Athletes do not lose physical ability overnight. The reason for a change in performance is more likely to be related to fluctuations in cognitive processes, one of which being attention.
Generally the terms attention and concentration can get mixed up, however attention is the umbrella term for concentration, selectivity of perception and/or the ability to co-ordinate two or more actions at the same time. (Kremer et. al 2012)
Whether it be in the last ten minutes of play, the closing holes of a major tournament or the last mile of a marathon, an athlete needs to focus their attention on the correct things.
Focusing on the wrong stimulus can lead to lapses in concentration. An athlete’s focus of attention can vary from internal to external which, according to Wulf (2007) can have an impact on learning and performance of new skills. He found that having an external focus of attention was more effective in this area compared to an internal focus of attention. An athlete with an external focus of attention will direct their attention to the effects their movements have on the environment. An athlete with an internal focus of attention will direct their attention inwards on their own movements.
However external and internal factors can also lead to lapses in concentration and poor performance. For instance distraction theories suggests that perceived pressure (from outside forces such as parents, coaches or spectators) can cause an increase in anxiety crowding the working memory resources leading to inability to play at a high level.
Conversely self-focus theories propose that anxiety leads to an increase in athlete’s levels of self consciousness causing them to focus their attention inwards causing them to over think their own actions.
A beneficial way to combat concentration lapse is to create a stressful situation in training or practice which might normally lead to a sharp decline in performance. Having people watch you practice a specific aspect of your sport for example can help increase confidence to the point where an athlete is not phased anymore having spectators watch them.
Michael Phelps’ swimming coach admittedly broke his goggles during practice to enable the Oylmpic gold medallist to practice swimming without them should it ever happen during competition. Ironically it did during the last 100m of the butterfly in the 2008 Oylmpics and Phelps went on to win the race. (Whitworth, 2008).
Having a pre performance routine (PPR) is also a huge benefit when intense situations arise in competition. Having an individual task relevant set routine of thoughts and actions to stick to no matter what the circumstances can help an athlete to relax and prepare for whatever task they are performing.
Cotterill et.al (2010) studied amateur golfers use of PPRs and found they used it to help in attentional processes such as “switching on and off” and staying in the present.
Therefore attention would appear to be an extremely important aspect of mental preparation for competition. Using the strategies above may help you to perform that little bit better and stay in the present