The role of focus and attention for Peak Performance

mental skills coaching

Successfully achieving full potential during competitive performance is often equally attributed to physical and psychological capabilities working synergistically and allowing athletes to perform optimally. “The attentional system is a bridge between perception, cognition and action” (Moran, 1996).  Mental preparation and attentional focus are essential factors in attaining this ‘peak’ performance state. Frequently referred to as ‘flow’ or being in the ‘zone’, the psychological status required to produce elite performance is a complex and fragile phenomenon (Beilock & Carr, 2001). The remainder of this article will explore factors that mediate attentional focus and outline effective strategies used by applied psychologists, coaches and athletes in preparation for and execution of peak performance.

Assessing attenetional demands of performance

Firstly, considering the attentional demands of the performance situation is necessary to identify the appropriate focus required; focus exists on a continuum from broad to narrow and specific to general (Nideffer, 1976). The sports-specific demands on attentional focus vary considerably during decision making or team based sports where a broad focus of attention is required to process relevant information from the environment. Conversely, for self-paced, closed performance, a narrow, task relevant focus of attention is required, to minimise irrelevant information and distraction (Moran, 1996).

These variations in attentional demands can be further understood on consideration of the neural operating mechanisms engaged during skilled performance: Decision making or open-skill sports require a broad focus; working memory predominates to ensure speed of information interpretation and retrieval during performance (Martindale & Collins, 2005). However, the working memory capacity is limited and prone to becoming over-loaded. When over-loaded working memory function can be severely inhibited resulting in decreased performance. Factors associated with competitive performance, stress, anxiety, self-doubt, nervousness, all impinge upon the capacity of working memory available to process performance relevant information (Wilson, Wood & Vine, 2009). Over-load of this nature narrows attentional focus and often focuses on performance-irrelevant information, as explicated by Wilson and colleagues (2009) who tested the attentional control theory (an extension of the processing efficiency theory), demonstrating that under high levels of anxiety the ‘bottom-up’ or stimulus driven attentional control predominates over the ‘top-down’ goal-directed attentional control system. This resulted in soccer players fixing gaze (an indication of attentional focus) on the ‘threatening’ stimulus of the goal keeper prior to executing a penalty kick leading to less accurate, easily predictable centralised shooting compared to those under low levels of anxiety. In addition, explicitly monitoring skill procedures (narrowly focusing on task relevant information) can reduce performance by focusing on procedures of skill rather automatic execution of well-learned knowledge (Beilock & Carr, 2001).

Self-paced, closed motor-skills are executed optimally when information processing does not engage working memory (Beilock & Carr, 2001). Performance of well-practiced motor skill relies on sub-cortical long-term knowledge of skill execution during peak performance. The performer utilises refined, rehearsed skill motor routines. Increased levels of stress and anxiety induce a switch from long-term memory to working memory, resulting in performers explicitly focusing on well learned motor skill procedures leading to a decrease in the automaticity of skill execution (Beilock, MacMahon, Starkes & Carr, 2004). This is exhibited by a slower, more segmented performance by high level performers (similar to that of a lower-skill athlete) (Beilock et al, 2004). Processing motor procedures through working memory pathways can beneficial for novices when acquiring motor skills, where additional attention to task information appropriately guides performance, this benefit dissipates with increased skill level refined through experience.

Training attentional focus for performance

Pre-performance routines can include the use of self-regulatory methods (self-talk, imagery, goal setting) to reduce competitive stress, anxiety, increase self-efficacy and ensure optimal focus attention; the objective of such strategies being to reduce the impact of distraction for dual-task processing and maintain attentional focus during performance. In addition to these common performance tools, further understanding of the cognitive requirements for performance (sports specific, task demand and skill level) has led to the development of interventions that also prime the neuromuscular system for peak execution.

Research investigating the mediating factors that influence the effectiveness of these performance strategies has demonstrated that increasing the functional equivalence of psychological pre-performance preparation enhances physical performance (Lam, Maxwell & Masters, 2009). Functional equivalence refers to the extent to which the neuromuscular pathways activated during physical performance are similar to those activated during the psychological preparation (Collins & Holmes, 2001). As elucidated above, open-skill sports predominantly use cortical processing based in working memory and closed-skill sports benefit from more sub-cortical processing of proceduralised skill knowledge stored as long term memory (Posner & Snyder, 1975).

