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UK Coaching Research Team
138
Coaching Skills

How to Develop and use Attention to Improve Performance

Four applied attention-related strategies, with examples, you can use to develop your participants understanding of how improving their focus will enhance key aspects of their performance

Each strategy presented below includes an example that aims to show you how these methods can be applied within your coaching.

In the original journal article the researchers used examples of traditional American sports (i.e. baseball and American football). For this summary post, the examples have been rewritten using sports more familiar to UK coaches.

The researchers explain attentional focus as the idea of players only focusing their attention on the sources of information that are critical to the skill they are carrying out.

Previous research found players focus too much attention on negative thoughts, distractions and irrelevant information.

Learning to ignore these and focus attention on only the most important information will help players achieve higher levels of performance.

Research suggests, in any sport, it is important for players to consider both internal and external sources of information. Internal sources can include specific movements and tactics to be carried out, while external sources can include objects such as a ball or the opposing team’s tactics.

Coaches can help players focus their attention on the most important sources of information at specific times, thus helping them to perform as effectively as possible.

Example: a goalkeeper practising penalties

Firstly, the coach simplifies the task by helping the goalkeeper decide the most important internal and external information to focus on during the penalty kick. As the ball is placed on the spot, the coach may instruct the goalkeeper to focus their attention on their position on the goal line (internal information) and the run-up of the penalty taker (external information).

The coach will then help the goalkeeper focus their attention on the information that is most important during the next phase of play – as the penalty kick is taken. This could include the direction of their dive (internal information) or the ball as it is kicked (external information).

When observing the task, the coach may identify errors in the goalkeeper’s performance and choose to focus more attention on these in subsequent practice.

For example, if the goalkeeper paid too much attention to the opponent’s run-up and this resulted in an incorrect position on the goal line, the coach could instruct the player to focus more attention on this element of their game.

Referred to as ‘arousal’ by the researchers, this refers to how players’ sporting performance can be affected as a result of how stimulated they are.

Players become stimulated by their perception of the situation they are playing in. However, as individuals, all players will be affected differently by these situations, so it is vital for coaches to understand the level that produces their players’ most effective performance.

In a game situation, players are stimulated psychologically (becoming excited or nervous) and physiologically (developing a slow or fast heart rate). 

Research suggests anxious players may be unaware of important information they should be paying attention to, while excitement can lead players to narrow their focus and miss important information.

Example: a wheelchair basketball team practising defensive plays

Coaches can determine the level of stimulation that produces their players’ best performance by reproducing some of the situations they will come across during a game. This can include helping players effectively deal with loud and distracting noises.

A crowd, teammates and opponents are all sources of loud and potentially distracting noises. Players can find it difficult to pay attention to what is important if they are unnerved or distracted. Coaches therefore need to ensure their players do not become overwhelmed by noisy situations, but instead learn to embrace them.

To do this, a wheelchair basketball coach can play the sound of a noisy crowd through speakers when the team is practising defensive plays. The coach can then monitor the players’ chair and ball control and their ability to communicate and carry out the plays in the noisy situation.

If some players appear more focused, the coach may decide these are the players to run the plays in a game situation.

If other players are distracted and confused, the coach can find ways to simplify the plays by changing communication signals or breaking the play down into smaller segments to help these players handle their increasing stimulation.

The researchers describe self-talk as words, phrases or cues that players understand as instructions or actions.

Research has found it can have a positive impact on both elite players and beginners, helping them to focus their attention before, during and after carrying out a specific skill.

The researchers give the example of ‘push, point, hit’ as a verbal self-talk cue that helps tennis players’ practise their serve. By reciting the words during the serve, players know what they need to do and when.

  • ‘Push’ instructs the player to release the ball into the air
  • ‘Point’ encourages them to point at the ball and fully extend their arm
  • ‘Hit’ is said at the point of contact to ensure the player keeps their eye on the ball at the crucial moment.

Example: designing self-talk cues in golf

Coaches can help their players by designing cues that relate specifically to a skill or technique. The first step is to identify the different components that the player will perform.

The coach could identify four components of a golf swing:

  • Addressing the ball
  • Ensuring a full backswing
  • Maintaining the correct position through impact, and
  • Following through efficiently

The coach could then simplify the technique by giving each component a single cue word – ‘address’, ‘backswing’, ‘impact’ and ‘follow-through’.

The coach would explain to the player what each cue word involves and where to focus their attention.
For example:

  • ‘Address’ could include teeing the ball and positioning the feet and body correctly before starting the backswing.
  • ‘Backswing’ could include the takeaway, moving the hips and body, keeping the head still and bringing the club head down towards the ball on the correct plane.

The researchers define range-of-motion restriction (RMR) as players limiting the attention they give to specific parts of a skill in order to devote more attention to other parts.

By practising the different parts individually, RMR allows players to perfect them before integrating them all into the entire skill.

Example: range-of-motion restriction in the pool

Swimming coaches can provide swimmers with a kickboard to enable them to focus their attention on their kick while their upper body is supported and floating in the water. Similarly, a coach can give swimmers pull buoys to allow them to focus on the upper-body portion of their stroke while still floating in the water.

RMR can also be useful for diving coaches. By using a harness with their diver, a coach can eliminate the need for the diver to finish and enter the water, thereby enabling them to focus their attention on the other parts of the dive routine.

In addition, the coach can use the harness to help the diver perfect their finish and entry into the water, removing the need for the diver to practise the rest of the routine leading up to this point.

Learning from the research

Key learning points:

  • Attention can have positive and negative impacts on sporting performance.
  • Coaches can use attention-related strategies to help their players focus their attention more wisely, on the most important information at the most important times.
  • These attention-related strategies can help players perfect their skills and techniques while preparing them to perform in a game situation.
  • Coaches in any sport can analyse these techniques and apply the principles to their coaching.

Although sport-specific examples have been used to bring each of the four attention-related strategies to life, coaches in all sports can consider using them to help their players achieve optimum performance.

Some of the questions you should ask yourself when thinking about which strategy to use include:

  • Which of the four strategies could apply to my sport and my coaching?
  • What skills are my players trying to develop, and in what areas could they improve if they focused more attention on them?
  • How can the skills we are trying to develop be broken down?
  • What is the most important information for my players to focus on when performing specific skills?
  • How can I work with my players to develop new training drills and terminology for the chosen strategy?

By helping players focus their attention on the most important things, at the most important times, you can enhance both your players’ enjoyment and sporting performance.

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UK Coaching Research Team