Focus on Focus: Part 3 - The Final Layer

Updated: Oct 21, 2021


Welcome back to focus on focus and the third installment of our discussion on how endurance athletes utilize their focus to improve performance in training and racing.


In the first two parts of focus on focus, we looked at the first two layers of attentional focus.

The first layer, Associative vs. Dissociative focus, is simply whether or not we are focusing on the task at hand in some way or if we are distracted or distracting ourselves from what we are trying to do/ accomplish.


The second layer takes things a bit further and looks at where the direction of our focus is: Internal or External.


Now, in our third part of this series, we will look at the “field” or scope of our focus.


Layer #3. - Narrow or Broad focus

Are you focused on the big picture or something in your immediate control?

This third layer refers to the field of your focus, and it too was proposed by Nideffer (1976). The field of your focus for our purposes can refer to either time or space (no… not spacetime… but if we want to go down a spacetime physics rabbit hole, I am all in!!). We can either be focused on a long span of time or a wide area of space and, conversely, we can focus our attention on a single point or a single moment. I know it actually is kind of trippy right now, so bear with me.


Examples:

  • Associative External Narrow Focus - Focusing on the athlete in front of you to stay right on their wheel.

  • Associative External Broad Focus - Focusing on your current placing in a race and how many people you need to pass to get to the podium.

  • Associative Internal Narrow Focus - Focusing on your heartbeat racing during a hard effort.

  • Associative Internal Broad Focus - Focusing on how excited you are to race again.


Being able to shift your field of focus from broad to narrow quickly in a race or training scenario is an extremely valuable skill for endurance athletes. The best athletes are able to recognize and pay attention to how a race is developing, keeping an eye on all the competitors they need to while being able to shift their focus in an instant to a narrow field and focus on their immediate surroundings or a small piece of that race that will set them up for greater success later.

If we think about this in terms of cycling or running races, the best athletes in the world are always aware of the group around them, moving in a pack and paying attention to all the other competitors. Then, in a split second when a competitor attacks, they are able to shift from that broad field to a narrow one and focus solely on drawing that competitor back in. But even for those of us who don’t race with the best in the world, we need to be able to keep the whole race or training season in mind while also being able to shift our focus to our effort at that moment so that we are able to execute our race or training plan.


When the going gets tough, the best focus on the task at hand and practice associative focus. It doesn’t matter how uncomfortable or intolerable it may be; they focus on their task in some way. They don’t use tricks to distract themselves, they don’t try to shift their focus away from the task to dissociate themselves from the “agony.” Instead, they focus on some portion of their effort that helps them accomplish what they set out to do.


So, next time you are on your bike trainer or staring at the black line in the bottom of the pool or on a group run with friends, pay attention to what you are doing and even practice labeling where your focus is by using our three layers. The practice of labeling your focus helps to draw your attention to where you are focusing and will over time help you to keep your focus on your efforts in a productive manner for longer and longer periods of time.


  • Do you start daydreaming or thinking about work?

  • Are you chatting the whole time and losing track of your effort and form?

  • Are you desperately singing the song on the stereo to try and distract yourself?

OR

  • Are you focusing on the task at hand?

  • Are you paying attention to your breathing, your watts, your HR, your stroke pattern, your intervals, your cadence, or your pedal mechanics?


Your mental game and your focus during training and racing is 100% a trainable skill. The more we understand about our attention and focus, the more we recognize the patterns in how we shift our focus, and the more we practice drawing our attention to it the more we can improve this critical mental aspect of our sports.


So get out there and practice Practice PRACTICE!


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