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Attentional Processes in Sport and Performance

Summary and Keywords

We are constantly bombarded by information. Therefore, during every waking moment of our lives, we face decisions about which stimuli to prioritize and which ones to ignore. To complicate matters, the information that clamors for our attention includes not only events that occur in the world around us but also experiences that originate in the subjective domain of our own thoughts and feelings. The end result is that our minds can consciously attend to only a fraction of the rich kaleidoscope of information and experiences available to us from our senses, thoughts, memories, and imagination. Attentional processes such as “concentration,” or the ability to focus on the task at hand while ignoring distractions, are crucial for success in sport and other domains of skilled performance. To illustrate, Venus Williams, one of the greatest tennis players of all time, proclaimed that “for the players it is complete and pure focus. You don’t see anything or hear anything except the ball and what’s going on in your head.” For psychological scientists, concentration resembles a mental spotlight (like the head-mounted torch that miners and divers wear in dark environments) that illuminates targets located either in the external world around us or in the internal world of our subjective experiences. A major advantage of this spotlight metaphor is that it shows us that concentration is never “lost”—although it can be diverted to targets (whether in the external world or inside our heads) that are irrelevant to the task at hand. Research on attentional processes in sport and performance has been conducted in cognitive psychology (the study of how the mind works), cognitive sport psychology (the study of mental processes in athletes), and cognitive neuroscience (the study of how brain systems give rise to mental processes). From this research, advances have been made both in measuring attentional processes and in understanding their significance in sport and performance settings. For example, pupillometry, or the study of changes in pupil diameter as a function of cognitive processing, has been used as an objective index of attentional effort among skilled performers such as musicians and equestrian athletes. Next, research suggests that a heightened state of concentration (i.e., total absorption in the task at hand) is crucial to the genesis of “flow” states (i.e., rare and elusive moments when everything seems to come together for the performer) and optimal performance in athletes. More recently, studies have shown that brief mindfulness intervention programs, where people are trained to attend non-judgmentally to their own thoughts, feelings, and sensations, offer promise in the quest to enhance attentional skills in elite athletes. By contrast, anxiety has been shown to divert skilled performers’ attention to task-irrelevant information—sometimes triggering “choking” behavior or the sudden and significant deterioration of skilled performance. Finally, concentration strategies such as “trigger words” (i.e., the use of short, vivid, and positively phrased verbal reminders such as “this ball now”) are known to improve athletes’ ability to focus on a specific target or to execute skilled actions successfully.

Keywords: attention, concentration, sport psychology, performance psychology, cognitive neuroscience, flow, mindfulness, choking under pressure, self-talk

Introduction

We are constantly bombarded by more information than we can assimilate consciously. Therefore, during every waking moment of our lives, we face decisions about which stimuli to prioritize and which ones to ignore. Compounding this selection dilemma is the fact that the information clamoring for our attention includes not only events that happen in the world around us but also experiences that originate in the subjective domain of our own thoughts and feelings. Is it any wonder, therefore, that we can process only a fraction of the rich kaleidoscope of information and experiences available to us from our senses, our thoughts, our memories, and our imagination? Historically, psychologists use the term “attention” to refer to a brain-based cognitive system that facilitates the selection of some stimuli for further processing while inhibiting that of other stimuli. More precisely, paying attention is the process of “focusing on specific features, objects or locations or on certain thoughts or activities” (Goldstein, 2011, p. 391).

For over a century, the construct of attention has been invoked by psychological scientists to account for a range of cognitive phenomena such as selectivity of information processing, intensity of focus, and the allocation of limited mental resources to regulate concurrent task performance. In psychology, the attentional process of “concentration” (or the ability to focus effectively on the task at hand while ignoring distractions; Moran, 1996) has been acknowledged as a crucial prerequisite of success in sport and other domains of skilled performance. For example, Venus Williams, one of the greatest female tennis players of all time, highlighted the importance of concentration when she proclaimed that “for the players it is complete and pure focus. You don’t see anything or hear anything except the ball and what’s going on in your head” (cited in Watterson, 2017, p. 5). Similar testimonials to the value of concentration are evident in other domains of skilled performance such as acting in theater and conducting in music. To illustrate, Stanislavski (1937/1988), the seminal theatrical coach, emphasized the importance of concentration for performers on stage. Specifically, he urged actors to inhabit “a small circle of attention. During a performance, before an audience of thousands, you can always enclose yourself in this circle like a snail in its shell” (p. 82). Similarly, a key challenge for a conductor is how to harness the concentration of an orchestra. Thus, Marin Alsop, the eminent conductor and violinist, remarked of her musicians: “everybody’s got something on, whether it’s at home, the babysitter was late, or on stage, the temperature’s not right. Somehow I have to get them to refocus to the marquee goal, which is the composer’s intention” (cited in The Irish Times, 2013, p. 9).

