The Pervasive Threat of Distraction in Modern Football

Football player concentrating on the game despite modern-day distractions.

In the contemporary realm of football, there lies a threat that may not be immediately apparent: distraction. In an era saturated with stimuli, how do football players, especially talents and professionals, stay focused amidst the noise? This piece provides insights into the challenges and the importance of cognitive flexibility.

Read more: The Pervasive Threat of Distraction in Modern Football

The Challenge of Staying Focused in 2019

Modern-day distractions pose a significant threat to athletes. Coaches continually stress the importance of concentration and motivation. Yet, the times we live in don’t support sustained attention. The influx of stimuli, predominantly due to mobile phones, social media, gaming, and TV, has doubled in the last decade. As a result, children grow accustomed to an externally-driven attention system, leading to weaker self-directed focus. This decreased concentration means that our working memory becomes lazy, resulting in rapid distraction and lost focus. It’s been shown that the brain requires approximately 20 minutes to achieve full concentration. With smartphones constantly distracting us, each interruption resets this clock. It’s advisable for coaches to ensure exercises last at least 20 minutes, allowing players to achieve optimal concentration, mirroring the demands of an actual match.

Football and Chaos Theory

Football is a sport of unpredictability, aptly described as a “chaos sport” by Pieter Zwart from VI Pro. Traditional perspectives view football in terms of offense and defense. However, a closer look reveals that football matches are primarily a succession of quick transitions interspersed with phases of attack and defense. This theory is supported by data; for instance, during the 2015/16 Champions League season, teams took an average of 11.5 seconds of ball possession to score, with an average of 3.74 passes leading up to a goal. This suggests that football is a complex system with unpredictable and dynamic interactions.

Swift Mindset Shifts in Football:

Every transition in football requires all 22 players to instantly change their mindset. Each second demands new calculations from an individual’s brain. There’s no time to ponder, as the opponent reacts simultaneously. Every transition is unique, challenging the brain to swiftly process memory, intentions, goals, and mindset. The key term here is “cognitive flexibility.” Research by Bjorn Krenn and colleagues showed a significant difference in cognitive flexibility between dynamic sports like football and static sports like running or swimming.

Understanding Cognitive Flexibility:

The ACTION TYPE framework suggests everyone has specific cognitive domains, each with its characteristics. Adapting to rapid changes, or cognitive flexibility, varies among individuals. For some, change is stressful, affecting on-field decisions, crucial for a win or draw. A critical component is embracing negative thoughts, a prevalent theme in Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT). ACT encourages viewing thoughts as transient and not defining. Focusing on increasing cognitive flexibility, ACT helps athletes direct their attention to what truly matters, emphasizing actions over mere thoughts.

Sports psychologist Kelly Dekker, with whom I completed a three-day ACT course, once remarked in an interview, “Performance isn’t about thoughts; it’s about actions.”


The aim of this blog is to highlight the rapid-fire thoughts coursing through a footballer’s mind. A pass isn’t just technical; it’s the culmination of a player’s entire being influenced by the mind. Coaches, myself included, tend to view the broader picture. It’s crucial to understand that most thoughts we experience are negative. Football, a game of chaos, demands swift mental shifts. Cognitive flexibility is paramount, as emphasized by numerous scientific studies.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Scroll to Top