Defining attentional focus.
Attentional focus in athletes can be split into two broad strategies, that of association and dissociation (Lind et al. 2009). A range of terms for association and dissociation are in the literature, these include internal focus, attention, and redefinition for association and external focus, distraction and avoidance for dissociation, although the constructs themselves are extremely similar (Brewer & Buman 2006). Attentional focus is a critical psychological element within a wide range of endurance sports such as running (Summers et al. 1982; Schomer 1986; Goode & Roth 1993; Masters & Ogles 1998; Stevinson & Biddle 1998; LaCaille et al. 2004; Buman et al. 2008; Tenenbaum & Connolly 2008), rowing (Connolly & Janelle 2003; Longman et al. 2014), and cycling (Stanley et al. 2007). Originally Schomer (1986) developed attentional strategies through the single dimension of task relatedness, merging association and dissociation with attentional width for example, whether attentional focus is broad or narrow and the direction of attention for example, towards internal or external signals. Associative thoughts consequently contained thoughts that were task related such as bodily sensations, conditions and pacing with dissociative thoughts containing thoughts that were non task related such as daydreaming, problem solving and admiring the view. However, it had been established that 63% of thoughts existing in participants were not classified as the thoughts fell in between associative and dissociative, for instance a thought that was associative as it was related to the task, but also dissociative as it acted as distraction from the distress during the run (Summers et al. 1982). This led to attentional focus being re-developed by Stevinson & Biddle (1998) who proposed a two-dimensional classification system as seen below.
Outward monitoring: For example, strategy, mile markers, water stations, split times, route and conditions.
Outward distraction: For example, scenery, spectators, other runnersand the environment.
Inward monitoring: For example, breathing, muscle soreness, thirst, fatigue, perspiration, blisters and nausea.
Inward distraction: For example, daydreams, imagining music, maths puzzles, philosophy and religion.
A range of methods to measure attentional focus in runners have been utilised such as recording devices (Schomer et al. 1986), structured verbal interviews (McDonald & Kirkby 1995), online interviews (Buman et al. 2008), and questionnaires (Goode & Roth 1993; Stevinson & Biddle 1998). However, it must be acknowledged that each has methodological limitations. The utilisation of recording devices to record spoken thoughts whilst the runners ran could result in participants discomfort and potentially cause a decrease in performance level, subsequently experimentally-imposed dissociative thoughts may be provoked (Masters & Ogles 1998). Self-report methods can cause participants to be selective in reporting because of potential embarrassment. Furthermore there is the possibility of vague thoughts being incorrectly classified by researchers (Longman et al. 2014). Additionally the use of recalled attention focus has the potential to be inaccurate due to the distorting effect of time on memory (Schomer et al. 1986).
Attentional focus in competitive endurance performance.
The research has indicated that elite endurance runners and experienced runners prefer to utilise associative strategies during performance (Masters & Lambert 1989; Silva & Appelbaum 1989; McDonald & Kirkby 1995), this is most likely due to the elite performers often being more experienced, and thus are able to afford an associate strategy because of the physical superiority. Furthermore an increase in exercise intensity has demonstrated this transition to associative thoughts (Hutchinson & Tenenbaum 2007; Tenenbaum & Connolly 2008; Razon et al. 2009). The significance of employing associative strategies to increase performance level during phases of high intensity is widely recognised (Birrer & Morgan 2010). Via associative strategies, performers can monitor sensory feedback to improve performance by modification of racing strategy or pacing (LaCaille et al. 2004). For instance, when increasing speed to keep up with the leading pack in an endurance race, if the runner does not ‘check up’ on forms of physical pain, an incorrect pacing decision may be made. This may result in the performer decreasing pacing drastically due to fatigue at a later stage in the race or completing the race sub maximally. These associative strategies have been deemed a predictor of success in endurance performance (Silva & Appelbaum 1989). Alternatively in weaker runners dissociation appears more frequently, being more effective than association, these results are likely influenced by the weaker performers often being less experienced (Brewer & Buman 2008). The use of dissociation enables performers to desensitise oneself from sensory feedback, thus decreasing the level of pain, discomfort and monotony during performance (Schomer 1986). Furthermore dissociative strategies have also been seen to increase when the duration of the exercise increases; which often corresponds with a decrease in exercise intensity at maximal exertion, the desensitising results in a reduction in the perception of exertion (Stanley et al. 2007; Lohse & Sherwood 2011). This has been shown to be crucial in performers decision making processes, which can be the difference between success and failure through adapting pacing strategies and even the choice whether to cease or prolong performance (Morgan 1981). For instance, when taking part in the final stages of an endurance race when physical discomfort is high, if the performer does not ‘distract’ ones-self this may cause a sub optimal pacing strategy or even cause the performer to give up and quit the race due to the perceived pain.
Coping strategies for endurance performance.
The inclusion of psychological skills training, for example, self-talk and imagery (Masters & Lambert 1989), has been recommended alongside attentional focus manipulation, in particular for non-elite endurance performers to prevent the interpretation of exertion and pain in a more emotional manner (Masters & Lambert 1989). A study by Blanchfield et al. (2013) recognised that in particular motivational self-talk in endurance performance can cause an enhanced perceived ability of the performer to sustain the necessary power output for an extended period of time. Thus the cognitive effect of motivational self-talk led to a reduction in rating of perceived exertion therefore, the point at which maximal effort was believed to have took place was delayed. Examples of motivational self-talk used in this study including; “drive forward”, “you’re doing well”. In terms of attentional focus manipulation an early study by Stevinson & Biddle (1998) consisting of 66 non-elite London marathon runners determined that inward monitoring is crucial for sustaining physical awareness, changes in pacing and monitoring fluid intake thus increasing comfort and performance. This being said, over attention will amplify discomfort levels resulting in ‘hitting the wall’ at an earlier stage of running. Thus regular but short in duration ‘check ups’ instead on continuous monitoring is recommended.