Concentration, defined by the Oxford dictionary, is the action or power of focusing all one’s attention. Sports physiologists, athletes and coaches accept that concentration is paramount to sporting success, without it, peak performance is not achievable. This is true with regards to everyday life of course, as I write this article I’m in a constant battle with my concentration, my mind wanders causing my thought to slow. We hear constantly that young people’s attention spans are becoming shorter with social media often being blamed, however, concentration is complex, applying to all walks of life and in different ways.
My inspiration for this article comes from a cricket match I played last Sunday in which I opened the batting and batted for the entire innings, which consisted of 40 overs. I don’t know the exact amount of time I was out there, but it would have been close to the two hour mark. I’m incredibly proud of this feat simply because I maintained my concentration throughout my innings. It wasn’t the greatest batting performance, I scored slowly, particularly early on, and the ground was quite small making it easy to hit boundaries however, I had never batted for such a long period of time. I finished on 63 not out, not my best score but I rate it highly. My form coming into the game is what makes it so sweet, I hadn’t held a bat for three weeks and early on I found it impossible to time the ball. I was opening the batting in a team of only eight players against a decent side and as my highest score in the three games I’d played previous was a mere 11, I felt I needed to prove myself. It’s for these reasons that I forced myself to knuckle down and concentrate.
Cricket requires short bursts of intense concentration. When the bowler starts to run in, the batsmen’s sole focus should be on the ball. I, like many other cricketers including the great Australian captain and batsmen Ricky Ponting, tell myself to watch the ball when the bowler is running in. This may sound obvious but it does make you concentrate intensely on the ball, where it pitches, how fast it’s travelling and any lateral movement it may make, but perhaps more importantly it serves the purpose of taking all other thoughts out of your head, allowing you to concentrate on the ball. It’s this which is vital for me. I don’t want to be thinking that I’m going to hit the ball over the bowlers head when the ball is not there to do that, or worse, thinking that I’ll get out this ball, a thought that often creeps into my head. Dwelling on previous mistakes and negative thoughts like this are what physiologists call internal distractions. In sport, athletes are often in a battle with themselves, particularly when they’re low on confidence. External distractions such as weather conditions, a rowdy crowd or opposition mind games also create disruptive thoughts. Athletes blocking preemptive thoughts to allow themselves to rely on their instincts to deliver skills is vital. This mental toughness is often what can separate the greats in professional sport or in my case, make the most of my little potential.
Darts players must deal with rowdy crowds while maintaining concentration
Often in sport there’s much to be aware of, movements of players, game situation, tactics and so on. Back to the batsmen focusing on the ball, as well as concentrating on the ball, he must take note of where the fielders are, or more pertinently, where the gaps are. Sport psychologists note two different types of concentration occurring in these circumstances. Concentration on the ball would be classed as narrow, triggering instinctive reactions. Focus on the wider game situation is referred to as broad. In cricket, this would involve the batsmen’s focus on the fielders. Employing both these types of concentration is a skill in itself, and requires extensive practice. The video below gives you an idea of what it’s like facing professional bowling.
Different sports demand differing levels of concentration on the broad compared to the narrow. A winger preparing to cross in a football match must concentrate on his control of the ball, while also concentrating on the position of the strikers in the penalty area, therefore a high awareness of the broad is required. In darts however, the broad would include a players score and their opponents score, however, because this is called by the referee, little mental capacity is required, allowing there to be a stronger focus on the narrow which would be the target they’re aiming for. Faster paced sports, particularly when played by an individual, can induce a tunnel vision effect in which the player gets into ‘the zone’. Tennis, squash and table tennis are examples of games played at such speed that there is no room for other thought, as soon as you play your shot you’re looking for immediate clues and triggers to where the ball will be played by your opponent, trusting your reactions. There’s no time to switch off. The same goes for sports which require intense concentration throughout, such as skiing, racing and bobsleigh.
Performance routines are used by athletes in order to aid concentration. They are idiosyncratic sequences in preparation for the next action. This perhaps is most notable in cricket. Jonathan Trott is a prime example, before facing his first ball he would re-strap his pads, adjust his gloves, check his leg stump guard again and again and then face up. In this case, superstition plays a part but nonetheless, the routine helps to focus the mind on the task. Pre-performance and post-performance routines are also common. A golfer practicing his shot, a batsmen rehearsing a straight drive or snooker play drawing his cue back a certain number of times are actions that, although possessing an element of practice, mainly aid concentration by creating a focused mindset.
Mental fatigue becomes a factor after intense concentration which is what I experienced after my innings when it was my team’s turn to field. I’m sure you’ve had the same feeling, uttering the words, “my head’s gone”. It’s different from tiredness, you’re not yawning but staring blankly into space, unable to take in any further information. This happened to me towards the end of the game. I had bowled seven overs and then placed in the firing line of a batsmen playing well. First I dropped a catch. It was struck hard and fast to my right but I managed to get two hands to it but couldn’t hold on. I was gutted, but I thought it was just a momentary lapse. A few overs later however, I knew I was mentally exhausted. I thought the ball was hit straight at me so I didn’t move, but as I got down into the long barrier position I noticed I had horribly misjudged the direction of the ball and it raced my past my right leg . It was embarrassing, especially when I had to chase it all the way and pick it up from beyond the boundary rope. But what it confirmed was that I had given everything, I had reached by limit, my brain couldn’t process information quickly anymore.
That match and my experiences in it epitomise why I love playing and watching sport. The demands placed on athletes are not just physical, but mental. One of my sporting heroes, Alastair Cook, is a great exponent of concentration. He knows he’s not the most flamboyant batsmen, not the most skilled, nor naturally talented, but what he does know is how to maintain his concentration. This has made him become England’s highest test match run scorer, the youngest player ever to reach 9000 test runs and a player who’s scored more test runs in the last 10 years than anyone else. His success is down to his sheer determination and concentration.
As I come to the end of writing this article my concentration is fading. I think of what message this blog post is portraying. Concentration is important yes, but until I completed my innings on Sunday I never thought that I could be proud of myself for just concentrating for a long period of time. I think understanding how your mind works is important. With the increase in athletes throughout sport using sports psychologists, more emphasis is being put on mental processes in sport than ever before. One thing I have learnt is that concentration requires effort. Now if you don’t mind I’m going to have a sit down and a brew and if you have managed to read this far then you yourself should be proud, after all, social media is making our concentration spans shorter.
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