 Designing training sessions for open-skill sports that accommodate the cognitive factors of performance, for example information processing and problem solving will increase performers’ capacity to rapidly assess environmental demands and increase ability to anticipate movement patterns of team-mates or the opposition, allowing time to select and deploy the most appropriate skilled action, rather than a more delayed reaction-based response (Martindale & Collins, 2005). Closed-skill training sessions that incorporate instruction and feedback that promotes sub-cortical information processing will reduce the risk of engaging sub-optimal (cortical) processing pathways during training and competition. For example, focusing on kinesthetics, speed, sound or rhythm of movement will encourage performers to focus on global movements associated with higher-level performance (MacPherson, Collins & Morris. 2008). Progression from the ‘instruction-manual’ style of teaching technical skills to include global, holistic factors of performance, such as feeling/sound will reduce the risks posed to performance by the explicit monitoring of technical procedures. Further, coaches should consider optimal timing when verbally reviewing or instructing motor skills to avoid the short term negative performance effects associated with in-depth description of skills requiring perceptual cognitive abilities for peak execution, particularly when working with higher skill level individuals (Flegal &Anderson, 2008). Language based information processing competitively engages the working memory, resulting in short-term inhibition of proceduralised skill knowledge stored as long-term memory (the verbal overshadowing shadowing phenomenon) (Schooler & Englester-Schooler, 1990).

 Additionally, increasing the functional equivalence of preparatory interventions (e.g. imagery) can be achieved through utilising modalities that replicate variations in the sensory information available and attended to by athletes during performance. For example, in accordance with PETTLEP model (Holmes & Collins, 2001) focusing on visual, auditory, emotional and kinaesthetic information while imaging is conducive to improving performance to a greater extent than relying on a less sports specific (written script) or a single source if information.

Cueing attentional focus for performance

Qualitative and quantitative have research findings shown that pre-performance strategies incorporating single cue words that present relevant information without explicitly attending to technical procedures (e.g. bang, ping)  promote automatically executing motor skills (MacPherson, Collins & Morris, 2008). Similarly, focusing attention to global movement outcomes (speed or explosiveness) will reduce the time available to explicitly monitor technical procedures and reduce engaging conscious processing pathways characteristic of lower level performance (Beilock et al. 2002).

Contingency strategies are employed to refocus or switch attention during or prior to performance. Identifying relevant and individualised triggers that evoke the correct attentional response is essential for effectiveness. Incorporating triggers that are irrelevant, misunderstood or that require time to interpret and translate to action may serve as distraction and further decrease attention available for sports relevant tasks (MacPerson, Collins & Obhi, 2009). Identifying the trigger or cue that athletes associate with optimal focus is essential. Subsequent to identification, practicing and reinforcing the trigger during training will ensure resilience of the technique when necessary under stress competition scenarios. Using triggers to focus and refocus not only provides performers with a back-up to prevent fixating on negative, irrelevant factors during sport (foul, failed attempt etc.), the emotional regulation provides a sense of self-control and an effective coping mechanism to deal with uncontrollable aspects of competition (Fin, 2008). Attention triggers can be visual, auditory or behavioural depending on the demands of the sport. Establishing when, where and how to implement the trigger with coaches, team mates and support staff will allow for effective application of the strategy (Kozuma, 2009).

            Attentional focus is an essential aspect of elite level performance. Similar to physical skill, cognitive skills can be refined and improved with practice. Identifying and implementing individualised interventions to train the attentional focus required for performance is effective when integrated as a long-term process (Fin, 2008). For optimal learning and resilience of attentional skills, practice of mental sills integrated with physical training sessions replicate the demands of stressful sporting environments is essential (Fin, 2008). As with all skills, regular assessment and progression of cognitive training interventions is recommended to ensure continual improvement and facilitate the transfer of skills from training to competition.






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