BY DR. VIRGINIA SAVAGE FOR FLORIDA TODAY
Pay Attention! How many times have we heard those words? We think harder, stare longer, and even make ourselves more nervous by trying hard to concentrate. The problem is, the older you get, the more there is to pay attention to: schoolwork; household chores; a job; schedules; cell phones; and soccer practice. Having so much to pay attention to is like plugging too many lights into one outlet. Even if a fuse isn’t blown, the lights are blinking and not very bright.
Concentrating on what is important is easy with no distractions and a high level of confidence. But, attention at its best is focusing under pressure, when we can still focus on what is most important. The good news is that attention/concentration is a skill that can be developed, practiced, and sustained.
Anyone, even you, can learn to focus on a single point and quickly adapt and refocus when information is changing in situations of great pressure. It is possible to control thoughts and even eliminate thought entirely when action, movement and coordination should be the primary focus.
Unlike other sports, like archery (little movement) or swimming (repetitive movement), soccer is a sport involving constant change, multiple distractions, and a highly stimulated internal environment (active body & active mind). Anxiety affects attention like a horse wearing eye guards, the focus narrows and only limited information is available. Anxiety also paralyzes clear thinking and distractions become gigantic in our minds. Paying attention no longer seems possible for the intended purpose of playing the game well, it has become entirely focused on avoiding failure.
So, now that we are facing the challenge of concentration, what can be done to learn and practice this skill that is an art form to those elite athletes who make playing soccer (or any other sport) look effortless? Here are just a few suggestions.
Give yourself short (then progressively longer) periods of time in which you sit quietly and practice being “awake” and aware. Focus on your breathing, one single sound or word, or even on not thinking. It’s not as easy as it sounds but it is definitely worth the effort, you are finally training those mental muscles.
Strive to be in “the Zone”, where your skills match the challenge & are sometimes even enhanced by it. Boredom and anxiety are both mind killers so stay tuned by embracing the challenges before you.
Practice shifting attention from one object or external stimulus to another (ie, from watching TV to a sound in the room to your pen writing on paper, etc., then back to the beginning). Apply that same practice on the soccer field. Know where everyone is on the field and then shift your focus to only the ball, then back to the team, etc.
Practice pre-game focusing rituals (listen to music, tie your shoes, relaxed breathing, etc.)By focusing inward first you will be able to shift attention to the tasks ahead.
Practicing attention is a lot like a blooming flower, the more it is fed and watered, the bigger the blossom. Start practicing today and you will soon be noticing, and paying attention to, the power of your mind.