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Focus on Focus: Part 2 - Internal and External Focus

Updated: Oct 21, 2021

Welcome back to Focus on Focus and the second post in the series where we look at 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.

In my last post, we looked at the first layer in focus classifications, Associative and Dissociative focus. In this second edition of ‘Focus on Focus” we will look at the direction of our focus and explore the value of understanding where our focus is placed.

Layer #2 - Internal or External focus

Are you focused on something biological/psychological and something inside your body or are you focused on something mechanical and outside your body?

With this layer of our focus discussion, we start to identify whether we are focusing on something inside ourselves or something outside of us. This classification was first proposed by Nideffer (1976) but was also discussed by Stevinson and Biddle (1998) as the “direction” of the focus (are you directing your focus inward or outward). An inward focus is focus on some kind of internal bodily sensation. This can come in the form of a biological sensation, a pounding heartbeat, burning thighs etc. or it can come as a psychological sensation, a mantra you tell yourself, or an awareness of a cyclical negative thought pattern.


Associative Inward Focus - While running a hard effort on the track, I am thinking about breathing fully from my diaphragm with every inhalation.

Associative Outward Focus - While running a hard effort on the track, I am paying attention to my splits every 100m to ensure I stay on target pace.

Dissociative Inward Focus - While running hard efforts I am daydreaming about sipping a mai-tai on the beach or stressing over work.

Dissociative Outward Focus - While running a hard effort I am distracted by the singing to the music in my headphones.

For endurance athletes, the direction of your focus is an important layer to the focus umbrella. We need to be able to identify times when we are focused on something we can control vs. something we can’t control. Focusing our attention on either internal or external things we can actively control gives us the ability to interpret, evaluate and modulate our efforts however is needed.

Athletes can often get caught in a negative loop and focus on an internal or external point that they have no control over, and that can have terrible consequences on their performance.

Let’s look at an all too common example:

Many cyclists performing an FTP test (a truly uncomfortable and challenging test of your cycling abilities) often focus on “the pain-” the burn in their quads or lungs, but in reality, this internal associative focus is not valuable and to some degree is out of their control. Yes, it is a voluntary effort so they could just stop, but if the goal is to truly test performance, we will have to subject ourselves to some level of “pain” or discomfort. In that sense, it is out of their control and they will need to work through it.

Rather than focusing on the internal sensation of discomfort, it is valuable for this athlete to focus on an external point of performance. Focusing on cadence or pedaling mechanics, paying attention to breathing, and being sure you are breathing fully and diaphragmatically will all undoubtedly serve to enhance performance AND distract from the discomfort that is outside of their control. It's important to note, however, the goal, in this case, is not the distraction it's self rather the distraction is the result of shifting to a DIFFERENT associative focus point of performance rather than distraction as the result of a dissociative focus.

Having awareness and understanding enough to recognize when we are focused on something outside our control or something that impacts us in a detrimental way allows us to shift our focus back to something in our control and regain our composure. But how?

The ability to shift our focus from the negative to something controlable and positive is a skill and certainly one that can be trained (see Mind Control for Athletes) But for those whom that skill doesn't come naturally or haven't trained it yet, this is where a mantra can come in handy!

Most of the examples I used above (cadence, pedaling mechanics) were examples of external focus points, but we can also harnes the power of mantras (internal focus point) to regain our composure and begin the process of shifting our focus to something more beneficial. We also talked about this and the power of positive self talk in greater detail in my prior post Mind Control for Athletes . The mantra is not necessarily a long term solution, but it is a tool used to bridge your focus from the negative to something within your control.

The best athletes don’t focus on the hurt, but they don’t distract themselves (dissociate) from it either; they focus on things they can control to improve their effort.

When things start to feel hard or hurt we need to focus more than ever, we often see that new athletes to endurance sports dissociate and try to dissociate from the discomfort they are feeling. The best athletes on the other hand don’t distract themselves they double down and focus more on their effort in those challenging moments than they do when things feel easy.

So next time you find yourself thinking “I can’t do this it’s too hard” or you are stuck thinking about a missed turn or something that did not go well early in a race, practice awareness and shift your focus to something in your immediate control that will benefit you in the long run.

Tune in next time when we will wrap up the “Focus on Focus” series with Part 3- Narrow or Broad focus, as we look at the field of your focus and the value of focusing on the big picture or something incredibly small.

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