There has been lots of research into the psychological predictors of performance in endurance events, and while there isn’t a single scientific consensus, we have a strong idea of the variables that contribute to an athlete’s psychological performance.
Endurance events are relatively unique due to the fatigue and repetition involved. Tour de France riders are expected to maintain incredible levels of performance for over five hours a day, for weeks at a time. It’s plenty of time for negative, performance impairing thoughts to creep in, so how do they stay focused for such extended periods?
Regardless of whether we’re talking about performance on the Tour de France, on a tennis court, against a deadline or during a presentation, ‘focus’ is something that is constantly sought after.
In sport we talk about two types of focus, (1) task focus and (2) self-focus.
Task focus is simply, focusing on what we’re doing, the external cues.
Self-focus is where our attention is focused inwards, on how we’re feeling, and what we’re thinking.
It is heightened task focus that helps us get ‘in the zone’, that helps us switch our mind off and simply allow our body and brain to do the thing it has been practising and preparing for. Task focus is the type of focus that improves our performance, unsurprisingly, it helps us complete the task at hand, better.
However, ‘self-focus’, can be less helpful in these performance situations…
When we are self-focused, we are hyper tuned into what our body and mind is saying to us, we pay more attention to doubting thoughts. For example, the cyclist might dwell on thoughts like “my legs are burning, but everyone else looks OK” or “maybe I can’t do this”. Fundamentally, self-focus takes resources away from the task.
So, how do we shift ourselves towards task focus? Fortunately, there are ways that we can train our attention. The positive effects of attention training have been researched for some time.
In the cognitive model of social anxiety disorder (SAD), the disorder is partly maintained by a strong self-focused attention, the same challenge that faces many of us in high pressure situations. In SAD this might be thinking “my palms are so sweaty”, or “I hope they don’t notice my face blushing”. This self-focus means we’re more likely to dwell on those thoughts, to hold onto them for longer, which negatively impacts our ability to stay task focused. In clinic, one of the strategies we use to overcome this is attention training, for example training ourselves to pay attention to different voices or noises during a busy video or public place.
This same technique can be used to improve anyone’s focus. Essentially, we try to teach our brain to accept difficult thoughts and feelings and choose to engage with them or not. We listen to the signal coming from our legs that they’re burning, we accept it and move forward, rather than being weighed down by those thoughts. In practice, this attention training looks a lot like mindfulness.
‘Mindfulness’ has been popularised in recent years, and early research suggests it may have multiple psychological benefits. Many sports psychologists use mindfulness to help elite athletes improve their performance, perhaps used most famously by Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant.
One of the most successful ways we use mindfulness is to incorporate it into everyday activities. Try training attention while doing the mundane – doing the washing up, walking the dog etc. Focus on each of the five senses, what information are you receiving in the form of sounds? smells? Practising focusing on them, one at at time and holding that attention.
What can you do to train your focus to help improve your performance?
Jake Lovelock, Performance Psychologist at Cognacity.