Mental Equipment Syndicated Column – Nov 1, 1995 – Dr. John F. Murray – 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.

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 contact,”).

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 lower arousal.

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.

Good luck and I hope to hear from you as your game continues to get better!