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Focus on Focus: Part 1 - Associative and Dissociative Focus

Updated: Oct 21, 2021

Most athletes focus on anything but the pain; Champions focus on nothing but the pain.

That idea may seem counterintuitive,, overly simplified, or hokey, but one of the biggest thing that separates average athletes from exceptional or champion athletes is their ability to focus and what they choose to focus on.

Exceptional athletes are exceptional for a host of reasons (they train hard, they are sometimes genetically gifted, they recover well etcetera, etcetera), including an exceptional ability to focus and to shift that focus when necessary.

So in my next few blog posts, I will focus on focus. In my last post "Mind Control for Athletes" we took a look at the tools and tactics to help improve our mental skills and train our brains to improve our performance. Now, in the "Focus on Focus" series we dive into how we can use our attention to excel in endurance sports. Specifically we will look at what kind of attention it takes to excel in endurance sports, the different classifications of focus, and see how where our focus goes can have a beneficial impact on our performance.

First up, I am talking here about attentional focus.

Here’s what attentional focus isn’t: it’s not those moments where you are staring off into space or at a blankly into space and someone says “whatcha thinking about” and you honestly can’t tell them… that is NOT attentional focus.

Attentional focus, though it seems obvious, is when you are actively or intentionally directing your attention in a specific way or on something specific. For our purposes, we are talking about attentional focus as a tool to enhance performance during our training and racing efforts.

SO, under the umbrella of attentional focus, we have several different categories that we will think about as layers. Each layer adds a level of detail and clarity.

Layer #1 - Associative or Dissociative focus:

Are you focused on what you are doing, or are you focused on anything but what you are doing?

Proposed by Morgan and Pollock (1977), associative focus and dissociative focus are commonly referred to as “task-oriented” and mean that our focus at any time is either focused on something directly involved or associated with our task or it is on something entirely unrelated and not associated with our task. In endurance sports, this is EXTREMELY important and is the first layer that separates the best from the rest.


Associative Focus -

While riding my bike trainer I am paying attention to the watts I am outputting to make sure I hit the target of each interval.

Dissociative Focus -

While riding my bike trainer I am gazing out the window daydreaming about rolling down a grassy hill on a warm summer day.

Associative focus during training and racing is far superior at producing desirable outcomes in terms of race times and training results for steady-state endurance athletes. This is obvious, right? Do I need to keep going about how daydreaming about rolling down that hill is not helping you get to the finish line any faster?

ok, ok, I'll keep going, but only cause I know you are so focused right now.

Neuman and Piercy (2013) showed that when athletes were focusing on their task (associative focus) they had lower respiratory rates and oxygen consumption when compared to runners who were not given any direction to focus directly ont heir efforts.

When we focus on the task at hand and we practice associative focus, we are better able to monitor our efforts, we are more relaxed and we are able to adjust to changing race and effort circumstances. We are aware of all the factors that may impact our race and we are in a position to give our best effort.

If you have ever watched a post-race or event interview with an elite endurance athlete you likely have noticed that they can recall almost every little detail that propelled them to victory in the race. This is because they were focusing on their race the entire time; they were not in “la-la land” daydreaming about sitting on a beach drinking a mai-tai to distract them from their efforts.

No one ever won an Olympic gold medal and couldn’t remember the race because they were daydreaming the whole time.

Now, is it critical that we associate during every run or at all times during training? No. In fact there are many times when “running to clear your head” or dissociating from low intensity training can be a useful tool, but when we are talking about improving performance in high intensity efforts or races associative focus allows us to dial in to our efforts and understand what we need to do to maximize our performance. Focusing on the effort or “the pain”affords us an opportunity to get faster and improve as athletes by listening to our body and paying attention to all the aspects of our efforts.

On the next installment of our “Focus on Focus” we will look at the field of your focus and whether we are focusing internally or externally.

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