What we can learn from winners in sport
Professor Aidan Moran looks at how to improve your concentration skills
The first practical tip on improving your concentration is to set performance goals or specific actions that are completely under your control. By focusing on actions that are under your control, you can turn your worries into plans. Remember – always ask yourself what job you can do right now to accomplish a desired goal.
2. Establish routines
Most top-class athletes display consistent sequences of preparatory actions before they perform key skills. For example, golfers tend to ‘waggle’ their clubs a certain number of times before striking the ball and tennis players tend to bounce the ball a standard number of times before serving.
These preferred action sequences are called “pre-performance routines” and are typically followed prior to the execution of ‘self-paced’ skills actions that are carried out largely at the performer’s own speed and without interference from other people. Routines enhance concentration because they take you from thinking about something to actually doing it.
They are valuable because they help you to focus on the job you have to do, one step at a time. By concentrating on each step of your routine, you’re encouraging yourself to stay in the present moment.
3. Using ‘trigger words’
A third focusing technique involves the use of trigger words or short, vivid and positively phrased verbal reminders designed to help you focus on a specific target or to perform a relevant action. For example, ask yourself: “What’s the most important job I can do right now?” Or say to yourself, “OK, let’s get back to the task at hand”.
4. Using your imagination: Visualising what you want to do next
The next concentration strategy involves the use of mental imagery – “seeing” and “feeling” yourself performing an action in your mind’s eye before you actually do it. For example, if you’re preparing for a job interview, you can visualise yourself pausing before answering a question and then responding confidently with an example to illustrate one of your key achievements to date.
Mental rehearsal works by priming your brain and body to deal with imaginary scenarios, thereby ensuring that you will not be distracted when they actually occur.
5. Relaxing: Centering your body
Physical relaxation techniques can help you to concentrate more effectively. For example, lowering your shoulders, doing gentle neck-rolling exercises, flapping out the tension from your arms and legs, and taking slow deep breaths can lower your centre of gravity and reduce the likelihood of error.
Indeed, one of the biggest mistakes that novices in golf and tennis make is to hold in their breath while they prepare for a shot. If you do this, your muscles will tense up and your swing will be affected.
- Aidan Moran is professor of cognitive psychology and director of the psychology research Laboratory in University College Dublin. A Fulbright Scholar, he has written/co-authored 15 books) and has published many scientific papers in international journals in psychology, medicine and sport science. His most recent book is Pure Sport: Practical Sport Psychology (2nd edition) (by John Kremer & Aidan Moran, published by Routledge. See: here