With the NFL playoffs fast approaching, I notice a consistency among top performers. I don’t mean the Patriots or the Texans (playoff-bound in 4 of the last 6 years – dynasty anyone?!). I am looking at the Wide Receiver position, especially two individuals: Doug Baldwin and Antonio Brown.
These two were overlooked in their draft classes (Brown, 2010: 6th Rd. and Baldwin, 2011: undrafted), yet finish 2016 in the top 10 playing a position that requires absolute concentration. Their consistency proves again that athletic performance transcends ability. Champions demonstrate a high level of performance, leveraging psychological factors like self-esteem, control of emotions, and the ability to concentrate on task at hand under the highest stress.
Strength coaches, if your program focuses on calculations and spreadsheets, you’ve missed an empowering opportunity. How an athlete’s processes stress in training is exactly how it will play out on Game Day. No one ever mentally rises to the occasion; they fall to the level of their training. Physical preparation will never compensate for psychological weaknesses during competition, no matter how much ya bench. You get what you emphasize. Focus accordingly
This Power Coach article will navigate psychological barriers and demonstrate how to train concentration when it matters: Game Day.
Getting stuck in the mental quicksand of extraneous factors creates miscues, missteps, and the overthinking sports psychologists call “paralysis by analysis”. Instead, physical abilities and mental processing must work together to sort input between Game Day relevance and garbage.
This ability to concentrate, focus, and engage what Dr. Fred Hatfield calls selective attention to specifically targeted stimuli is a multi-level brain function. In Power, Hatfield introduces trainable psychological components that influence athlete’s ability to concentrate:
- Hunger: As heard on Power Athlete Radio, @John played on an empty stomach because it heightened his focus. Not so coincidentally, research shows a 16% performance drop following meals (1).
- Noise: Noise can majorly affect performance – just check out the Seahawk’s CenturyLink Fields visitor record False Starts! Somewhat counterintuitively, noise can improve vigilance, as it creates a mild stress which arouses the brain and heightens focus to overcome distraction (1). Where it majorly affects concentration is when players focus on drowning it out. So really, it’s not so much the noise itself but rather, one’s reaction to it.
- Anxiety: Sensory overload produces anxiety. Even concentrating is anxiety-producing (1). This explains why gym all-stars falter on Game Day!
- Time of Day: The body’s internal clock, or circadian cycle, affects performance (1). Research indicates that several aspects of performance peak when body temperature is its highest, i.e. the late afternoon and early evening (2).
From a fun study out of Stanford: in 106 West Coast and East Coast NFL match ups between 1970 and 2011, where kick off occurred after 8 pm EST, the West Coast teams beat the point spread in 66% of the games by an average of 5.26 points (2).
- Pace, Complexity, and Novelty: The faster an athlete is able to accurately accomplish their task, the more likely they will succeed despite size or strength. All too often, we see physically talented individuals fail at the next level because they cannot concentrate amidst the high paced, complex novel tasks in competition.
- Feedback: Enter coaches and leaders. When an athlete receives instant information about their performance, they tend to perform that task much more effectively the next opportunity (1).
We’re all different when it comes to the six trainable components of concentration. When one of these components overwhelms athletes in training and practice, this loss of concentration will no doubt be exaggerated come Game Day. As a Power Coach, identify which component is constraining your athletes.
In the heat of competition, we may learn fast, but we do not learn well. Throw someone who can’t swim into water and the survival instinct may drive their concentration towards swimming to safety by any means. In this situation, they’re not focusing on swim mechanics, and thus will never make the Olympics. Trust me, I know…
Athletes must learn how to manage and react to concentration components under controlled conditions. This is called latent learning, a form of learning not immediately expressed. The response occurs without any obvious reinforcement of the behavior or associations that are learned later on (3). This aids Athletes in two ways:
- Form brain maps for movements, skills, and navigating their environment
- Learn to control emotion under stress and concentrate on a goal
While the words “brain mapping” may make certain WWII era soldiers flinch, it’s quite innocuous. Look no further than our Field Strong and Bedrock programs. All the Primal chunking we do in the warm ups, piecing them into whole movements to ‘solve problems’ of load, volume, speed, and planes of motion in the Strength, Sprint, and Conditioning portions? Brain mapping.
When developing athleticism, begin with closed-loop Primal movements, or movements with established start and stop points without external stimuli, where athletes compete against themselves (i.e. strength training, sprints). Concentrating on execution is key to learning good movement. As athletes become Primally-proficient (@Cali, write that down…?), they must stress to progress.
