Mental Training Part 2: Concentration

author : gsmacleod
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The role of concentration and focus in athletic training and competition.

“Concentration is not trying to push out thoughts, it is not analysis, and it is not contemplation. It is not thinking about the past or the future. Concentration isn’t straining or trying hard to pay attention; it isn’t gritting your teeth and tensing your muscles and using your willpower.” S.Kellner & D.Cross, Volleyball Cybernetics

The first article on mental training dealt with techniques that you could use to improve physical performance using your imagination to rehearse the skill. Beyond improving in sport performance, this type of training is important because it helps to improve your ability to concentrate and focus. Prior to the Super Bowl, football coaches always speak of maintaining focus going into the big game. This is because a mental lapse is more likely to result in points going on the board than superior athletic abilities. Does this mean that if you can focus and concentrate that you can play in the NFL? Of course not, but when comparing people of similar athletic abilities, the edge is going to go to the athlete with superior focus. If this is so crucial to football players who are concentrating for ten to fifteen seconds at a time, imagine the difference this could make to a triathlete, who is concentrating for up to seventeen hours at a time!

Global, broad and narrow focus

Before any meaningful discussion about focus can occur, we first need to consider the three types of focus that a person needs to be able to utilize. The first would be a global focus where you are not focused on any specific person or thing; rather you are in an alert mode, ready to focus on anything as required. This type of focus should rarely, if ever, be used during training or competition. The second type is a broad focus, which is significantly more intense than the previous type and involves outside stimuli that you must be aware of in order successfully complete a task. One of the best examples of this would be driving a car; while the other cars and traffic laws are not under your control you need to be aware of what is going on and react accordingly. Finally, there is the narrow focus, where you focus on only one particular item or action. This focus is so intense that individual will often miss stimuli external to their focus. A classic example is someone who is so focused on a particular television show that they do not respond the first couple of times someone calls their name.

Often we hear athletes speaking of being in the zone but rarely do we take time to think about what this actually means. Watch most professional athletes and you will see the physical cues they go through in order to enter the zone. Everything from the baseball player tapping their cleats to a golfer walking on the tee box from the same side every time to the hockey player who has to be the last one off the ice - these athletes are using their physical cues to get focused on the task at hand. For most of these athletes, the cues have been reinforced, in practice and in competition, over their entire career. One of the largest benefits of these cues is that they help an athlete switch from a broad to a narrow focus.

Your focus as a triathlete

As a triathlete, your physical cues are going to be very different from those that appear in other sports. Where most athletes need to worry about switching to a narrow focus for a very short period of time, the triathlete is more concerned with maintaining a narrow focus over a long period of time. As such, your cues will be used to bring your focus back when you start to lose your concentration. These cues will be developed and used in your training and they need to be something that you can do while completing the sport. For example, a cue that could be used on the bike could be checking to see that your helmet is still fastened and pushing up your glasses. Every time that you lose focus during your workout, check the helmet strap and glasses while changing your focus. If you do this consistently during your training, you will find that this will help you regain your composure and concentration. Another cue that you could use would be to check your physical performance after you notice that you have started to lose focus. For example, you could check your cadence while running to ensure that you are maintaining 90rpm. If you know that you are someone who is easily distracted from a narrow focus, you could set the timer on your watch to signal at a given interval and check your cadence at that point. Focusing on this specific physical indicator will help you regain your lost focus. Ultimately, it does not matter what cues you use to bring your focus back from the broad to the narrow, just that you are able to do it.

Although being able to maintain a narrow focus is very important, so is the ability to switch quickly between narrow and broad focus. For example, while on the cycle leg an athlete would have to be aware of the distance behind other riders, traffic, road conditions, traffic signs, cadence, speed, exertion level and fueling to name a few. As a rider moves up on another they first need to be aware of overtaking the other rider (broad), gauge whether or not they will be able to pass (narrow), check traffic (broad), increase cadence/shift gears (narrow), ensure they pass in the allotted time (broad) and decrease cadence/shift gears (narrow). Since all of these things must happen within a very short period of time, the athlete’s ability to switch between broad and narrow focus will improve how well they are able to pass another rider.

Practice switching focus

The good news is that a great deal of these skills are practiced everyday in training: while swimming you need to be aware of the other swimmers in your lane, on the bike and run you are constantly aware of vehicles, stop signs, traffic lights and changes in road conditions. Trying to get meaningful training in while facing these distractions will help hone your ability to switch between narrow and broad focus. However, there are drills you can do in order to help improve these skills even further. The first is to read while sitting in front of the television (this works best if you are not especially interested in the reading material but you are interested in the show) and read for as long as you can without becoming distracted. After reading a given amount, maybe a page, switch your focus to the television show for a minute and then go back to reading. Once you become proficient at this, you can up the stakes by reading smaller amounts (paragraphs or even sentences), watch T.V. for a few seconds and then try to go back to reading at the exact spot you left off. Another exercise that I have found to work well with my athletes is to have them watch a sporting event (the sport is not really important but it should be something relatively fast – basketball, hockey, volleyball, etc) and have them vary focus between narrow (the athlete controlling the play) and broad (what all the athletes are doing). Although I have mainly used this to help athletes read and react to what other players are doing on the floor, it has also helped them with their ability to focus. The best thing about these drills is that they will not take you away from your family, increase your chance of injury or be cancelled due to weather conditions.

The ability to concentrate at the task at hand can help athletes move their performances to the next level. With very little effort, narrow and broad focus can easily be incorporated into your existing training, allowing you to move even closer to your next PB!


Kellner, S. & Cross, D. Volleyball Cybernetics. Ann Arbor, Michigan: Edwards Brothers, Inc, 1999
Doucette, T – NCCP Level 4 Coach (Softball)


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date: February 28, 2005