top of page

The Star Mentality Post

  • Writer's pictureRifat Hussein

Attentional Control in Sports: How to Improve Your Focus and Dominate the Competition

In the world of sports, athletes are constantly exposed to a vast amount of information, which can be challenging to process. This challenge is particularly exaggerated during competitions and can easily overwhelm athletes.

Therefore, athletes must have a strong grasp on attentional control, allowing them to selectively filter information that is relevant to their performance. This will help them play at the top of their game.

Despite its importance, the concept of attention in sports is often misunderstood, and many athletes are unaware of the significance of developing attentional control as a critical skill for success.

What is Attention in Sports?

Attention is the ability to focus on important stimuli while ignoring irrelevant information. It is an essential cognitive skill that enables athletes to concentrate on critical cues and execute the desired skills. For example, during a penalty kick, the ability to block out the noise from the crowd and maintain concentration on striking the ball with the right technique can be the difference between success and failure.

Within sports, attention can be broken down into five sub-categories:

1) Dynamic Attention: This involves having the capacity to keep up with fast-changing stimuli. Athletes need to adapt to sudden changes in the game and adjust their focus accordingly.

2) Selective Attention: This involves being able to distinguish between relevant information from irrelevant distractions.

3) Sustained Attention: This is being able to stay focused and attentive throughout a game, even during periods of low activity.

4) Divided Attention: This skill involves the ability to attend to a wide range of stimuli in the environment, such as the movements of the opponent and the positioning of teammates.

5) Peripheral Attention: This consists of maintaining awareness of the overall game while also attending to specific cues from your peripheral vision.

Every athlete has a different attentional style that they use the most. This varies depending on the individual and the skills needed for the sport they play. Consequently, athletes need to recognize their attentional style to optimize their focus and improve their overall performance.

Hence, if you struggle to maintain focus and find yourself getting easily distracted, it is crucial to identify the root cause. Take this as an opportunity to self-reflect and get to the source of this issue. It may be you work better using a different attentional system. Alternatively, perhaps you've been introduced to a new competitive environment with overwhelming stimuli and can’t sustain attention for too long.

Once the root cause has been determined, you can begin to develop strategies to improve your attentional control and ultimately get you playing at your best.

What Distractions Do You Need to Be Aware of?

Athletes must be conscious of the different internal and external distractions that can impair their focus and concentration during a match.

Internal distractions refer to the athlete’s inner thoughts, feelings, and emotions. These can consist of:

  • A lack of confidence

  • Fatigue

  • Dwelling on the past

External distractions refer to the stimuli in the environment that impacts an athlete’s attention. Examples include:

  • Noise from the crowd

  • Opponents’ behaviours

  • The weather

Recognizing the type of distractions that have the greatest influence on your attentional levels is crucial. It can help you adapt and tailor your attentional focus to maintain an optimal level of performance.

What Are the Benefits of Improving Your Attentional Control?

The athletes that perform the best can effectively manage both internal and external distractions, whilst switching to the attentional style required. Here are three advantages of improving your attentional control:

1) Reduced Errors: Athletes will be able to allocate their attention to the most relevant information, whilst filtering out irrelevant distractions (e.g. crowd noise). This allows players to take advantage of opportunities and execute the right skills when required.

2) Enhanced Learning: Athletes will have the ability to focus on their coach’s instructions and demonstrations during training. This can help athletes retain and recall information learned from practice, which can lead to more effective skill acquisition and development.

3) Greater Enjoyment: Athletes can become fully immersed and engaged in their match. In doing so, they can reduce their negative emotions, appreciate the nuances of the game, and stay in the present moment. This can lead to experiencing a sense of flow which has been linked to elite-level performances.

Undoubtedly, improving attention control is vital for athletic performance. It can help competitors respond to changes in the game quicker, make more accurate decisions, and remain composed in high-pressure situations.

How Do You Improve Your Attentional Control?

Athletes can increase their ability to focus their attention during competitions. Here is one powerful method you can use in a variety of match-like situations:

Thought-stopping and Thought-centering: This technique involves two stages. The first is thought-stopping, which consists of actively producing affirmative thoughts to counter becoming distracted by negative emotions. This is then complemented by thought-centering, which entails redirecting your attention to dismiss those negative thoughts.

To effectively use this strategy, athletes must first be able to recognize the negative emotions and distractions that are hindering their performance. After, the athletes can ask themselves whether such thoughts are helpful or detrimental to their goals. If the answer is no, athletes need to stop these thoughts and shift their attention by centering.

Use these two tools to center your thoughts when needed:

1) Attentional Cues – This involves using internal or external cues to help athletes re-focus their attention on important information.

Internal cues can involve focusing on bodily sensations, such as the feeling of muscles contracting during a particular movement. External cues involve focusing on specific stimuli in the competitive environment, such as the movement of an opponent or the sound of a ball hitting the ground.

For instance, a basketball player might use the sound of the ball hitting the rim as a cue to focus their attention on rebounding. When the player hears the ball hit the rim, they can use this as a signal to quickly divert their attention into getting in the right position to recover the ball.

2) Trigger Words – These are words and phrases with a specific meaning or an association with a particular behaviour. This can help athletes quickly shift their focus away from distractions to concentrate on a specific aspect of their performance.

For example, a golfer might use the word “smooth” before taking a shot to remind themselves to maintain proper balance and be fluid throughout their swing. This can help them stay in control of their attention, especially during moments when making mistakes are costly.

Thought-stopping and thought-centering is an effective tool you can use to filter out distractions, regain focus and direct your attention to the task at hand. It will help improve your confidence and performance levels.

To make the most of this method you need to think about which centering strategies best fit you and your sport. Once you identify which one is relevant to you, practice it in training and work with your coach to help you incorporate it into your competitions.

Take Home Messages

Being able to control and direct your attention on relevant information is a critical skill in sports. Attentional control can be the difference between winning and losing in a competitive environment full of distractions. It will give you the power to make more accurate decisions, help you stay resilient, and keep your performance levels high.


Which centering tool are you going to use and why? I’ll love to hear them in the comment section below!


Sports training

Want to learn more about how we can help you?

bottom of page