Concentration can be understood as the ability to focus attention on relevant cues and to disregard irrelevant cues. Certainly, this is not an easy task prior to competition as the athlete is typically bombarded with potentially distracting stimuli, both internally and externally. Many skills are involved in effective concentration, but the primary skills involve knowing the following:
Where to Focus
It is not enough for a coach to simply tell the athlete to concentrate; the athlete may have no idea what to do. Athletes need to understand where they should focus their attention. A review of workouts and meet performances can help identify beneficial concentration. It is helpful for athletes to think in terms of what their eyes and ears are doing. All athletes need to manage what they are seeing (internally and externally) and what they are hearing (internally and externally). Remind the athletes to focus on the “controllables” of performance (technique, stroke rate) as opposed to the “uncontrollables” (competitors’ performance, loud fans).
How to Attain the Appropriate Focus
Once athletes are aware of where they should focus, they can use cue words, images and focal points to bring about the desired focus. Cue words and images can be technique reminders, positive affirmations, motivating slogans and so forth. What matters most is that the cue or image is meaningful to the athlete (For example, putting on a cap is the cue to rehearse the upcoming performance; the image of a leopard connotes an aggressive, fast start).
How to Shift Focus
Athletes should be aware of when it is appropriate and beneficial to shift focus. They should develop cue words, images, and focal points to help them make the shift. For example, coming out of a turn, the athlete may need to assess the field then return to a focus on stroke and pace. Incorporating these focusing cues into pre-race routines is extremely beneficial. Athletes should rehearse how they will focus during various segments of the race.
How to Refocus When Distracted
The first step in learning to refocus is being aware of a faulty or inappropriate focus. Next, just as when trying to focus appropriately, the athlete can use triggers, cues and focal points to re-attain the desired focus. Distractions will occur so it is crucial to regard these as part of competition; swimmers need to let it go, and get back to the desired focus.
In preparation for competition it is helpful for the athlete to develop a pre-race routine to attain the appropriate focus. Part of this preparation should be to develop and rehearse race focus points. With practice, the athlete should be able to manage his or her concentration (control eyes and ears) and attain a focus appropriate for the demands of the situation.