Remarkably, Stanislavski’s “circle” idea anticipated Posner’s (1980) “spotlight” metaphor of attention. According to this influential metaphor, selective attention resembles a mental light beam (like the head-mounted torch that miners, divers, and pot-holers wear in dark environments) that illuminates targets located either in the external world around us or in the internal world of our subjective experiences. A major advantage of the spotlight metaphor is that it shows us that concentration is never really “lost” but merely diverted to some target that is irrelevant to the task at hand. Unfortunately, despite its intuitive appeal, the spotlight metaphor of attention is plagued by several problems (Moran & Toner, 2017). For example, it has not adequately explained the mechanisms by which executive control of one’s attentional focus is achieved. Put simply, who or what is directing the spotlight at its target? This question is difficult to answer without postulating a controlling homunculus—a miniature person in one’s head, apparently coordinating cognitive operations. Second, the spotlight metaphor neglects the issue of what lies outside the beam of our concentration. Thus, it ignores the possibility that unconscious factors can affect people’s attentional processes. A third weakness of the spotlight metaphor is that it neglects emotional influences on attention. In this regard, research shows that anxiety can turn one’s mental spotlight inward and precipitate “choking under pressure” (a phenomenon in which normally expert performance deteriorates suddenly and significantly in certain situations; see Hill, Hanton, Matthews, & Fleming, 2010).

Due to their theoretical and practical importance, attentional processes have attracted considerable interest from researchers in three main fields—cognitive psychology (the study of how the mind works), cognitive sport psychology (the study of mental processes in athletes), and cognitive neuroscience (the study of how brain systems give rise to mental processes). So, what new insights have emerged from attentional research in these fields? The present article will review some recent advances in the understanding and improvement of attentional processes in athletes and other skilled performers. To achieve this objective, it is organized in six sections as follows. The first section will explore some insights into attention that have emerged from recent research in cognitive neuroscience. The second part will review some of the latest studies on attention, “flow” experiences (where people perform to the best of their ability as a result of being totally focused on the task at hand) and “clutch” performances (explained later). The next section will examine briefly some studies on the effects of mindfulness training on attentional processes. After that, key research on the relationship between attention and choking under pressure will be evaluated. In the fifth section, current advances in theoretical understanding of the link between attention and self-talk (i.e., the covert dialogue that people engage in when they “talk” to themselves inside their head) will be explored. Finally, some new directions for research on attention and concentration in skilled performance will be sketched.

Insights Into Attention From Recent Research in Cognitive Neuroscience

For contemporary cognitive neuroscience, the brain is a dynamic network with multiple levels of organization. In exploring the specific brain processes involved in attention, three neuroscientific methods have proved to be especially valuable—electroencephalography (EEG; a technique that measures cortical activity by recording electrical signals generated by the brain using non-invasive electrodes placed at different points on the scalp in an elastic cap); neuroimaging (e.g., functional magnetic resonance imaging, fMRI; a technique that detects and maps the neural activity of the brain by measuring changes in cerebral blood flow); and pupillometry (or the objective measurement of continuous, task-evoked changes in the diameter of the pupil of the eye as a function of cognitive processing; Mathôt & Stigchel, 2015). Let us now consider some advances in our understanding of attention that have emerged from research using the three preceding neuroscientific methods.

Firstly, although EEG yields a continuous recording of brain activity, resultant data are typically divided into different frequency bands measured in Hertz. These EEG bands—or neural signatures—are widely associated with different behavioral states. For example, alpha wave activity (8–12 Hz) is associated with attention-related brain circuits (e.g., Capotosto, Babiloni, Romani, & Corbetta, 2009). As the latest EEG systems allow data to be collected while participants move as well as stand, they are particularly suitable for the investigation of the cortical activity associated with sport skills performed in real-life settings. Interestingly, previous research (e.g., by Hatfield & Hillman, 2001) shows that the EEG patterns of expert archers and pistol shooters often display a distinctive shift from left-hemisphere to right-hemisphere activation just before they execute their shots. This shift may reflect an increase in attentional efficiency by the shooters that is characterized by the suppression of task-irrelevant processing and the enhancement of task-relevant processing (Gallicchio, Cooke, & Ring, 2017). Arising from such research and speculation, certain practical questions arise. For example, if athletes are given systematic feedback on their EEG recordings, can they be trained to emit the cortical activity that is associated with expert performance in a given sport? If so, does such EEG biofeedback (also called “neurofeedback training,” NFT; Mirifar, Beckmann, & Ehrlenspiel, 2017) actually enhance skilled performance? In attempting to answer such questions, Mirifar et al. (2017) conducted a systematic review of 14 empirical studies (published between 1991 and 2015) that had investigated the efficacy of NFT interventions in sport. Unfortunately, these studies varied considerably in methodological rigor. For example, inconsistency was evident across the studies in the nature of the EEG “protocol” (i.e., training frequency or bandwidth) used. Specifically, whereas some studies trained alpha frequency EEG activity, others trained sensory motor rhythm (SMR) activity (12–15 Hz). Also, the studies differed in the length of the NFT intervention used (namely, from 1 to 20 sessions). Similarly, the outcomes targeted by these studies were heterogeneous—ranging from performance proficiency to affective (e.g., changes in anxiety levels) and cognitive (e.g., changes in attention) variables. Overall, Mirifar et al. (2017) concluded that although NFT generally improves athletic performance, available “evidence for specific protocols’ effectiveness . . . is rather weak” (p. 429). This is so because, for example, the same EEG training protocol can have different effects on a specific sports task—and the converse is also true. Clearly, despite its promising potential, neurofeedback training requires a comprehensive validation program before it can be recommended uncritically to athletes and coaches.

