When you compete, your mind has a variety of things or cues that you need to be focusing (or attending) to. Cues include information such as how you feel, what your opponent is doing, and information about your environment. There are many, many cues available, some of which are irrelevant, and your mind must be able to distinguish between what is and is not important. You do this subconsciously, but consciously recognizing them can be important. Cues might include:
Some sports have a stable environment and do not change (e.g. an indoor tennis court where weather and temperature are stable), which allow you can concentrate mostly on cues that are about you and your opponent. Others have an unstable environment that changes such as in golf where the weather and course might change rapidly. Recognizing relevant cues allow you to determine what you need to do for optimal performance. For example, if you recognize cues indicating that you are tiring quickly you can alter your strategy to slow down your game. Conversely, if you notice cues that suggest your opponent is getting tired you can change your strategy to exploit it.
Your performance is highly dependent on being able to focus on relevant cues and ignore irrelevant cues. Irrelevant cues are those that you focus on when you should not. For example, you might be thinking about the crowd watching, or what you plan on doing after the match, or if you remembered to pack everything. If this is the case, your attentional focus is too wide and your attention has been drawn away from what you should be attending to. Because the brain can focus on only a limited amount of information, your chances of missing a relevant cue are higher and you may make a mistake.
Alternatively, you may not be focusing on enough relevant cues and your attention has become too narrow or focused. This means that you might not be noticing cues that could help you. For example, if your attention is too narrow, you might miss that significant flaw in your opponent’s game. If you do not notice it, you cannot exploit it.
The trick is ensuring that your attention is on what it needs to be. If you catch yourself thinking about irrelevant things during a match then your attention is too wide and you need to narrow your focus. Conversely, if you seem to be missing things going on in the game and feel a little out of the loop, you may be too focused on a few cues and not attending to all the important cues.
Recognizing the role attention plays in sports, and being able to control its range to suit your needs, is essential for competing with the optimal attention span. How to control the range is a separate challenge, and I will present some strategies to help in a later edition.
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