Concentration is one of the major areas of emphasis of sport psychology. Without effective concentration, an athlete will focus on unimportant cues at the expense of more critical ones, and become distracted. Techniques have been developed that allow athletes to improve concentration. Although developing concentration requires great effort, once it is achieved, it is effortless.
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An athlete may have to change his focus at various times during a performance, like a camera changing focus. He may have to tune out the jeering of a hostile crowd while shooting a free throw, for example. Two minutes later, he may have to widen his focus beyond the court to monitor the shot clock. Sport psychology teaches techniques for narrowing and widening focus, and switching between these two states.
Guided imagery is the process of visually imagining either training routines or the desired outcome in an actual athletic performance. An injured athlete may imagine shooting free throw after free throw until the activity feels so familiar that it is second nature to her, even though unable to move from a hospital bed. Alternatively, an athlete may imagine the moment of victory in a marathon race, thereby enhancing her self-confidence. The National Academy of Sciences has sponsored research showing that these practices are effective for improving performance.
Meditation involves sitting alone in a dark room, closing your eyes and focusing intently on a single stimulus, such as your breathing, while doing your best to block out all thoughts. Meditation improves concentration and reduces anxiety in tense situations by training the practitioner in the art of controlling attention, thinking and emotional reactions, according to "Psychology Today" magazine. Athletes require these skills to avoid "choking" under pressure.
When an athlete masters all the different concentration-related skills and achieves optimal concentration, his performance temporarily becomes masterful and effortless. Athletes report an altered sense of time and a heightened sense of pleasure. Flow is normally achieved only by athletes that have mastered the skill they are performing through long hours of practice. The flow phenomenon has been observed across every field of athletic endeavor, according to sports psychologists Janet A. Young and Michelle D. Pain of Australia's Monash University.