First and foremost, it is important to understand the subtle differences between the concepts of attention, concentration and focus. There are many broad varying definitions out there. What’s important is how you use the concepts to help improve your performance. I will give a brief overview of these concepts. Concentration is your ability to perform with a clear and present focus. Focus can be defined as the central aspect of one’s attention. Lastly, attention is your observation and awareness of your surroundings. Within each of the above-mentioned terms, there is variability to how much or how well we can perform each of these aspects.
Focus can be broken down into internal or external, and broad or narrow. For example, if you arrive at a game and your thoughts are preoccupied with the weather, the fans, or the noise of the stadium, we can say that you have an external center of focus. If your focus is occupied by thoughts of whether you will be late, how you will perform, or any other internal controls, then we can say you have an internal state of focus. We can go a bit deeper to say that we can and should adjust our level of focus to also include narrow and broad focus.
Narrow (internal and external) Focus:
A narrow center of internal focus might be an athlete’s ability to mentally rehearse or prepare a positive dialogue to help them with their confidence or belief. This is both internal (inside themselves) and narrow (specifically focusing on a key aspect of their mental game). Conversely, a narrow external center of focus would be an athlete's ability to focus on a specific skill set crucial for their performance. For example, a tennis player’s narrow external focus might be focusing on the toss of the tennis ball for their serve. This is a small specific (narrow) skill that is focused externally.
Broad (internal and external) Focus:
A broad center of focus takes more information into focus and looks at it from a more global perspective. A broad external level of focus is very important to a quarterback who must scan the opposing team’s defense to find open spots, or find patterns where the defense might be exposed. This is a broad external focus. The QB might immediately move to a narrow external focus once an open receiver is found. This concept shows us the importance of shifting between varying levels of focus. Let’s stick with the football analogy in describing a broad internal center of focus. A quarterback on the sidelines may read into the energy and vibe that his teammates may be feeling, and then begin to think what to say to inspire his teammates if there is a sense they are down. The quarterback has now taken a broad internal (analyzing) perspective. Lastly to tie this all together, the quarterback may ask himself specifically, “what do I need to do to give my team the best chance to win right now.” (internal narrow focus). So you can see how athletes must move between varying levels of focus through an entire performance, and how each level of focus is important to one's success. This also illustrates how important focus is in its totality, and how the key for most successful athletes is their ability to automatically shift between the varying levels of that instantly.
One's ability to shift between various levels of focus can often be the sign of a great competitor.
Attention is an important factor in understanding what you need to train and work on to increase your performance. Attention allows us to observe all of our surroundings internally and externally. When we are paying attention we are consciously observing our environment, our mindset, and our body. Attention is awareness and when we pay close attention, we can better understand what type of focus we need. We may recognize that we have a lack of focus in general or that our focus is negative and not self-serving, or that we are too internal or too external or too narrow or too broad.
Focus applied: Set and train your focus
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Author: Ami Strutin-Belinoff | Date Published: 1/15/2020
Ami Strutin-Belinoff, M.A., LMFT and CMPC, is a certified mental performance consultant. His private practice is based in San Diego, CA and he works remotely with athletes at all levels and in all sports. Visit Ami to learn more.