What we can learn from winners in sport

Professor Aidan Moran looks at how to improve your concentration skills


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

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