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Attentional Focus

What is attentional focus?

Attentional focus is an individual’s ability to concentrate on task-relevant cues [1]. When working with this definition, it is also important to note that being able to switch attentional focus styles, when necessary, is a key component of achieving excellence in sport [2]. It is important to understand that each athlete will have different levels of focus during different points of competition and at different levels of play [3]. There are also systematic differences between amateur and elite athletes in the way that elite athletes extract more task-relevant information from complex game situations [3].

During game-time situations, there are countless outside distractions that may pull an athlete's attention from their performance. Think of the last time you watched a basketball game, fans from the opposing team are constantly trying to pull focus from a free-throw shooter. It is imperative for an athlete to learn the different types of focus and become comfortable switching between them to push their performance to the next level.

The 4 Types

The four types of attentional focus can be conceptualized on a four-quadrant chart. To understand the types, one must first understand the two different axes, the horizontal from external to internal, and the vertical from narrow to broad [4]. Narrow attentional focus refers to concentrating on a single stimulus, whereas broad attentional focus refers to an athlete not concentrating on a single thing, but rather their entire environment [4]. External attentional focus is when the athlete concentrates on their environment and internal attentional focus is when the athlete concentrates on their own self [4]. These factors create the four types of attentional focus, they are as follows. 

Broad-External: when an individual assesses their entire environment and all of its factors [1]. Example) A quarterback stepping back, assessing the field, and completing a pass.

Broad-Internal: when an individual assesses the environment to create a plan [1]. Example) A coach assessing a game or situation and creating a game plan.

Narrow-External: when an individual assesses only one or two cues within the environment [1]. Example) A golfer concentrating on only the ball when putting.

Narrow-Internal: when an individual mentally rehearses and upcoming performance, used most often to control an emotional state [1]. Example) A gymnast evaluating their current arousal and breath control when preparing for a floor routine.

Focus in Strength & Conditioning

Strength and conditioning coaches work with all types of athletes and almost, if not every position within the sports they work with. As a coach it is important to understand that each athlete will have different levels of focus during different points of competition and at different levels of play [3].

Within the weight room setting, it is easy to demonstrate each type of focus. This makes it easy for athletes to understand how the different types of focus come into their competition. We have a unique opportunity to practice moving from quadrant to quadrant throughout a lift session and help athletes to become comfortable and confident on their transitions between quadrants. Just as athletes go from broad-external (observing the room and finding their rack) to narrow-external (reading the sheet and loading the bar with the correct weight) when setting up for bench set, and then from broad-internal (gripping the bar and breathing in preparation to lift) to narrow-internal (thoughts and feelings upon completing the set) when evaluating how the bench set felt and how they should modify their weight, they quickly change focus during competition. Learning and perfecting smooth transitions within this setting can assist their learning of transitions within higher pressure situations, such as a penalty kick or free throw. 

Click below for an activity as athletes go through a lift session.

The Skills
The Skills_Goal Setting

Goal Setting

Attentional Focus: Resources

[1] Weinberg, R. S., & Gould, D. (2014). Foundations of Sport and Exercise Psychology (6th ed.). Human Kinetics Publishers. 
[2] Orlick, T., & Partington, J. (1988). Mental links to excellence. The Sport Psychologist, 2(2), 105–130. 
[3] Mann, D. T. Y., Williams, A. M., Ward, P., & Janelle, C. M. (2007). Perceptual-cognitive expertise in sport: a meta-analysis. Journal of Sport and Exercise Psychology, 29(4), 457–478. 
[4] Nideffer, R. M. (1976). Test of attentional and interpersonal style. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 34(3), 394–404.

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