While training mostly exists in this closed-loop environment, sport exists in its alternate universe: the open-loop environment, where there is no set start or finish, external stimuli demand attention, and there is an opponent working against your efforts. While sport practice fits the open-loop requirement for most, we can still accelerate skill acquisition and Primal movement brain mapping by applying open-loop skills in training.
Open-loop training is as simple as 1-on-1 reaction/pursuit angle drills or athletic creativity games like tag, 21, Spikeball – basically anything that requires selective attention on a task versus a movement. Open-loop application in training creates a manageably intense learning situation that allows the brain to map Primal movement combinations in a broad and general way.
Coaches, this is where you witness athletic creativity and test training programs: Praxis!
Like all forms of training, this can be misapplied. If the open-loop skill overwhelms an athlete’s concentration or they try too hard in a learning situation, the brain map becomes narrow and restricted. When the single way the athlete learned to execute becomes blocked, they fail to find alternative movement patterns to successfully execute. Concentration becomes frustration, failure, and fixation!
There are tons of examples where narrow maps take athletes out: lacrosse players who can only handle with their strong hand (from experience), or in the MMA world, when a world-class striker is forced to grapple an Olympian. Don’t let your athletes get shut down before they even compete!
Let’s refocus on the six components of concentration. As you apply Field Strong and Bedrock to your athletes, find ways to “randomly” push these six buttons to teach proper crisis conduct. Gradually inoculating them to distractions adds up when competition is high.
Think back to your fire drills in elementary school, what a great teaching moment. Despite the randomly timed loud alarms that push teachers into anxiety mode, they are still able to lead teams of kids through a proper execution of not only what to do, but also how to conduct themselves in a crisis.
Take your athletes through dry runs of handling distractions. These situations allow athletes to practice traits a sport coach seeks when the going gets tough: communication, situational awareness, critical thinking, creating new Primal movement maps! To me, this life skill is a greater takeaway than anything they’ll do in training.
With no real “crisis”, no overwhelming negative feedback will interfere with clear thinking or coach direction, which is everything. Force them to reflect and become conscious of their emotions, reactions, and loss of concentration resulting from their anxiety or noise buttons.
Directly and constructively teach the proper reaction and refocus techniques. Latent learning takes effect when on Game Day, the athlete’s focus is consistent and their emotions are directed towards their craft, just like Brown and Baldwin. Another sign it is working – you have to get really creative at distracting them during training.
Integrating mental tests into training is not a new concept. One of my favorite examples is Coach Hill of Gtown, who once said, “If the athletes control the stereo, they control you.” So change the volume and Spotify station daily, emphasizing music that pushes athletes to empower one another.
Empower Your Performance: Concentrate to Win
“I ain’t talking about orange juice when I say concentrate to win.” – Dr. Squat
Don’t wait until Game Day to stress selective attention. Implement the six components of concentration into your athlete’s training and provide the opportunity to create flexible physical and emotional brain maps, empowering them to act calmly and move deliberately in the face of a real fire.
- Hatfield, F. (1989). Power : A scientific approach: Advanced musclebuilding techniques for explosive strength and peak performance! Lincolnwood, Ch.: Contemporary books.
- Roger S. Smith, DO, Bradley Efron, PhD, Cheri D. Mah, MS, Atul Malhotra, MD; The Impact of Circadian Misalignment on Athletic Performance in Professional Football Players. 2013; 36 (12): 1999-2001. doi: 10.5665/sleep.3248
- Maltz, M. (2015). Psycho-Cybernetics: Updated and expanded (Updated Perigee trade paperback ed.). Perigee Books; Upd Exp edition.
John Welbourn is CEO of Power Athlete and Fuse Move. He is also creator of the online training phenomena, Johnnie WOD. He is a 9 year veteran of the NFL. John was drafted with the 97th pick in 1999 NFL Draft and went on to be a starter for the Philadelphia Eagles from 1999-2003, appearing in 3 NFC Championship games, and for starter for the Kansas City Chiefs from 2004-2007. In 2008, he played with the New England Patriots until an injury ended his season early with him retiring in 2009. Over the course of his career, John has started over 100 games and has 10 play-off appearances. He was a four year lettermen while playing football at the University of California at Berkeley. He graduated with a bachelor's degree in Rhetoric in 1998. John has worked with the MLB, NFL, NHL, Olympic athletes and Military. He travels the world lecturing on performance and nutrition for Power Athlete. You can catch up with John as his personal blog on training, food and life, Talk To Me Johnnie and at Power Athlete.
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