Principles for strengthening and maintaining player concentration during a game

Date Posted: November 2, 2016       Categories: Blog

Game management is not an easy task, but a position that requires coaches to be focused on many factors at once, and to react to them in real time while unpredictable events unfold. An awareness of the basic principles that relate to the mental-psychological elements that a competitive game involves will help the coach to reduce the amount of energy required to manage the game, and will significantly help players stay focused on the game and its goals.

These principles, which I will describe below, relate to the manner in which coaches communicate with players during the game, and to the way in which they can maintain a particular pattern of real-time instruction that allows them to keep players focused, and as a result also improve game management. These include the dictation of the preferred style of playing, timing replacements, and mostly delivering game instructions to players so that they win the match.

To understand how these principles took shape, I will begin by generally describing what concentration is and how it behaves. Concentration is our ability to pay attention to a certain task (on the field, listening to something, learning, and so on) while filtering internal and external factors that do not relate to performing that task. The better an athlete’s concentration, the more they will filter out “interferences” that do not relate to their mission. For example, a football player about to shoot a penalty kick will display higher concentration and be able to filter out external sounds such as the crowd, and also internal noises, such as thoughts running through their head. One feature of concentration relates to the way it operates. The brain cannot focus on two things at one time. The illusion of divided attention (the ability to concentrate on several things at once) is, in fact, a rapid movement between two or more stimuli, when in every fraction of a second the brain focuses on one thing, and one thing only. Subjectively, a person might believe they can concentrate on several things at once, but a close examination shows that they are only moving quickly from one thing to the next, and back.

Another feature of concentration relates to its duration: high concentration consumes much energy from the brain’s resources. The brain always seeks to save on energy and therefore takes a short break whenever it is possible, even for a millisecond, to recharge and rest. While you are reading this article, your brain takes a microsecond break every time you move from the end of a line to the beginning of a new one.

Thus, the game-management principles that I detail here will need to meet the need to keep the player focused on tasks that relate to the match, as every diversion of attention to other things will become a disruption, as we cannot concentrate on several things at once. Also, very short mental rests during the game are essential for the player to allow them to recharge the mental resources which will help them perform the next concentration-intensive task.

Principles for strengthening and maintaining concentration in real-time:

1. Pre-match briefing – at this stage, the ability of the player to take in instruction is limited. Therefore the coach must focus on one or two principal directions and no more, as to what they expect the player to do. This way the player can remember the instructions, focus on them and perform them. A large number of directions such as: “I expect you to do this and that and this and that” cause confusion; the player will spend too much time thinking about them, and the resulting performance will look like more than they can chew. When the coach gives the player one direction they focus the player’s thinking to that task; a large number of instructions given at once cause the player’s mind to flutter between various thoughts, which impedes on their concentration.

Conclusion – before they go on the court, give each player one or two directions and no more. For example: “I want you to focus on defending the other team’s number 5.”

2. Style of instruction that I do not recommend during games – the form of instruction during a match has to be practical, to drive the player’s concentration and focus back. A player who during the match heard from the coach something like: “that is not how you pass” will spend the next minutes thinking about how to pass correctly, which would help in practice but only disrupts during a game. The player will divert their attention to how to pass, and not to events on the court. In fact, the coach now suffers a loss of half a player for a few minutes. Another type of instruction that damages the player’s level of concentration is the “why” group of queries, for example: “why aren’t you going on defense,” “why don’t you do what I tell you,” “why are you doing this or that.” “Why” questions cause the player to instantly divert their attention to a flood of internal thinking like: “the coach is not happy with me,” “what does the coach want from me,” and more and more. Ultimately, unanswerable questions, in most cases (why is it like that? Because it is). “Why” type directions are not practical, they do not help to drive the player back into focus and do not contribute to the coach’s goals.

Conclusion – directions given by the coach during the game have to be practical and relevant to the actions expected from the player, and not derisive or defiant in any way. During a match, criticism creates a flood of thoughts that do not contribute to concentration, and as long as they are not performing well, this can only damage their performance even further.

3. Style of instruction that strengthens and maintains concentration – this type of instruction is defined as task-oriented guidance. Its goal is to direct the player’s attention to performing the task at hand. Its style is practical, and its beauty is in being short, simple, devoid of criticism, and in helping the player to focus their attention on what is expected of them, helping them to ignore any internal or external distractions. As a coach, I want to tell my player what I do want them to do in a focused and succinct manner. For example, “I want you to move on the line”, “pass inside the yard”, “go to defense”, “pay attention as you move right”, “focus when you throw”, “pressure the opponent”, and “stay calm” (as opposed to “don’t stress out”). When a player receives task-oriented instruction like that, their attention immediately shifts from wherever it had been to the task at hand.

Conclusion – the competitive arena is full of internal and external stimuli that often divert the player’s attention. A practical task-oriented instruction, which is about what I do expect from them, will focus the player and help them concentrate.

4. Dosage – the number of instructions given during the game is also important. An excess of instructions may cause an information overload. Game instructions should be given moderately in a way that does not burden the player. Here, the coach’s acquaintance with the players has a significant role. Some players need a greater number of instructions, and others less. Also, an excess of guidelines does not allow the player to take mental breaks that are necessary to recharge.

In summary, the communication style of the coach during a game influences the quality of concentration of players for good or worse. By following the principles that encourage concentration, you will help the players to achieve their best. Also, because this style of instruction is short and focused, it does not steal time spent on explanations, does not waste the coach’s energy, and helps them to stay alert and focused on what’s happening on the court.

By Itzik Zur, Ph.D.