Unforced errors caused by distractions are all too common. Two
important elements of attentional control, selective attention and
concentration, are discussed followed by tips for improving
attentional control during match play.
We are constantly bombarded by an endless array of internal and
external stimuli, thoughts, and emotions. Given this abundance of
available data, it is amazing that we make sense of anything! In
varying degrees of efficiency, we have developed the ability to focus
on what is important while blocking out the rest. This process of
directing our awareness to relevant stimuli while ignoring irrelevant
stimuli is termed selective attention. Some sport psychologists
believe that selective attention is the most important cognitive
characteristic of successful athletic performance.
Concentration, on the other hand, is the ability to sustain attention
on selected stimuli for an extended period of time. Although this
might appear to involve great strain and exertion, the reverse is
actually true. Effective concentration has been described as
effortless effort, being in the zone, a flow state, and a passive
process of being totally absorbed in the present and fascinated by
the object of fixation.
Concentration is a difficult skill to master because our minds tend
to shift focus when presented with novel stimuli. Known as the
orienting response, this bias toward new sights and sounds alerted
our ancestors to dangers in the wild, but often makes us the prey to
meaningless distractions on the tennis court. A split second loss of
concentration during a critical point can spell the difference
between winning and losing.
Careful planning and practice are required to gain supremacy over our
attentional faculties. Fortunately, selective attention and
concentration are skills that can be learned, refined, and perfected
just like volleys and drop shots. Since few players invest quality
time on attentional skills, there is an immediate and tangible reward
for those who do! I believe the struggle with oneself over
attentional control is even more fundamental than the clash with the
opponent, for only after preparing ourselves for battle are we ready
to take it to the enemy.
Here are 10 specific ways of improving attentional control in tennis:
1. Avoid negative thoughts and feelings, as these are needless
distractions which rob us of limited attentional resources.
Good luck and I hope to hear from you as your game continues to get
better! Until next month ...
2. Remain focused on the present, attending to what is immediately
important and blocking out past and future concerns. Following a
mistake, briefly note any changes necessary then move decisively to
the next point.
3. Recite key words or phrases to yourself prior to the point to
remind yourself to concentrate (e.g., "focus," "control," "good
4. Be task rather than outcome oriented. Thinking about the score
or how you look are common distractions. The outcome only improves
when you ignore it and attend to the nitty gritty.
5. Slightly relax in between points while avoiding external
distractions. Some players achieve this by staring at an object (e.g.
, racket strings) and visualizing the next point.
6. Keep to yourself and avoid talking to your opponent or spectators
during changeovers. This is your time to replenish, sip water, and
calmly regain your focus for the next game.
7. Add a ritual, or consistent routine, to your game (e.g., adjust
footwork, bounce ball) to help fight off needless distractions and
keep your mind from wandering.
8. Be particularly vigilant when fatigued. Players often lose their
focus when tired.
9. Attention and arousal are closely related. Avoid becoming overly
aroused while remaining focused on executing shots and implementing
your strategy. Brief breathing and/or relaxation exercises can help
10. Coaches should make practices fun by frequently allowing players
to choose which skills to practice and varying the routine. This will
increase motivation which also leads to improved attentional control.