“I have been slightly concerned that when a game was going a bit one way or the other way, it went the other way. Of course that’s down to concentration.” (Arsene Wenger)
“When you play at the back any loss of concentration– even for a few seconds – can be a problem … any mistake can be punished.” (Mikel Silvestre)
There is an episode of The Simpsons where a guest character played by Steven Colbert stresses the importance of the NDC’s of Concentration, which are Never Don’t Concentrate. As stupid as the message is, the sentiment is important. The more we can keep our concentration, the better we will be in the game. As soon as we lose focus and start thinking about something else, we are not reading the game, anticipating transitions, and thinking about where to be next. Like any other skill, it is something we can also practice and improve. Like most other mental aspects of the game, it is commonly overlooked by players and coaches, so hopefully this section can help you to see its importance and how to improve it.
What is it?
Simply put, concentration is a relaxed state of alertness. That might sound like two conflicting things, but they can be combined when applied correctly. You are in control of your thought process and remaining calm about it (the relaxed part) but you are focusing your thoughts onto something specific (the alertness part). During the game you will focus more or less, depending on what is happening. For example, when the ball is at the other end of the field from you, you might concentrate less, but when a player is running at you with the ball you will generally increase your concentration.
There are three types of concentration, with fancy scientific names. External Narrow covers your focus on very specific things, like an individual player or the ball, shutting out everything but the one object. External Broad is when you take in a lot of information from the bigger picture. In soccer it could be when you look up and scan the entire field of play, looking at the opponent’s back line, or your midfield shape. Finally, Internal concentration is anything going on in your head. When you focus on your thoughts and feelings or when you visualize situations, you are concentrating internally.
Each of the three concentration types have their own distractions which can ruin your concentration. External Narrow distractions could include the goalkeeper moving when you are stepping up to tack a penalty, the fancy design on the ball, or the net moving in the wind as you focus on the specific cell of it you are aiming at. External Broad distractions commonly include crowd noise, the coach shouting from the sideline, and movement of the team as a group off the ball. Finally Internal distractions include injury pain, worrying thoughts, tiredness, or thinking about the mistake you made earlier. Your job is to find out which one you have most trouble concentrating on and which distractions most get you. Then try to learn to control them.
How do Improve it?
Despite what people think, you can practice improving your concentration. It could be as simple as switching your focus between three things that represent the different types of concentration. Maybe on the way to the game you switch between looking at the detail on your hand (Narrow), the massive view of the mountains outside (Broad), and your own feelings (Internal). Try to control each and switch between them at will to see how quickly you can adapt. You can do the same exercise on the field. At a free kick, switch between staring at the ball or one piece of the net that you plan to aim at, to the position of all of the players off the ball, to you visualizing striking the ball.
Stay in Control
As we talked about earlier, panic can set in quickly and make you feel helpless. The first step is to retake control though the simple steps we have practiced above. Learn to get rid of the thoughts that dwell inside when you have made mistakes and to not worry about what you might do wrong in the future. The more you can stay in the present, the more control you will have.
Finally, you can develop concentration cues that trigger controlling thoughts in your mind. Concentration cues are words or actions that you associate with a bigger story. For example “simple” or “stop” could be words that tell you that you need to worry less about the bigger picture and focus on the job at hand, or stop worrying entirely. Physical cues can help too: taking deep breaths, tying your shoes, and clapping your hands are all examples players have used to initiate the process of taking control of their concentration.