Attention is perhaps the most vital attribute for success in sports. At all levels, everything else being equal, the winner is often determined by who was able to focus better. A common mistake, however, is to misinterpret concentration on a specific stimulus as attention. Being focused is not a question of effort. In fact, the more we try, often the worse we can perform.
An example illustrates this point nicely. In the 1994 FIFA World Cup Final, Italy faced Brazil. A rather drab affair led to the first World Cup in history being decided with the use of kicks from the penalty mark. Italy’s Roberto Baggio, one of the stand-out performers of the tournament, was tasked with scoring his kick or else Italy would concede the title to Brazil. Baggio (a dead ball expert) put his kick high over the crossbar.
An obvious answer is that the pressure got to him. Perhaps. But that still begs the question as to how did that pressure manifest itself and what outcome did that have on physical performance?
To answer that, we can fast-forward to Euro ’96, where England played Germany on home soil in the semi-final. Once more, a game was to be decided via penalty shootout and, this time, it was Gareth Southgate who missed the decisive kick. When asked what he was thinking about on that long walk from the centre-circle to the penalty spot, Southgate has responded that he was solely focused on making good contact with the ball.
Could this have been the problem? Was Southgate too focused?
In 1967, two psychologists named Paul Fitts and Michael Posner, proposed that learning takes place over three stages. These stages can be seen in figure 1.
The process of skill development shown in figure 1 begins with the cognitive stage. This stage is essentially when we are first introduced to a skill. Think about learning to kick a football. You were probably told where to place your planting foot, where to make contact with the ball (e.g., with the inside of your foot), and where to look when you hit it. In the cognitive stage, we have to pay attention, explicit attention, to such instructions, in order to execute the skill. The characteristics of these skills are that they are slow, inefficient (meaning that we have to invest a level of effort that is unproportionate to the action being performed – think about how effortless an expert makes a skill look), and inconsistent. We’ll come back to this.
In the associative phase, the learner has progressed the skill to a more natural, almost fluid, stage although they still need to dedicate an element of concentration and thought to the action. It is only when they reach the final part of the process, the autonomous phase, that an individual can perform a skill without thinking about it; the skill is executed completely automatically. Consider a great goal: Maradona’s second versus England in 1986, Rooney’s overhead kick against Manchester City at Old Trafford or Bale’s goal in the Champion’s League final against Liverpool. Those players have not only developed those skills over time (Maradona almost scored an identical goal against England a few years earlier but missed the target with his shot) but executed these skills automatically. If we were to ask Bale how he scored that goal, we wouldn’t receive an in-depth analysis of how he calculated the flight of the ball, how he timed his jump, and how he managed to meet the ball at just the right time to make contact and direct it goal-bound. We would hear how he ‘just hit it’. This is expert performance.
Referees can learn from this, for they are also experts in their field. When their skills in decision-making are pitted against professional players, they are the undisputed winners. One study by MacMahon et al. (2007), for instance, asked referees and players to watch a number of clips and give their decisions. These decisions were assessed by a panel of experts and reported that the players only achieved 55% accuracy, compared to 80.6% for the referees. The results showing that refereeing is a role-specific activity and that experience counts. Simply, when referees make decisions, they are automatic and based upon years of development.
So why did Baggio miss? Why didn’t he just hit it? Why didn’t Southgate make better contact? Why do referees make mistakes?
One answer is because they experienced performance anxiety.
As mentioned at the start of this article, attention is undoubtedly important for performers. However, what is often overlooked, is that there are a number of different types of attention, as shown in figure 2.
Figure 2 shows us that there is more to attention than focussing on one factor intently. One type, labelled ‘assess’, is when we focus on stimuli that is external to us and broad in nature. For example, a referee doing a pitch inspection or checking players are in position before kick-off. Attention may then move towards what is called ‘perform’: this is the neutral state of attention that a referee has when officiating. Focussing on what is going on around them (external stimuli), but with a narrow range. For instance, paying attention to a player with the ball trying to beat an opponent or a defender making a tackle. Before and during the game, the referee may shift to ‘prepare’, concentrating on themselves (internal) and on a very specific (narrow) focus. For instance, in an attempt to calm down they may pay attention to their breathing or remind themselves of their goals. Finally, they may analyse: where they consider all the things that may impact their performance at once.
When experts (including referees) perform, they move in and out of each type of attention with a fluid ease. It is natural. Automatic. However, when a performer suffers from performance anxiety, they can focus on their skill explicitly in an attempt to eliminate mistakes. The thinking here is that if they dedicate all their resources to a skill, they can’t get it wrong. This is a misconception. By thinking about your skill (when you’re an expert) you regress back to the cognitive stage. This is hazardous for performers, including referees (remember a characteristic of this stage is its inconsistency?) – so it is important to combat it. One way of doing so is to minimise performance anxiety.
Worrying about performance has been shown to limit attentional focus. Specifically, it reduces out resources for attention and distorts what we should (and shouldn’t) pay attention to. External criticism (which is obviously present for referees constantly) can contribute to this and therefore dealing with criticism is of paramount importance to the referee. Referees report a great ability to rationalise criticism. For instance, they dismiss it the ranting of an irate coach as ‘in the heat of the moment’ or ‘not understanding the laws of the game.’ It would be better if referees practiced rational thinking, which would be to ask themselves, ‘why does it matter if the coach is unhappy with my performance?’
Referees should remember that they are there to enforce the laws of the game. It is nice to receive praise for a good game, but approval (or disapproval) from external sources such as coaches or players does not define you. This approach will decrease the impact criticism has on anxiety, preserve resources for attentional focus and enable the expert performance your experience warrants.
Stuart Carrington is a lecturer in Sports Coaching Science at St Mary’s University, Twickenham, London. He is the author of Blowing the Whistle: The Psychology of Football Refereeing which is available here.