How to improve focus and concentration was a hot topic even before this global pandemic sunk its claws into our collective mindset. After all, improved focus and concentration breed success in all aspects of life. In sport, for example, a momentary lapse in concentration can be the difference between victory and defeat, while laser focus can improve performance through everything from increased productivity to picking up new skills faster.
But what exactly do we mean when we talk about focus and concentration? Sports scientists define concentration as, ‘The process by which all thoughts and senses are focused totally upon a selected object or activity to the exclusion of everything else.’ Sometimes that kind of state comes naturally, other times it can be frustratingly elusive. Like any skill, it can be trained, but you can’t just try harder to improve concentration, what you can do is learn how to identify what to focus on and when.
Identify your focus needs
Think back to the last time you did something you want to get better at. Go through the key moments, breaking the task into a number of different actions and reflect on how well you were concentrating during each action. Was your focus at the right intensity, not intense enough, were you daydreaming, or were your super focused but not on the parts that really matter?
Start a training diary if you don't already have one and use it to record these concentration highs and lows. You can simply write expressive words to describe your concentration such as, ‘I was focused’ or ‘my mind wandered, and I dropped the intensity’ or use a rating scale. There is no need to complicate this process - if you feel your concentration was the cause of poor performance, make a note of it.
Set concentration goals
Use your notes to identify key moments where your focus tends to wane, consider what the cause could be and set goals to prevent it from happening. Your goal could be as simple as practicing a specific motion over and over until it becomes second nature, allowing you to better focus on your environment, or it might be to do more of the actions where your focus trends to stay true and developing plans to perform without relying on the actions you know you struggle to stay focused on. If you have a coach or teacher, run your goals by them to ensure you’re covering the key performance factors.
Develop effective routines
Routines channel your focus and get you ready to perform, helping to make potential complex actions become second nature. Creating set routines makes it almost impossible for distractions to creep in as your brain enters a familiar sort of auto-pilot. For example, you could listen to the same songs every time you warm-up, eat a specific breakfast in the morning, or leave enough time for a breathwork practice before you get started.
Use positive mental imagery
Whatever it is you're trying to achieve, visualise yourself smashing it. Imagery prepares you to see how you’ll perform, trains you to think about what’s most important in great performance, and allows you to relax by being focused on the things within your control that actually matter.
Understand how emotion impacts focus and concentration
Concentration is connected to emotional arousal. When emotional arousal is high – excitement and anxiety are the two prime suspects here – concentration tends to dip. Anxiety at the start of a competition, for example, often leads to intense performance at the start, but possibly going out too hard or too fast. Breathwork and meditation are both effective techniques for lowering emotional arousal.
If, however, you need to increase your emotional arousal – pump yourself up, basically – motivational self-talk works wonders. It might sound silly, but start chanting a mantra (out loud or in your head) to gee yourself up. It can be as simple as repeating ‘You got this, you got this’. The more you commit and the more often you do it, the more effective it will be, reminding you of past successes.
Physiological responses to exercise influence concentration
The sweat, lactic build-up and heavy breathing of high-intensity exercise can make it hard to stay focused. The mind-body connection is so strong because your brain is hard-wired to prevent you exercising yourself to death. The problem is focusing on your burning thighs or aching shoulders means you’re probably not concentrating on what you should be. That's okay. Simply accept you’re not superhuman and that this process will occur, then use self-talk to get your mind back on track.
How to improve your focus and concentration with sports psychology: Summary
Focus and concentration are trainable. To make progress, start by identifying goals and evaluating how you can achieve them. Use mental visualisation, self-talk and cue words, while understanding physiological states can impact your performance.
Andy Lane is a Professor of Sport Psychology and Director of Research Excellence at the University of Wolverhampton. A Fellow of the British Association of Sport and Exercise Sciences (BASES), Andy is Health Professional Council registered and a British Psychological Society Chartered Psychologist.