If I were to ask you which of the following has the greatest impact on performance outcomes, which would you pick: motivation, emotion, or attention? The most common answer I hear from athletes is motivation. While all three of these are important, where we place our attention has the most direct influence on whether we achieve our desired result. And, of the three, motivation typically plays the smallest roll in this process.
Let’s take a simple look at how attention works. We are faced with a stimulus (or stimuli, as is often the case), and we perceive this stimulus. It is not about whether we acknowledge a stimulus or not. After all, it is there, it is real, and we experience it. The key is how we perceive it. What information comes into our sensory organs, and how do we process and interpret and organize that information? How we perceive the stimuli is what influences our attention and where we place our attention influences our response. So, information comes in, we process it, our focus does or does not shift, and we respond. For example, something appears in front of us suddenly, and we need to interpret the stimuli, shift attention from racing to not falling, and we respond by avoiding the object. This is a positive for our performance. On the other hand, let’s say a fellow athlete is drafting off of us. This occupies our attention and causes us to respond by trying to drop them, which is not going to do good things for our race execution. Processing this distraction and maintaining our attention on executing our plan would be a more ideal response.
As endurance athletes, we want to focus our attention intentionally on what we are doing and keep it there. This focus on the execution of what we are doing is referred to as associative attention, and it is one of the things that differentiates endurance sports from most other sports. A professional soccer player does not want to think about every aspect of striking the ball when taking a shot (leg swing, foot angle, power, spin, every muscle that is being engaged, etc.). If they did this, the opportunity for the shot would disappear. Instead, they see the opening and strike the ball. The shot happens as they are focused on information that is not directly related to kicking the ball. The same is true for a quarterback hitting a receiver and a pitcher hitting the catcher’s glove. They are not focused on the mechanics of the movement. In these sports, dissociative focus is connected to higher levels of performance and expertise. But in endurance sports, we want to focus on the mechanics of what we are doing -- from nutrition and hydration to monitoring and maintaining optimal form and effort. These are the factors that influence our outcomes. To execute the race plan, we need to remain focused on, well, executing the race plan. In short, higher levels of performance in endurance sport are connected to higher levels of associative focus.
Does this mean we can never zone out and just work out? No. Exercise is therapy, and there are certainly times when it is healthy to just go and enjoy the experience. That said, maintaining focus on what we are doing will enhance our development, particularly as fatigue sets in and our form naturally starts to break down. Instead of zoning out until the end, focus in on what you’re doing and find ways to improve in these moments. Not only will it make you a better athlete, but maintaining proper form makes exercising easier. Yes, focusing in -- not zoning out -- will lower RPE and result in improved efficiency and exercise economy.
Some shifts in our attention are good and necessary. However, aside from a few select instances, maintaining our focus on our mechanics and the race strategy will result in improved outcomes. So the next time you are tempted to just zone out until the finish line, do yourself a favor and turn your attention inward to reach that finish line more quickly.