Put a football in front of you and see how long you can stay focused on it before your mind wanders off. How long did you last – 5 seconds? 15 seconds? 1 minute? Now imagine this was in a game and you had to stay focused on the ball or on the striker who you are supposed to be marking. What would happen if your mind wanders off like this? The ability to concentrate (paying attention to what we need to be doing) is extremely important when playing football.
Fortunately, it is a skill that can be learnt.
Focusing your attention on football
What do you think about when playing football? Are you thinking about the attacker who you are marking, or thinking about the penalty you missed earlier, or on the crowd, or the result, or perhaps you’re even thinking about what you’re going to do this weekend with your mates? Our brain is constantly active and focuses our attention on lots of different things all the time, even if it is not relevant to what we need to be doing at the time. A key skill to learn as a footballer is the ability to concentrate and stay focused on task-relevant information.
Maintaining the right focus for 90 minutes is a challenge. We need to be able to shift our attention to many things at different times throughout the match. Managing our attention is like moving a torch around in the dark, shining it on one important thing then moving it to another important thing. We can also broaden and narrow our focus, such as making the torch light expand to cover a large area (focusing on the whole pitch in front of you) or shining a narrow beam of light on a specific thing (focusing on the ball before you take a free-kick). These shifts of attention usually happen automatically, but we can also take action and choose to re-direct our attention to something that is relevant to the task at hand – i.e. playing football – if we have become distracted.
Why do we become distracted?
It is common for our attention to move on to something that is not relevant to what we need to be doing due to the amount of information (internal and external) that our brains are having to deal with at any one time, as well as being heavily influenced by our emotions and physical sensations. For example, we may have to concentrate on defending, but if we are angry we are likely to keep focusing on the thing that is making us angry instead (e.g. the foul you got booked for). Or if we’re tired we might become more internally focused on our body and notice how tired we feel. Both these automatic actions may lead us to missing important things in our environment such as where their winger has run to. We need to know how to take action and refocus our attention rather than just letting our brain be ruled by our physical feelings, because we will feel all kinds of things during a game (elated, anxious, worried, confident, sad, angry) and because we will definitely get tired at some point!
What can I do to improve my concentration?
It is vital to begin to recognise when your mind has wandered off task. To practice this, ask yourself regularly: “what am I thinking about?” If it is not relevant to the task then, just notice that, accept it, and then practice getting the focus back on the object/task of interest (by using all or part of the re-focus strategy described below). Your mind will likely wander off task many times, but each time you can simply bring it back. This takes practice. It may be good to start by doing this when you are not too tired or ‘emotional’. Once you have seen an improvement, then you can start to practice it at times during training and matches when you will be more physically tired, which will challenge your ability to concentrate.
How can I re-focus?
No matter how high your concentration levels are it is likely that at some point in a match your mind will wander off. So, a top tip to help you get back on track and refocus is to do the following:
- Pause and take a deep breath.
- Notice one thing you see around you, one thing you hear and one thing you can physically feel
- Have a brief saying that you tell yourself to get re-focused (“focus on the here and now”) and ask yourself what you need to be doing then (e.g. defending a corner, or keeping track of where the centre forward has moved to)
- Have an action that you physically do to get yourself re-focused (e.g. it could be adjust your shinpads, clap your hands or tuck your shirt in)
This technique can be practiced daily to help you improve your ability to re-focus when you really need it in a game. Practicing regularly will also help you learn what phrase and action works best for you.
Practicing attention control skills will be crucial to your development as a footballer. Just like other behaviours that are important to your football development (e.g. practicing your passing with both feet), your ability to perform mentally won’t be at the highest level straight away. However, with effort and commitment, you will soon see the benefits of your practice both on and off the field. Go ahead and enjoy the learning experience!