Sports Psychology: Attention Control Training

Attention Control Training - The crucial importance of paying attention

If you're an athlete, how often have you been told by your coach to concentrate. So you do your best. But what are you then concentrating on? The most common - and truthful - answer is that you're concentrating on concentrating, which defeats the object somewhat. Psychologists have striven to derive an operational definition of concentration and attention, so that we can work from a common ground. It then becomes clear (see the Dictionary of the Sport and Exercise Sciences, Anshed et al, 1991) that the two are inextricably connected.

An important milestone in the development of attentional research was set by Robert Nideffer in his book Attention Control Training (A.C.T. 1976). He posited that, at any one time, an individual's focus of attention can fall into any one of four categories, which are determined by the width (broad/narrow) and direction (internal/external) of the individual's focus. Here I want to briefly introduce the type of attention process occurring within each of Nideffer's categories (narrow-internal; broad-internal; narrow-external; broad-external) and exemplify sports where each is crucial.

Divers, say, or gymnasts
A narrow internal focus is a focus on internal and kinaesthetic aspects of performance, what you might call a 'body-check'. For example, the springboard diver checking his body position in mid-air, or the runner monitoring his fatigue during an event. The position of limbs in space is an important area for attention, one that is especially relevant to divers or gymnasts, whose sports are judged according to technical merit. The gymnast about to perform his/her bar routine may undertake an arousal check to bring the breathing and heart rate into focus. Then, during performance, they would regulate their body position in order to glean as many points as possible from the judging panel. Finally, they would (sub-consciously?) run a check again for any local fatigue and the usual physiological excitation parameters, such as sweating, which are indicators of perceived exertion.

Strategy development
A broad internal focus relates to analytical thoughts and strategy development, and is thus extremely relevant to just about every sport. Even distance runners, whose courses of action during performance are extremely limited, develop a kind of strategy for achieving their best performances. Footballers more so, although it is largely the work of the manager to encompass the roles of not only the individual players but also of the team as a whole.

A cyclist, and a golfer
A narrow external focus refers to the shifting of one's attention to a solitary cue in the external environment. For instance, the second-placed speed cyclist may direct his focus on to the rear wheel of the leader when gauging the correct time to attempt to overtake. A more typical example is that of any ball player, who will be focused on the ball for large parts of the game.

A broad external focus implies an assessment of the surrounding environment. A golfer uses this to gauge the prevailing weather conditions. the structure of the hole, any hazards, and so on, while a hockey player with the ball uses it to assess the relative position of his teammates and opponents to determine the best possible pass.

Shifting from one to another
Different performance situations demand different attentional strength. For instance, both the golfer and hockey player mentioned above will need to shift from a broad to a narrow external focus, but at varying speeds and frequencies. A golfer playing sublimely will only shift his focus in this way about 66 times in a round of golf - or less if he happens to be Tiger Woods. Once for each stroke, first assessing the conditions, then homing in on the flag (narrow-external), and then reverting to the back of the ball. Even then, this attentional switching is spread over four hours or thereabouts. On the other hand, the hockey player is forced to switch focus rapidly between 'scanning' and 'targeting', and with greater frequency.

'Closed' and 'open' skills
These two sports also highlight another important feature of sport: the type of skill required. Sports such as golf and running are 'closed skill': they are self-paced activities in a (relatively) predictable, stable and unchanging environment. In contrast, sports such as football and hockey are called 'open-skill' sports, being forced-pace in a changing and unstable environment - in other words, an individual's performance is determined by the performances of others, both teammates and opponents.

Closed-skill sports also tend to need an internally-directed attentional focus. Although I mentioned the external foci of the golfer, his concentration would primarily be focused on strategy development (broad-internal) and awareness of body position in space (narrow-internal). Strategy development is largely a controlled process (i.e., slow, deliberate and cumbersome), while awareness ought to be an automatic process (fast, 'thoughtless' and efficient). Open-skill sports, on the other hand, tend to direct the individual's attention to the external environment.

Cognitive strategy
Another aspect of Nideffer's Attention Control Training is that attentional skills can display trait-like qualities, i.e., an underlying personality disposition, and are therefore useful in predicting an individual's performance. This is certainly useful to the coach or performer when analyzing the opposition pre-competition, to uncover their weaknesses. Elite athletes and children with Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD) are types of people with trait-like extremes of attentional functioning. These behaviours are difficult to change, however, as anyone who's tried 'psyching-out' will testify. Conversely, attentional skills can also possess state-like qualities - in other words, they are subject to change from one situation to the next and are therefore modifiable. The specificity and utility of different attentional foci in different situations are pivotal to sporting success. Researchers have suggested that if an attentional focus in a given direction and at a given breadth is practised and used regularly in order to improve performance, then we might call this a cognitive strategy. Many past studies have addressed the cognitive strategies employed by endurance athletes, mainly runners. However, some recent investigations have examined the value of such strategies in other sports, such as rowing and swimming.

Similar to Nideffer's attentional foci are the concepts of association and dissociation, having been (mis)used interchangeably in the literature with the terms internal focus and external focus. When using associative performance strategies, the performer focuses on internal performance-related cues (i.e., bodily sensations, such as muscle tension and breathing) and/or external information associated with performance - stroke rate, cadence, distance travelled (e.g., on an odometer) and race position. Dissociation is useful for diverting attention from painful concomitants of performance, such as local muscular fatigue, and can be achieved by fantasising (internal) or perhaps by looking at the surrounding environment (external), to name but two examples. Past research has proven inconclusive in determining which associative or dissociative strategies is best for elite athletes and competitive recreational athletes alike. However, a recent study by four Canadian researchers (Scott, Scott, Bedic and Dowd, 1999, The Sports Psychologist, 13, pp 57-68) tested three types of cognitive strategy on nine novice university rowers. Each was tested for his/her baseline performance on a 40-minute rowing task, following a 15-minute warm-up. The distance rowed during this time represented the measurement variable. After baseline testing, participants were randomly assigned to three conditions: an audio association tape consisting of the team coxswain's voice shouting task-related instructions such as 'feel the burn' and 'listen to your breathing'; a music dissociation tape, consisting of continuous top 40 hits; and a dissociation video showing races from the 1992 World Rowing Championships. And the result? Those who took part in the association condition showed an increase in distance rowed between baseline and intervention over double that of the two dissociative conditions.

Daniel Bishop


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