Attentional control and mental toughness

The ability to maintain attentional control pervades all aspects of mental toughness. Mentally tough individuals are more likely to identify and adhere to important goals (commitment), be able to focus and see the opportunity of doing so when under pressure (challenge), manage or eliminate distractions and regulate their own behaviour (life and emotional control). They will have the self belief that they can focus on what needs to be done even when the task may be difficult or in the face of strong opponents (confidence in abilities and interpersonal relationships).

For many years, sports psychologists have emphasised the importance of developing mental toughness in players and, specific to attentional control are the functions of information processing and selective attention. The basic idea here is that in order to attend to a stimulus we need to be able to hold a memory of it and to retrieve that memory to make decisions about how we will respond (Keele, 1973). In order to do this we also need the ability to “gate out” unimportant information to attend to the target. Think back to the last football or basketball game you watched and the many distractions that players have to ignore in order to score. These include the spectators cheering or booing, opponents trying to prevent them from scoring, team members offering encouragement and, their own internal dialogue.

In order to develop mental toughness and to stay at the top of their game, professional sports men and women routinely practice the art of attentional control. Imagine a scenario where they weren't able to do this and they were telling the crowd to be quiet or asking opponents if they could kindly move out of their way!

Practice is the key

The tools and techniques used in sport can be just as easily applied in the classroom or the workplace and do not require equipment as expensive and elaborate as Mindball. It is also important to remember the key to success with any of the tools and techniques in this book is practice. Carol Dweck's work on mindset dispels the myth that innate abilities create geniuses and highlights the importance of practice in developing expertise in a particular skill. In other words, when Mozart was a lad he practiced for hours a day, it didn't just come naturally. This point
cannot be stressed enough. Sometimes mental toughness development programmes are delivered to people who know a lot of the tools and techniques but they never actually practice them or, timetable space in their lives to do so. As a result their ability to manage stress and achieve peak performance appears to be no better than those that have never heard of the concepts.

A caveat to this is provided by psychologist David Marchant, who argues that practicing to concentrate doesn't necessarily mean that we improve at it. However, the more proficient we become at a task, for example, learning and manipulating mathematical formulae, the easier it becomes. We then spend less effort attending to it and distractions are less likely to bother us. He suggests that practicing tasks that are similar to the ones you wish to develop will help.

Tools for developing attentional control

So far you will have noticed that tools for developing mental toughness are presented in this book as separate categories. However, it is worth noting that practicing these will also contribute to the development of attentional control in the following ways;

Goal setting—provides a clear pathway to the desired result. The process helps a person to identify the focus of attention out of many possible options.

Positive thinking—helps to reduce negative internal dialogue that can act as a distraction to achieving the goal.

Anxiety control—enhances emotional control required to attend to the goal.

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