Next, turning to fMRI research, one of the most intriguing developments in recent years is the study of the functional networks of the resting brain that, paradoxically, turns out to be “far from quiescent” (Poldrack & Farah, 2015, p. 374). To explain, resting-state functional magnetic resonance imaging (rs-fMRI) is a new technique for the measurement of brain activity within regional and neural circuitry after a specific skill has been performed. The key proposition here is that if people wish to improve performance on a skill that they have just completed, they may covertly rehearse it during a post-task rest period—a process that may re-engage the brain networks that they have just used. Testing this hypothesis in the domain of sport, Muraskin et al. (2016) investigated differences in post-task, brain resting state dynamics between expert and novice baseball players. One of their findings was that the brains of expert players displayed greater activation than those of novices in the supplementary motor area (SMA), which may reflect differences in the recruitment of attentional resources. Such modulation of attention may serve as a mechanism for the consolidation of skill learning in the post-task, resting brains of expert athletes.

To conclude this section, let us consider some recent attentional research in performance settings using pupillometry. According to Kahneman (1973), pupil dilation (which can be measured using eye-tracking technology) provides an objective index of attentional effort (also called “mental effort” or “cognitive effort”)—a construct that involves processing intensity and the mobilization of attentional resources to satisfy cognitively challenging demands (Sarter, Gehring, & Kozak, 2006). Technically, the term “attentional effort” captures the intensive, as distinct from the selective, dimension of cognitive resource allocation. In order to understand attentional effort in everyday terms, note that multiplying 36 by 49 in your head requires more mental exertion than does the task of multiplying 6 by 9. And such exertion has cortical consequences. Specifically, recent research (e.g., by Murphy, O’Connell, O’Sullivan, Robertson, & Balsters, 2014) shows that pupil size predicts brain activity in the locus coeruleus-norepinephrine (LC-NE) system—the one that regulates the allocation of mental resources to task engagement.

As pupil dilation measures mental effort objectively, it should be possible to use this method to investigate individual differences in attentional allocation among skilled performers. In this regard, O’Shea and Moran (2016) measured pianists’ pupil dilation over time in order to explore possible differences in the mental effort that they exerted when executing and imagining piano performance. As expected, results showed that pupil dilation during executed and imagined performance of a musical composition was very similar—suggesting that imagined action activates similar neural circuitry to that used for motor execution (see also similarly supportive EEG evidence from Galdo-Alvarez, Bonilla, González-Villar, & Carrillo-de-la-Peña, 2016). In another pupillometry study, Moran et al. (2016) investigated expert-novice differences in visual attentional processes among equestrian performers. Of particular interest in this study was the “quiet eye” phenomenon (QE; Vickers, 1996, 2007) or the time that elapses between a skilled performer’s last fixation on a specific target and the subsequent initiation of a relevant motor response. To explain briefly, Vickers (1996) reported that prior to free-throw shooting, expert basketball players displayed significantly longer durations of final fixation on targets than did “near-expert” counterparts. This pattern of visual behavior was named the “quiet eye” period and designates the time that elapses between the performer’s last fixation on a specific target and his/her subsequent initiation of a relevant motor response. Unfortunately, despite extensive research on QE, the precise attentional mechanisms underlying its effects remain unclear. One reason for this neglect is that researchers have struggled to find a way to measure attention continuously during the narrow temporal window that defines the QE period. Addressing this challenge using pupillometry, Moran et al. (2016) eye-tracked 15 equestrian performers (5 expert, 5 intermediate, and 5 novice riders) while making a critical decision in a laboratory setting as they viewed a computer simulated show-jumping sequence. Although somewhat mixed, results showed that pupil dilation increased steeply during QE and that there was a significant positive correlation between duration of QE and the exertion of attentional effort. Substantial individual differences in attentional effort were also apparent among the riders. In summary, pupillometry shows promise as an objective neuroscientific method for the measurement of attentional effort in skilled performers.

