What we can learn from winners in sport
Professor Aidan Moran looks at how to improve your concentration skills
Katie Taylor focusses on her opponent before a bout. Photograph: Cathal Noonan/Inpho
Have you ever had the experience of suddenly discovering that you’ve been reading the same sentence in a book over and over again without any comprehension because your mind was miles away? Does your attention tend to wander at meetings or while someone is speaking to you?
Finally, have you ever gone from one room to another in your house in search of something only to realise that you’d forgotten what it was that you were looking for?
If these everyday cognitive failures sound familiar, then you have first hand experience of losing your concentration.
But what exactly is concentration, can you really lose it, and what practical strategies can you use to focus more efficiently?
In this short article, I’d like to provide some answers from cognitive psychology (the scientific study of how the mind works) to these important questions.
Before doing so, however, here are some practical solutions to the three problems I mentioned. First, the problem of “passive reading” can be solved by making sure that you always read anything important with a question in mind (eg, “what is the main message of this article?”). Second, “passive listening” can be overcome by pausing from time to time to summarise and reflect back what you’ve heard other people saying to you (“So, you’re saying that …”).
And the problem of forgetting people’s names can be addressed by making sure that you repeat the other person’s name out loud as soon as you hear it (“Good to meet you, Angela”).
Now, let’s return to the main theme of this article. “Concentration” is the ability to focus on what is most important in any situation while ignoring distractions. It’s like a mental spotlight that you shine at things either in the outside world or in our own imagination - that capture your attention.
Interestingly, research shows that you cannot actually lose your concentration because your spotlight must be shining somewhere. But you can allow your spotlight to shine at something (eg., an external distraction like a loud noise or an internal distraction like a daydream) that is irrelevant to the task at hand.
And that’s exactly what happened to the golfer Doug Sanders, whose missed putt of less than three feet not only prevented him from winning the 1970 British Open championship but also deprived him of millions of dollars in prize-money, tournament invitations and advertising endorsements.
Remarkably, Sanders’ miss was caused by a lapse in concentration - thinking too far ahead and making a victory speech before the putt had been taken. As he admitted at the time: “I made the mistake about thinking which section of the crowd I was going to bow to”!
Because concentration is so important in competitive sport, all top athletes (e.g., rugby goal-kickers, golfers) have developed practical techniques (e.g., using pre-performance routines) to achieve a focused state of mind – one in which there is no difference between what they are thinking and what they’re doing.
So, what are these techniques and how can we apply them to our everyday lives?
1. Goal-setting – focus on actions not possible future outcomes