Attention and concentration

Articles > Attention and concentration
Attention  is the ability of an athlete to keep on task. It is often also called focus or concentration. Attention involves focusing mental effort on relevant environmental cues, and maintaining that attention. In sport settings people like to use the term concentration.

The most popular model of attention in sport was developed by Robert Niedeffer (Theory of Attentional and Personal Style; 1976 a, b). Nideffer proposed two dimensions of attention:

  • Direction (external to internal)
  • Width (broad to narrow)

Thus, for an athlete the environmental cues can be both external (opponent, coach, spectators) and internal (thoughts, imagery, physical sensation). In addition, concentration includes the ability to both narrow and broaden her attention when necessary.

External and internal cues provide the athlete with needed information for an optimal performance. In any situation, a huge number of cues are available to the athlete. Some of them are highly relevant, others are irrelevant and can damage performance. For example, during a tennis match the position of an opponent is probably very important to attend to, whereas angry comments provided by the same opponent are irrelevant. If the player starts to think about the unproductive emotions of her opponent, she will have proportionally less attention available for processing of the game situation.  Concentration on irrelevant cues should result in a decrease in the quality of her performance. As arousal increases, the athlete’s attention begins to narrow. A good example of attentional narrowing is cue utilization. When the athlete is in her optimal performance zone , she is able to cpncentrate on relevant cues and ignore the irrelevant ones. Thus, at some optimal point, attentional narrowing gates out all of the irrelevant cues and allows the relevant cues toremain in focus. If arousal increases still further, attention continues to narrow and relevant cues are gated out, causing a  in decrease in performance. However, under conditions of low arousal, the attentional focus is very broad and the athlete picks up both relevant and irrelevant cues.

High levels of arousal may also lead to distractibility. In addition to gating out relevant cues, high arousal may also decrease an athlete’s ability to select one stimulus at a time. As a result, distractibility decreases the athlete’s ability to discriminate between relevant and irrelevant cues, and to focus upon relevant ones. When this happens the athlete tends to experience sudden and significant decrements in performance.

In practical terms, attentional flexibility is highly important. This has two aspects:

  • attentional flexibility allows athletes to quickly and effectively shift their attention from one location to another;
  • attentional flexibility allows athletes to shift from a very narrow attentional focus to a very broad focus.

By improving the ability to concentrate on relevant cues (‘keep your eyes in the ball’) and to ignore irrelevant ones the athlete will be able to improve her performance.

In summary, performing in a competition requires an athlete to narrowly concentrate upon the task at hand in order to realize her physical potential and technical skills. Too much arousal undermines her ability to narrowly concentrate in a quality manner, while too underarousal may introduce dercemental competition between irrelevant and relevant cues.


Nideffer, R. M. (1976a). The Inner Athlete. New York: Thomas Crowell.

Nideffer, R. M. (1976b). “Test of attentional and interpersonal style.” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 34, 394-404.