ways you can improve your ability to concentrate, so you can follow Kelsey’s advice and focus only on what is relevant.
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If you ever watch basketball players before a free throw, you will see them go through a pre-shot routine. It usually involves bouncing the basketball a few times, spinning the ball in their hands, and then briefly pausing before taking the shot. This familiar routine helps to focus their attention on the present, eliminating distractions.
Developing your own “pre-shot” routine will help you the same way. It should not be complicated, just a simple sequence of relevant thoughts and/or actions that focus you back to the task at hand. It could be as short as a couple of deep breaths with your eyes closed or a series of exercises and stretches. Whatever you choose, you must consistently practice.
Thoughts often bombard our mind and carry us away from the task at hand. Thoughts might be about the future (what do I need to pick up at the store tonight?) or about the past (if only I left 5 minutes earlier...) but rarely about the present. A cue word acts like a stop sign, stopping unnecessary thoughts and refocusing your mind to the present.
Your cue word can be anything. It simply could be “Stop!” or something silly like “Ice Cream Sundae!” The important thing is you constantly use it. Write it down on a notecard or put it on your phone. Make it visible in your daily life. That will help you build your mental stop sign when thoughts start to carry you away from the task at hand.
Whenever you first learn something new, it takes a lot of brainpower to focus on that skill. For example, when learning to play basketball, it might take all your energy just to dribble the ball without hitting your feet. But as you practice and become better, dribbling becomes automatic. This over-learning allows you to dribble without consciously thinking about it, freeing up brainpower to focus on other more important tasks, such as how to score.
There are many skills that we can automate, but without deliberate practice on over-learning basic skills, you will always be stuck using too much brainpower on things that will not help you improve.
As you can see, concentration demands practice. It is not easy to keep your focus on the present, but the potential benefits will outweigh the costs.
And this brings us back to Kelsey and his Winthrop basketball team. By keeping his team focused on the present throughout the days prior to the Big South tournament, Kelsey helped direct attention away from uncontrollable future events to the controllable present.
Do you have a sports or exercise psychology question? Email it to Dr. David Schary at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Between the Ears
Between the Ears is a new column focused on explaining the psychological side of sport and exercise with a local slant. Between the Ears is written by Dr. David Schary, an assistant professor of exercise at Winthrop University. A former collegiate athlete and coach, Schary specializes in sport and exercise psychology, helping everyone from athletes to coaches to weekend warriors reach their highest potential.