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How to Improve Selective Attention in Sports

By Rogue Parrish
A tennis player focusing on the ball.

In the controlled chaos of most sports, you have to sift out which elements demand full your attention and which need to blocked out. While selective attention or “focus” may seem to be a cliche spouted by athletes and coaches in postgame interviews, the ability to screen out irrelevant stimuli in fact may be among the most important to high-level performance in sports. Your mind is programmed to focus to novel stimuli, part of the orienting response needed by our ancestors in the wild. But for sports contests, a different approach better serves you.

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Stay in the present, clinical and sports psychologist John F. Murray advises. Briefly note mistakes and move on, and curb a tendency to worry about possible mistakes to come. Relax for a moment between points, as tennis stars such as Roger Federer do, and regroup, especially for match points.

Recite relevant mantras to your sport, such as “watch the ball’s seams,” “attack,” “hit the hole” and “look the ball in” to increase your selective attention.

Pay selective attention to relevant cues so you can anticipate your opponent’s move. In racket sports, look for the opponent’s shoulder and trunk movements and racket position, recommends University of Idaho sports psychology professor Damon Burton in “Sport Psychology for Coaches.” In hockey, focus more on the shooter’s stick than the puck itself. In baseball or softball, watch the batter’s feet. In basketball and football, watch the passer’s eyes, and in soccer, watch the midsection of the dribbler.

Calibrate your visual field to your specific sport, broadly looking at the field or court in sports such as basketball, soccer and football and narrowly directing your attention in sports such as skiing, where simply focusing on turns and hand position helps most.

Block out distractions including cheering, trash talk, waving signs in the crowd and yelled commentary. Ask your coach to set up simulations of distractions at practice so you can become used to them. American football teams, for example, run the offense with a tape of crowd noise or the opponent’s fight song blaring, Burton notes.

Orient yourself to the task rather than the outcome. Ignore the score, especially if it is not in your favor and focus instead on your play.

Set up a routine as you perform the tasks of your sport. Adjust your ball cap, tap your spikes, smack the wall of the squash court before serving, look at the goalposts and visualize scoring, or similar.

Redouble your efforts at focus when you are fatigued, even if this requires looking at your opponent for signs of fatigue that you can exploit.

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About the Author

An award-winning writer and editor, Rogue Parrish has worked at the Washington Post, the Baltimore Sun and at newspapers from England to Alaska. This world adventurer and travel book author, who graduates summa cum laude in journalism from the University of Maryland, specializes in travel and food -- as well as sports and fitness. She's also a property manager and writes on DIY projects.

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