Okay folks, I thought I’d change things up a bit and share with you some of the stuff I have been researching and writing about in my Master’s program. One of the things that is really interesting to me is how we focus our attention; things like mindfulness and flow in particular but also just plain old “what am I paying attention to right now? How is it affecting my mental state, my performance, my life?”.

Don’t ride into the water….as you head straight for the water (what is that?)

An simple example of this can be illustrated by an observation my niece Carly made when she was visiting us last summer. My husband took her mountain bike riding by a small lake near our house; she had never been before (she lives in Miami – there are no mountains!) and was really nervous. It was interesting talking to her when they got back because she was miserable and fell a lot during the first half of the ride. She asked John (my husband) how far they were going to go and he just said “we can go as far as we want”.

When she was relaying this to me she said that she doesn’t perform well when she doesn’t have a goal or end point in site. During the first half of the ride, with no end in sight and not knowing how long she was going to have to ride for, all she kept thinking about was not falling. And she fell. A lot. At one point on the trail she was focusing on not ending up in the water. She ended up in the water.

Don't focus on falling, focus on riding!

Don’t fall, don’t fall, don’t fall…..FALL

A change of focus…and improved performance

After about the gazillionth fall, John said “ok, let’s head back”. As soon as they started heading back toward the car, she didn’t fall anymore. She said it was because she had a goal, she knew it was still miles away but she knew they were heading back to the car and that gave her something else to focus on and gave her a goal to accomplish.

She had a great time on the way back!

We talked a lot about her focus and how frustrated she gets when she learns new skills if she makes mistakes and a lot of her focus is internal and how maybe if she focuses externally, like on the goal of getting to a certain location or hitting a certain spot in the goal (she’s a soccer player) or setting a specific time frame for practicing certain aspects of a skill or a complete skill so she knows when it will end. It was awesome to talk to her about all of this because she was very aware of the situations she learns best in, the situations she gets frustrates in and makes more errors, and then we worked on some ways to put that self-awareness into practice.

When we “choke”

That noticeable switch in her ability to mountain bike was quite striking. According to the Constrained Action Hypothesis having an external focus of attention in the presence of pressure allows for the promotion of automaticity of movement and implicit learning and reducing the breakdown of automatic processes (Lawrence, Gottwalk, Khan, & Kramer, 2012).

It is thought that focusing externally can reduce the incidence of choking because the athlete or learner isn’t thinking about their internal processes and just relying upon what their body “knows” and performing a task they’ve done a million times before, even if it’s in a different setting. In the conscious processing hypothesis, it is thought that becoming overly self-conscious of one’s efforts leads to greater information processing time because the task is broken down into smaller segments which then leads to the breakdown in the overall performance of a task (Lawrence et al., 2007).

Just do it, don’t think about it

For example, Carly had ridden bikes before, so she knew the mechanics of bike riding and was a proficient bike rider on level ground. But once she was in a novel environment, she switched from an external focus (riding my bike to the end of the street, to my friend’s house, to the park, etc.) to more of an internal, self-conscious focus, concentrating fiercely on pedaling and steering so she wouldn’t fall. In essence, she choked under the pressure of the new situation and trying to keep up with her uncle.

Focus on the ride, not on not falling!

 

What’s really interesting to me, though, is that internal focus can also lead to choking prevention or improved performance in some situations. Where and when to use external versus internal foci of attention can be individual and situation dependent. Lawrence et al. (2012) found that having an external focus of attention during skill acquisition did improve performance on both the motor performance of a putting task and putting outcomes under pressure/higher anxiety conditions but having an internal focus of attention during skill acquisition also led to a preservation of performance in high pressure/anxiety tests.

The only group that “choked” was the group that had no prescribed focus of attention.

Focus on what you want to achieve, not what you want to avoid

When you’re learning a skill, some internal focus may be beneficial. But when you’re performing a skill, an external focus may be your best bet.

What do you think?

Reference for my nerd friends:

Lawrence, G.P., Gottwald, V.M., Khan, M.A., & Kramer, R.S.S. (2012). The movement kinematics and learning strategies associated with adopting different foci of attention during both acquisition and anxious performance. Frontiers in Psychology, 3(article 468). doi: 10.3389/fpsyg2012.00468

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