Attention, Flow Experiences, and Clutch Performances

One of the most compelling sources of evidence that demonstrates the value of concentration in sport comes from studies of “flow” states or “peak performance” experiences of athletes (e.g., see review by Swann, 2016). These rare and elusive experiences seem to involve the confluence of physical, technical, tactical, and psychological components of sporting excellence—and culminate in performance suddenly “clicking” into place. Perhaps not surprisingly, flow experiences in skilled performers such as athletes and musicians have attracted considerable research interest from psychologists (e.g., Sinnamon, Moran, & O’Connell, 2012; Swann, Keegan, Crust, & Piggott, 2016). A consistent finding across this body of research is that participants experience a heightened state of concentration during flow.

Many studies of peak performance suggest that athletes tend to perform optimally when they are totally absorbed in the task at hand. This state of mind is epitomized by the experience of Jordan Spieth, a former world number 1 golfer and winner of the U.S. Masters and U.S. Open championships in 2015. Briefly, Spieth observed that while he was in the zone “every putt was finding the middle of the hole . . . everything seems simpler. You don’t really see anything else around you. All you see is that line, you see your high point, you see where it’s going to roll over en route to going in” (cited in Rand, 2015). Athletes experiencing flow typically report that they are deeply immersed in an activity and that they perceive a powerful sense of control over what they are doing (Csikszentmihalyi, 1990; Swann, 2016). As a result, performers have few negative or distracting thoughts and are fully confident in their ability to meet task demands.

For several decades, sport psychologists have explored the nature and characteristics of flow states in athletes (e.g., Schuler & Brunner, 2009). On the basis of early research in this field, flow in sport was typically understood as nine dimensions: challenge-skill balance, clear goals, unambiguous feedback, concentration on the task at hand, sense of control, action-awareness merging, loss of self-consciousness, time transformation, and autotelic experience (see Martin & Jackson, 2008). However, recent research has found that these dimensions may not apply across all sports and that they may vary depending on the nature/demands of sporting activities. For example, in Bernier et al.’s (2009) study, elite swimmers reported a heightened sense of bodily awareness during flow while Jackman, Fitzpatrick, Lane, and Swann (2017) reported that national hunt jockeys experienced altered physical perceptions during this state. Dimensions of flow may need to be developed to include the bodily/kinesthetic perceptions reported in these latter studies.

Recently, Swann, Crust, Keegan, Piggott, and Hemmings (2015) interviewed 10 elite golfers to explore how the dimensions/factors of flow specifically influence its occurrence. Concentration emerged as one the key constructs underlying flow in this setting. One golfer revealed that during flow his “mind’s full with just the task in hand at that particular moment” (p. 64) while one elite-level golfer in Swann, Piggott, Crust, Keegan, and Hemmings’s (2015) study reported that he was in such control of his performance that he believed he could “almost tell you what is going to happen to it [the ball]” (p. 66). In a subsequent study, Swann et al. (2016) found that professional golfers reported two psychological states during excellent performance. These researchers uncovered a flow-like state that they termed “letting it happen” and a state that did not correspond to flow or peak performance that they termed “making it happen.” Both states shared a number of characteristics, but “making it happen” was described as a more intense state of optimal arousal with participants experiencing a sense of heightened and effortful concentration. Interestingly, performance proficiency was enhanced when athletes made a deliberate decision to increase the attentional resources that they devoted to task execution. For example, one golfer revealed: “I made myself focus even more on that last hole . . . I was trying a little bit harder to be intense” (Swann et al., 2016, p. 108).

Interestingly, the process of “making it happen” bears similarity to the phenomenon of “clutch” performance in sport. A clutch performance occurs when a participant in a competitive sport succeeds at a point in competition where success or failure has a significant impact on the outcome of the contest (Hibbs, 2010). Tiger Woods, for example, seemed impervious to pressure when he won six major golf championships between 2000 and 2002. In fact, he became renowned for his ability to hole important putts at crucial moments during the final round of these championships. Sport history is replete with anecdotal examples of athletes and teams coming through when the pressure is on, but researchers have only recently started to explore the psychological states underlying this phenomenon. In one of the first empirical studies to do so, Otten (2009) used structural equation modeling to predict performance on a free-throw task and found that perceived control was the best predictor of performance under pressure.

