Keeping your mind on the job

Diving judges holding score cards
Author:  Michael Lloyd, Performance Psychologist
Issue: Volume 8 Number 2

Very few roles are as highly scrutinised as officiating. Be it professional or amateur, sports officials give their time (often voluntarily) to referee, umpire and judge participants at various levels of competition, and as a result open themselves to a degree of scrutiny unfamiliar to the majority of the population. This judgment comes from friends, family, complete strangers and often most harshly from the officials themselves as they strive for excellence in their performance.

It will come as no surprise then that in the face of this intense analysis, the ability to stay focused on the job at hand plays a major role in determining the quality of an official’s performance. Irrespective of whether the event lasts five minutes or five days, successful officials must possess skills in two key areas relating to attention: selectivity and mental effort.

The selectivity of attention refers to the ability to exclude irrelevant stimulation while focusing on what is deemed to be important and relevant to the task at hand — that is, focusing on the right things. Considerable mental effort is required to selectively focus at the appropriate moment or for prolonged periods of time — that is, focusing on the right things at the right time.

Most officials recognise the difficulty of concentrating for the duration of a performance, or at specific times. These difficulties are usually caused by insufficient mental effort and/or an attentional mismatch — that is, rather than focusing on appropriate cues, officials become distracted by thoughts, other events and emotions. These distractions can be both internal and external in nature, and can include:

Internal distracters

  • Getting stuck in the past (for example, an earlier decision/call)
  • Worrying about the future (for example, how a decision may impact on the outcome)
  • Negative self-talk (for example, questioning one’s own ability)
  • Increased anxiety (for example, general worry about one’s performance)
  • Fatigue (for example, general depletion of mental and physical energy systems, and associated deficits)

External distracters

  • Visual distracters (for example, crowd, media, environment)
  • Auditory distracters (for example, crowd noise, PA system, environmental noise)
  • Physical interactions/distracters (for example, replacement players, team officials, weather conditions)

Successful officials are more aware of these distracters, and understand that their attention has limitations and requires training and management, similar to their physical and skill-based abilities. There are a number of strategies that officials can employ to improve their focus and concentration. These include:

  • simulation training (including imagery)
  • being more aware of current attention habits and patterns
  • identifying and employing performance cues
  • positive/effective self-talk
  • performance routines
  • staying in the present
  • concentration exercises (for example, shifting attention — internal/external, broad/narrow; mindfulness exercises; concentration grids; playing video/computer games; etc.).

With the right training and an appreciation of the fact that mental skills (like physical skills) need to be practised, officials can achieve a number of improvements in their ability to manage their attention and performance. These improvements can include:

  • being less likely to become distracted by irrelevant factors
  • maintaining a more task-oriented attentional focus
  • developing enhanced focus control and concentration for their performance
  • having a greater ‘present’ focus
  • being more mentally relaxed
  • analysing the performance situation more efficiently and accurately
  • greater decision-making consistency based on the information available.


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