To excel in what we do as athletes, we need to be able to exercise attentional control — to be aware of what’s happening both internally in the body/mind and externally in the surrounding environment, and to consciously choose where and how to focus our attention for extended periods of time.
Since the body tends to follow and respond to wherever we place our attention, we typically get more of what we attend to. This cuts both ways. If the mind is filled with negative chatter related to discomfort we’re experiencing during a race, the discomfort can be magnified. If, on the other hand, the mind is focused on getting to that next mile marker, the body can respond accordingly by harnessing the energy needed to get there.
Attentional control consists of three key elements: awareness, focus, and concentration. Awareness refers to a broad, general sense of what’s happening in and around us. Focus places that awareness onto something in particular. Concentration holds the awareness and focus in mind for an extended period of time.
We can shift attentional control across two overlapping dimensions: broad/narrow and internal/external. As these dimensions overlap, they form the four quadrants of the diagram below, as discussed by sports psychologist Robert Nideffer. Attention can be broad external, narrow external, broad internal, or narrow internal.
For example, before a run we might do a (broad internal) body scan to check in with how we’re feeling. After we start running, we might shift attention (narrow internal) to our shoulders to keep them relaxed during an intense interval. Likewise, during a race, we might pay (broad external) attention to the racecourse, the positioning of competitors, and other environmental factors that we need to be aware of to execute our race tactics. That attention might then shift again (narrow external) as we zero in on a runner in front of us that we want to catch.
Mindfulness is another way of talking about awareness, focus, and concentration. Jon Kabat-Zinn, a professor of medicine and pioneer in the scientific study of mindfulness, defines mindfulness as “paying attention on purpose in the present moment non-judgmentally.” Practicing mindfulness involves adopting the stance of a neutral observer and watching what comes up in your mind. It’s about developing a meta-awareness — that is, an awareness that you’re aware — of what’s unfolding in each present moment.
In the video below, Jon Kabat-Zinn provides a brief overview of mindfulness.
In the next video, Andy Puddicombe — author, meditation teacher, and co-founder of the Headspace meditation app — explains mindfulness in this TED Talk.
Mindfulness is a foundational mental skill on which all other high-performance mental skills build. Developing mindfulness — awareness, presence of mind, and attentional control — requires consistent and frequent practice, but the good news is that even dedicating just 10 minutes a day to mindfulness practice can go a long way. An upcoming practical application provides some specific mindfulness exercises that you can integrate into your daily routine.