To gain a deeper understanding of the state of mind experienced by athletes while excelling under pressure, Swann et al. (2017) interviewed 26 participants from a range of sports about a recent excellent performance (e.g., where they had placed highly in competitive events). Athletes reported experiencing two states of clutch and flow that occurred in specific contexts and through separate processes. More specifically, flow occurred as a gradual build-up of confidence, while clutch performance arose when the athlete deliberately employed certain strategies in response to the appraisal of performance demands. While flow and clutch states were found to share a number of the same characteristics (e.g., confidence, perceptions of control), clutch states were distinguished by a number of unique characteristics such as an increase in maximal effort (rather than feelings of effortlessness) and the use of conscious processing (rather than being fully automatic). This would suggest that clutch is a distinct state underlying excellent performance in sport and that there are certain strategies that performers may employ in seeking to induce it. Importantly, this study has helped researchers understand the processes through which these desirable states occur by identifying a number of the goals that were pursued by athletes during flow or clutch experiences. That is, “open” goals (e.g., goals that are exploratory yet still challenging; “See how well I can do”) were reported during flow, whereas “fixed” goals that include specific and challenging objectives, were reported during clutch states. These latter goals helped athletes to increase their effort, intensity, and concentration thereby allowing them to maintain performance proficiency in a clutch situation.

Given the large volume of empirical evidence that has shown how conscious processing (i.e., monitoring or controlling one’s action; see next section) disrupts performance proficiency, how might we explain the finding that increasing the conscious resources one devotes to a task is an important mediator of clutch performance? The answer may lie in recent work that has argued that skilled action is characterized by the use of both reflective bodily awareness (i.e., where the body is objectified and compared to some idealized norm) and pre-reflective bodily awareness (Toner & Moran, 2014; Toner, Montero, & Moran, 2016). In the latter state, although an athlete may not deliberately focus on their bodily movement, they retain a proprioceptive or kinesthetic awareness of their movement efficiency. Consequently, the mind is always available for “on-line” engagement (i.e., by diverting conscious attention to action) and will be required to do so in order to meet the contextually contingent demands that characterize performance conditions at the skilled level of sport (e.g., changes in weather conditions, new venues, facing opponents with an unorthodox style) or because our movements/action are prone to disruption due to factors such as injury and aging.

Clearly, performance remains open to strategic control and the performer may choose to alternate between reflective and pre-reflective modes of conscious bodily awareness/processing in order to maintain/improve performance proficiency. Clutch performances or the process of “making it happen” may require performers to switch from a pre-reflective level of bodily awareness (which characterizes flow) to a more reflective mode of awareness that will allow them to monitor and control semi-automated routines or increase higher-order action control. Further research is required to explore how athletes acquire such attentional flexibility. One potentially fruitful line of inquiry would be to examine how performers use metacognitive processes (an individual’s insight into and control over their own mental processes; see MacIntyre, Igou, Campbell, Moran, & Matthews, 2014) in seeking to alternate between automatic and controlled processing. Indeed, MacIntyre et al. (2014) argued that metacognitive control may be required when performers face difficult or unfamiliar situations, when automatic processes fail to solve the challenge, or when accessible information is considered inappropriate for the task at hand. The capacity to flexibly allocate one’s attentional resources may distinguish those who excel from those who flounder under conditions of perceived pressure.

Mindfulness Training and Attentional Processes

Since the early 2000s, both scholarly and popular interest in mindfulness have increased exponentially. This impressive trajectory is attributable, in part, to mounting evidence that suggests that mindfulness training (MT) can enhance a host of cognitive, affective, and performance-related outcomes (e.g., Brown, Creswell, & Ryan, 2015; Noetel, Ciarrochi, Van Zanden, & Lonsdale, 2017). But what exactly is mindfulness and can it improve attentional processes? Although “mindfulness” is a rather loose umbrella term with a plethora of different meanings (Van Dam et al., 2018), it refers most precisely to “a process of openly attending, with awareness, to one’s present moment experience” (Creswell, 2017, p. 493). Rooted in the Buddhist meditative tradition, mindfulness is alleged to cultivate “an openhearted, moment-to-moment, nonjudgmental awareness” (Kabat-Zinn, 2005, p. 24) of oneself and of the world. Accordingly, a key objective of MT interventions is to increase participants’ attention to, and awareness of, experiences in the present moment. These internal experiences include bodily sensations, mental images, self-talk, and emotional reactions. In addition, participants in MT are encouraged to adopt an attitude of openness to, curiosity about, and acceptance of, such experiences. For example, sport performers who engage in MT are helped to accept “internal processes as a typical part of the athletic experience, and focus on the present moment regardless of those internal processes” (Noetel, Ciarrochi, Van Zanden, & Lonsdale, 2017, p. 2). Overall, MT encourages people to observe and to attend to their thoughts, feelings, and sensations as they change from moment to moment. This process is held to boost alertness to what is happening in the here and now.

