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  • Writer's pictureHugh Lawrence

Coaching Basics (3) “Concentrate. How many times must I tell you?”

This post returns to the issue mentioned in earlier post on individualised training and coaching in team settings.

Coaches of individual sports such as golf, weightlifting or discus, are often assumed to have an easier time of it that the team coach when it comes to laying out programmes. Agreed: a team (by definition) has more individuals to work with, but if coaches are interested in getting the best out of their athletes, then recognising individual differences is critical. And for coaches of individual athletes, they too, may have particular thinking skill training needs that you need to recognise.

Let’s start with the problem we most commonly encounter. The coach exhorts athletes or the athlete to concentrate on that they are doing. “Come on, concentrate!” or “You lost concentration in that last game”.

However, what do we mean by concentration? When asked, coaches often reply “keeping their mind on the task at hand” or the fashionable “play in the moment”. Both explanations have little utility as they fail to recognise the specifics of concentration. In the 1970s, sport psychologist, Robert Nideffer developed the concept of attentional style. His theory suggested four “attentional styles”.

  • Narrow - External: the ability to focus attention in real time as the game evolves and deliver high quality skill performance. The cricketer

  • Narrow - Internal: the ability to systematically organise your thoughts, to rehearse and then execute e.g. the golf swing, basketball free throw, rugby kick for goal and weightlifting clean and jerk.

  • Broad - Internal: this is the golfer assessing the situation and making a great club selection.

  • Broad - External: the player who steps off the bench into a highly charged game, sizes up the situation, makes just the right play; or the quarter-back who sees the opportunity through the maze of defensive patterns.

Many sports have all those requirements at some stage in the game or in specialised positions. Other sports, are primarily geared to one form. The best weightlifters have a strong narrow-internal style. Nideffer’s theory has been refined since he first launched it. But even now, nearly forty years on, the basic idea holds good and has much to offer coaches and athletes.

A simple way to think about attention is to imagine the game situation where you or your athletes perform the best. Now what style do you think they or you demonstrate? Assessing athletes’ attentional style is not easy. It takes time, discussion with each athlete about the moments in a game when they feel they perform at their best. Most have degrees of each style and some can move easily from one to another. You may need to recruit the help of a thinking skills specialist or a coaching colleague who has expertise in the area.

Once those assessments are in, you can develop breakdown drills or rehearsal drills that reproduce the player’s concentration strengths and/or their weaknesses. I recommend both. But you have concentrate on what you’re doing!

This brief look at a critical thinking skill is a reminder that many of the things we demand from athletes need to be specific and particular to their individual needs – that’s sort of obvious for the individual sports, but it reaps big rewards for team performance.

(photo source:


Nideffer, R. & Sagal, M. (2006). Concentration and attention control training. In J. M. Williams (Ed.), Applied sport psychology: Personal growth to peak performance (pp. 382 – 403). New York, NY: McGraw-Hill.

Nideffer, R. M. (1976a). The Inner Athlete. New York: Thomas Crowell.

Nideffer, R. M. (1976b). “Test of attentional and interpersonal style.” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 34, 394-404.

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