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Athletes' focus declines with too much instruction

This is an excerpt from Foundations of Sport and Exercise Psychology, Fifth Edition with Web Study Guide, by Robert S. Weinberg, PhD, and Daniel Gould, PhD.

Missing the "open player"

While watching a team sport such as soccer or basketball, one often cannot help wondering why the player with the ball did not pass to a much better positioned teammate, even though this player seemed to be right in her line of vision. When the coach or a teammate asks the player after the game why she did not pass the ball to the free player, the player typically responds that she hadn’t seen the other player. Although this sounds like an excuse, attentional research suggests another explanation for this phenomenon.

Specifically, Memmert and Furley (2007) found that giving players specific instructions can narrow their focus of attention and thus they can miss important cues (e.g., an open teammate). This is called inattentional blindness. In essence, team players often fail to find the optimal tactical solution to a situation because the coach narrows their attention by giving restrictive instructions. For example, if a coach has players watch for a specific situation or two and that situation does not occur, then players can have difficulty switching from the narrow focus conveyed by the coaches’ instructions to a broad focus, where the entire field can be surveyed. A wide or broad focus of attention facilitates noticing unmarked players in a dynamic situation like team sports. Of course, waving one’s hand can get the attention of the player but it also can get the attention of the defense, who can then alter their strategy and movement to guard the open player. Similarly, it was found that soccer players under pressure spend too much time focusing on the goalie, resulting in less accurate shots (Wilson, Wood, & Vine, 2009). This might be part of the reason there are more missed penalty kicks under high pressure situations in international soccer competitions.

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