Formal MT programs purport to enhance several different types of attentional processes such as the ability to re-orient one’s focus back to an intended target (e.g., one’s breathing) and/or to maintain that focus effectively over time. But are such claims about the benefits of MT for attention warranted by available empirical data? In a recent comprehensive review, Creswell (2017) concluded that there is convincing evidence that “mindfulness interventions can improve attention-related outcomes (e.g., sustained attention, working memory)” (p. 502) for healthy young adult samples. However, he and other scholars (e.g., Van Dam et al., 2018) have urged caution in evaluating the efficacy of MT programs because of a host of methodological problems (e.g., small sample sizes, lack of control groups, unreliable outcome measures) that afflict studies in this field. Nevertheless, evidence is accumulating to indicate that mindfulness can improve attentional regulation in skilled performance (e.g., see Kaufman, Glass, & Pineau, 2018; Noetel et al., 2017) and enhance the likelihood of flow experiences. To illustrate the former claim, Haase et al. (2015) reported that a 7-week (2 full-day sessions; and 6 weekly, 90-minute sessions) MT intervention helped elite athletes to increase their sensitivity to bodily signals—which may lower trait anxiety and improve their mental resilience. To illustrate the latter claim, five studies included in the systematic review by Noetel et al. (2017) reported a significant positive effect of mindfulness on flow. For example, Aherne, Moran, and Lonsdale (2011) investigated the effects of a six-week MT program on elite athletes’ flow experiences in training situations. Results showed that athletes who underwent this program reported experiencing greater flow than did those in a control group who had received no mindfulness instruction. Taken together, these studies suggest that brief MT interventions offer promise in the quest to enhance attentional skills in elite performers. Nevertheless, for the methodological reasons mentioned in the section on insights into attention from cognitive neuroscience, caution is required about uncritical acceptance of the benefits of MT.

Attention and Choking Under Pressure

Although peak performances are characterized by an athlete excelling under demanding conditions, a large volume of anecdotal and empirical evidence suggests that the opposite often occurs—when athletes “choke” under pressure. And this problem afflicts even the world’s best sports performers. For example, golfer Rory McIlroy, a four-time Major winner, squandered a four-shot lead in the final round of the 2011 U.S. Masters championship in Augusta and ended up shooting an 8 over par score of 80 to finish 10 shots behind the winner, Charl Schwartzel. Perhaps not surprisingly, choking has attracted both popular interest (e.g., Beilock, 2010) and scientific scrutiny (e.g., Hill & Hemmings, 2015). Mesagno and Hill (2013) defined choking as “an acute and considerable decrease in skill execution and performance when self-expected standards are normally achievable, which is the result of increased anxiety under perceived pressure” (p. 271). Researchers have generally relied upon two types of attentional theory to explain the mechanisms underlying the choking effect (i.e., self-focus and distraction theories). Let us consider each of these theories in turn.

Self-focus models propose that anxiety increases athletes’ level of self-consciousness and causes them to turn their attention inward. This shift to self-focused attention prompts a form of “paralysis-by-analysis” whereby athletes attempt to gain control over previously automated skills. Here, proceduralized control structures that normally operate without interruptions are broken down (or de-chunked) into a sequence of smaller, independent movements, in a manner representative of performance during novice learning. Two self-focus theories of choking are particularly prominent in the literature—the conscious processing hypothesis (CPH; Masters, 1992) and the “explicit monitoring” hypothesis (EMH; Beilock & Carr, 2001). The EMH postulates that athletic performance is disrupted when performers monitor their step-by-step execution of the skill whereas the CPH hypothesizes that disruption is caused by athletes consciously controlling (e.g., altering or changing) their technique during skill execution.

By contrast, distraction theories such as Attentional Control Theory (ACT; Derakshan & Eysenck, 2009) postulate that performance anxiety hinders efficient attention by disrupting the balance between the top-down attentional system (i.e., one influenced by a person’s current goals and expectations) and the bottom-up attentional system (i.e., a stimulus-driven system that is driven by salient environmental events). This disruption enhances the influence of “stimulus driven, bottom-up processes over the efficient top-down goal-driven processes” (Derakshan & Eysenck, 2009, p. 170). Another prediction is that anxiety is likely to disrupt performance not only by impairing attentional inhibition (the process by which, under normal circumstances, people can suppress task-irrelevant cognitive processing and ignore salient yet irrelevant features of a situation) but also by hampering attentional shifting (the process by which people can normally switch their attention in response to changing task requirements). Recently, Eysenck and Wilson (2016) developed an extension of ACT—namely, the Attentional Control Theory: Sport (ACTS). The ACTS focuses more than ACT on the factors that jointly determine an individual’s anxiety level in competition. One of the main predictions made by the ACTS is that pressure will prove deleterious to performance if it promotes anxiety via attentional and interpretative biases for threat-related information. Athletes who lack these biases should outperform those who possess them because they are less likely to believe that losing in high-pressured environments will have high costs.

