Attentional Focus

What is attention?

Attention is your ability to concentrate on a specific task, action or thought, which is necessary for elite performance. Optimal focus is when there is no difference between thinking and doing. Your mind is only focused on the relevant present.

It can be difficult for people to avoid distractions during their performance. Distractions may be external (your environment) or internal (your mind and body). See a list of examples below.

Changes in noise level
Playing surfaces/conditions
Presence of crowd/audience
Negative thoughts
Pain & fatigue

What is the theory behind attention?

There are two prominent theories of attention in scientific research. Both of which explain how a lack of attentional focus can lead to a substandard performance.

Attentional Control Theory (ACT)

ACT explains that a performance could be suboptimal if attention is allocated to anything that threatens you achieving your goal. Attending to threat-related stimuli, internal (negative thoughts and feelings) or external (noise) obstructs your brain from efficiently processing information necessary for goal achievement.

This obstruction causes an imbalance of two distinguished attentional systems: the goal-directed system and the stimulus-driven system, where the former is a process motivated by achieving goals and the latter is a process influenced by irrelevant stimuli.

For example, in a corporate setting, if you are giving an important presentation but your attention is focused on the distracting office noise (threat related stimuli) instead of your task, you may not present your pitch as well as you intended.

In a sporting context, if you are taking a penalty and place attention on the goalkeeper (threat related stimuli) you are may not execute your shot as well as if you focused on your goal.

Explicit Monitoring Hypothesis (EMH)

EMH is a scientific theory which suggests that poor performances are a result of self focusing and monitoring of your own skill execution. This is called reinvestment. Reinvesting your attention and thoughts into your skill. Conscious monitoring of your movement disturbs natural skill execution that would usually be performed automatically. This results in slower, more effortful movements and performance.

For example, a swimmer trying to reach their new personal best time could be nervous and pay more attention to their technique and mechanics of arm movement. This results in over preparation and processing extra information, irrelevant for goal attainment.

References, Resources and Reading

Baumeister, R. F. (1984). Choking under pressure: self-consciousness and paradoxical effects of incentives on skilful performance. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology46, 610-620.

Eysenck, M.W., & Calvo, M.G. (1992). Anxiety and performance: The Processing Efficiency Theory. Cognition and Emotion,409–434

Eysenck, M. W., Derakshan, N., Santos, R., & Calvo, M. G. (2007). Anxiety and cognitive performance: attentional control theory. Emotion7(2), 336.

Jordet, G. (2009). When superstars flop: Public status and choking under pressure in international soccer penalty shootouts. Journal of Applied Sport Psychology21(2), 125-130.

Masters, R.S.W. (1992). Knowledge, knerves and know-how: The role of explicit versus implicit knowledge in the breakdown of a complex motor skill under pressure. The British Journal of Psychology, 83, 343–358.