There is emerging evidence from a number of qualitative studies (e.g., Gucciardi, Longbottom, Jackson, & Dimmock, 2010; Hill et al., 2010; Oudejans, Kuijpers, Kooijman, & Bakker, 2011) that shows that athletes possess these biases for threat-related information. In these studies, skilled performers who reported having “choked” under pressure revealed that they focused their thoughts on the consequences of failure (e.g., embarrassment) and how they will be evaluated by coaches or spectators. To illustrate, a number of performers who experienced choking reported that, in the midst of skill execution, they were thinking about the post-event negative evaluation they might receive. For one golfer in Hill et al.’s (2010) study, this negative emotional focus meant that he was not thinking about his shot or his swing, but instead was “just thinking about what they [the spectators] are thinking. What are they going to say if I hit a bad shot . . . so I rush the shot, in order to get away from them” (p. 226). Interestingly, these avoidance behaviors have been found in a number of choking studies (see Jordet & Hartman, 2008). Indeed, in this latter example, the performer appeared to reduce task effort having perceived that he did not have the necessary resources to meet situational demands. Similarly, in Gucciardi et al.’s study, one golfer noted, “if I three putt this hole, what is everyone else going to think about me?” (p. 69) while one female golfer mentioned that “negative evaluations from my coach seem to stick out in my mind when things don’t feel right out on the course” (p. 69). Other athletes reported executing tasks while focusing on the possibility of failure. Here, one golfer revealed that he “very much wanted to avoid the shame and humiliation that comes with missing an easy putt” (p. 69). For each performer, choking episodes resulted in a significant drop in performance proficiency as well as a further loss of confidence and trust in their ability. In each of these cases, anxiety would appear to have diverted the performer’s attention from task-relevant to task-irrelevant information resulting in a “choke.”

Choking is a pervasive problem in sport but researchers have yet to reach a consensus about the theoretical mechanisms that cause it. The findings from qualitative research and a recent experimental study (see Englert & Oudejans, 2014) suggest that distraction is the primary mechanism, but performers are also likely to choke when anxiety increases their self-consciousness of certain technical elements of their action (especially if they have little experience attending to these aspects of technique). Irrespective of whether distraction or self-focus is responsible for performance degradation, athletes should be taught how to maintain a task-relevant focus during competition. In the next section we discuss one cognitive strategy that might prove helpful in this regard.

Attention and Self-Talk

Self-talk is one of the most popular methods used by athletes to enhance their concentration during training and performance. This cognitive strategy involves the use of either covert or overt verbalizations addressed to the self that serve either instructional or motivational functions (see reviews by Van Raalte, Vincent, & Brewer, 2016; Theodorakis, Hatzigeorgiadis, & Zourbanos, 2012). To illustrate, self-talk may involve the use of “trigger words” or short, vivid, and positively phrased verbal reminders designed to help performers to focus on a specific target or to execute a given action. For example, the multiple major golf championship winner Sam Snead used the word “oily” to promote a fluid and languid swing.

It is extremely common for sport performers to talk to themselves either silently or out loud when they compete—usually in an effort to motivate themselves. This covert self-talk may involve praise (e.g., “Well done! That’s brilliant”), criticism (“You idiot—that’s a stupid mistake”) and/or instruction (“Swing smoothly”). In a novel meta-analytic review of the effectiveness of self-talk interventions, Hatzigeorgiadis, Zourbanos, Galanis, and Theodorakis (2011) found that instructional self-talk was more effective for the performance of fine motor tasks than was motivational self-talk. Extrapolating from this finding, it seems plausible that technically demanding tasks that require the precise execution of specific movement patterns (such as a downhill left-to-right putt in golf) could benefit more from instructional self-talk (e.g., make a smooth stroke) than from motivational self-talk (e.g., “give everything”). The latter form of self-talk may be more effective for the performance of tasks requiring strength or endurance or when one wants to mentally prepare (“psych-up”) for a competition. Recently, Abdoli, Hardy, Riyahi, and Farsi (2018) tested the latter hypothesis by examining the effects of instructional and motivational self-talk on skilled basketball players’ free-throw shooting accuracy and movement kinematics. Instructional self-talk (e.g., “ring front, elbow, wrist”) resulted in superior shooting accuracy and reduced movement coordination variability when compared to motivational self-talk.

Although there seems to be little doubt that self-talk can prove beneficial to both learning and performance, the precise mechanisms underpinning its efficacy remain poorly understood (Theodorakis et al., 2012). There is some evidence to suggest that it may boost an athlete’s confidence under pressure. For example, Swann et al. (2016) reported one golfer as using self-talk to “make it happen”: “I'd be like “okay let's just hit this fairway, one shot at a time, let's stay in the present, you can do this, just take it easy, calm it down, breathe, don't worry about it, it's just a golf shot, go execute it. You can do it.” The use of self-talk in this manner can encourage athletes to adopt challenge appraisals (i.e., when one perceives that they possess sufficient resources to meet the demands of a situation) and an upside of this may be an increase in concentration. Another potential explanation stems from Toner and Moran (2014) who suggested that self-talk may act as an “instructional nudge”—thereby allowing athletes to tone and reshape their grooved routines during on-line competitive skill execution. Sutton et al. (2011) proposed that these nudges allow “verbal components of multi-modal embodied routines to distribute intelligence, coordinating or often re-setting and re-chunking patterns of movement” (p. 93). It is also possible that self-talk might help performers to guard against the potentially deleterious consequences of performance pressure by preventing the mind from wandering to unwelcome places (e.g., “What if I do not make the ‘cut’ in this golf tournament? If I don’t, I might lose my playing rights on tour”). Galanis, Hatzigeorgiadis, Comoutos, Charachousi, and Sanchez (2018) sought to test the latter possibility by exploring the degree to which self-talk strategies could protect athletes’ performance proficiency under distracting conditions. These researchers used an intervention program to familiarize participants with the use of motivational and instructional self-talk strategies before they participated in a basketball free-throw task while subject to an auditory distraction. Participants trained using this protocol performed better than a control group. The authors speculated that this was because they developed plans for the task that included both instructional and motivational self-talk. Based on this speculation, it seems plausible that future self-talk interventions will need to account for a number of factors including individual needs, cognitive processing preferences, and the type of performance setting.

New Directions for Research on Attentional Processes

From the preceding review, it is clear that the study of attentional processes (e.g., concentration) in skilled performers is a popular and fertile research topic in contemporary cognitive psychology, sport and performance psychology, and neuroscience. However, although considerable progress has been made across these disciplines in the measurement and theoretical understanding of attentional processes, at least four new directions for future research may be identified as follows. To begin with, further research is required on the “meta-attentional” processes of athletes (Moran & Toner, 2017) or their intuitive theories about how their own concentration systems work. Such research is important because concentration skills training in applied sport and performance psychology is an exercise in meta-attentional instruction whereby skilled performers are helped to understand, and gain some control over, their apparently capricious attentional system. Unfortunately, due to a dearth of research in this area, we know very little about the nature, accuracy, and/or malleability of performers’ theories about how their own mental processes operate. Secondly, although anecdotal evidence suggests that skilled performers can flexibly adjust their attentional focus during training and competition, we know very little about the cognitive mechanisms that allow them to do so. Clearly, a systematic program of research is required on the nature and substrates of attentional flexibility in expert performers. Thirdly, as discussed in the third part of the present article, research is needed to investigate the degree to which mindfulness training can improve athletes’ attentional skills. Before investigating this topic, however, researchers are advised to consider the methodological issues identified by Creswell (2017), Noetel et al. (2017), and Van Dam et al. (2018). Finally, additional studies are needed to establish the precise mechanisms by which emotions such as anxiety affect athletes’ concentration processes. One way to address this question is to explore the visual search behavior of anxious athletes as they tackle laboratory simulations of sport-relevant tasks. In this regard, the use of pupillometry as a measure of attentional effort offers an exciting new avenue for research.

Further Reading

Moran, A. (2014a). Attention theory. In R. C. Eklund & G. Tenenbaum (Eds.), Encyclopedia of sport and exercise psychology (Vol. 1, pp. 39–43). London, UK: SAGE.Find this resource:

    Moran, A. (2014b). Attention training. In R. C. Eklund & G. Tenenbaum (Eds.), Encyclopedia of sport and exercise psychology (Vol. 1, pp. 43–46). London, UK: SAGE.Find this resource:

      Moran, A. (2014c). Concentration skills. In R. C. Eklund & G. Tenenbaum (Eds.), Encyclopedia of sport and exercise psychology (Vol. 1, pp. 161–163). London, UK: SAGE.Find this resource:

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