Attentional Focus

That being what your brain is busy doing while you're just trying to ride your bike and have a good time

Understanding Attentional Focus, and the factors affecting individuals in Training & Development


Studies on the psychology of Focus have shown that there are many benefits to developing the ability to focus correctly in the right area when performing tasks. Understanding focus and the factors affecting it can help us understand some of the limiting factors around performance and performance development.

An awareness of Attentional Focus can help us understand when we and others around us may struggle, and perhaps how to help them out of their difficulties. It will help us identify when our learning and development is most effective, and most importantly it will help us understand our own reactions when riding in potentially hazardous situations, and how to self coach ourselves into the best psychological position to perform well, and perhaps do the same for others around us.

That All Sounds Great – But What is Attentional Focus?

According to FredericNideffer, attentional focus can be best explained as four zones on a graph of broad and narrow focus, and internal and external focus – Fig 1

Some definitions helping define Nideffer's four zones:

External Focus – Can be thought of as Reactive to the environment or stimulus as it tends to respond to an external factor.

Internal Focus – Can be thought of as proactive as the decisions or actions are made irrespective of the environment in which they are being applied. In riding this focus allows actions to be made without distractions, such as riding a narrow trail and ignoring the trees rushing by or the big drop just to your left...

Broad External – This is the state needed to rapidly assess environmental conditions. Complex tactical situations require gathering of a broad reach of information such as operating in a mountain environment with changing trail surfaces, slope changes, changes in direction of the trail, changing exposure to hazard etc. This focus enables individuals to 'notice' a wide range of things when in an open environment, such as wildlife around the trail and other riders.

Broad Internal – This is an overall awareness of self, taking in stimulus from throughout the body to create a general picture. When learning a new skill this focus gives an overall awareness of body position rather than a focus on any given limb or muscle group.

Narrow Internal – In developing a new skill where a specific movement or body position is needed a narrow focus is needed to achieve a specific action. This might be focussing on the drop section of the 'L' action of manualling for instance. This is useful, but the less useful narrow internal can be a focus on a particular muscle ache or discomfort. Reference to Maslow's Hierarchy of needs will demonstrate the lack of ability to be an effective group member and to learn that can be brought about by a narrow internal focus on a muscle ache.

Narrow External – Attention required during a very specific response to an external stimulus such as NOT crashing into the rock needs a narrow external focus, likewise timing the movement for a manual, dropoff or hop needs this narrow external focus. It can be detrimental though when we focus, for instance on the drop itself and perhaps not the broader internal “relax” needed.

One of the worst crashes I've ever had (pretzelled front wheel, smashed helmet, concussion) was the result of having the wrong focus. I had just stopped for a pee and had failed to put my glove on properly before the group I was with set off on the next section of trail on the Burnside in Aviemore.

I set off to keep up with the group whilst my left pinkie was trapped half inside an inside out finger in my glove. Being aware of this my focus tended toward Narrow internal (“my finger is really uncomfortable”) rather than the Narrow External (“Miss the Trees”) focus needed.

No prize for guessing what happened. Spectacularly.

In any situation, we can identify the best Focus for an individual. This however is affected by a number of circumstances. What follows is a reference to a number of theories and models which demonstrate factors which will affect the resulting focus that a rider may have.

At this point it is worth watching the following video highlighting the power of focus:

And you can watch the video here: Https:// – which is a lecture on attentional focus, for a bit more depth if you're interested.

Attentional Focus related to Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs

Different positions on Maslow's Hierarchy of needs will result in different focusses. These will change as circumstances change and external and internal factors affect these influences. These resulting focusses will affect the individuals' ability to operate in certain circumstances. For instance a cold rider may have a broad internal focus related to their discomfort, but require a broad external focus to take in the trail around them and the fact that the group ahead just turned right at the junction....

For anyone in a learning environment, worrying about social pressure may draw them from a broad internal focus into a broad external focus and prevent them from developing.

Focus during the Experiential Learning Process

If we look at learning a new skill as a process, then during a traditional coaching experience we change our focus as we progress through this process of development. Again if our focus is drawn a different way, then we will find it difficult to follow the learning process.

This can be illustrated as an egg-timer of focus during the development process.

This illustrates the need for anyone learning a new skill to be able to change their focus in order to achieve the right focus for that part of the development process. Equally anything distracting the focus from that area will prove to be a barrier to that element of development, while deliberately focussing in the right area when developing a new skill will aid the skill development.

This deliberate focussing and refocussing can be practised during the learning process, and problem solving: Remembering a past experience, analysing it for appropriate learning and then applying it to the current situation is a process of changing focus.

  • Begin with an wide external focus (the problem)

  • Identify the specifics of the problem (Narrow external)

  • Internal focus (remembering a past experience and analysing it)

  • Narrow External focus (applying the specific past learning to the specific part of the problem)

  • Broad External Focus as we draw back to look at the 'big picture' of the problem and our solution within its context to work out our level of success.

Question is: did he notice?

Focus vs Mindset

Mindset theory when applied to learning suggests that a Fixed Mindset will have increased concern over opinions of others, about their perceptions and impression over ability, than a Growth Mindset. This would suggest that Fixed mindset has a more external focus and that Growth Mindset concentrating on the learning that can be had from any experience would promote an internal focus, perhaps narrow.

The most concerning part of mindset would be where a fixed mindset (external focus) comes against a part of the development process that requires an internal focus as per diagram 4. This would create a conflict where the focus would be continually drawn say from focussing Broad Internal on grasping the skill toward a broad external concern over the opinions of others. As a learner,  if we recognise a natural tendency toward Broad External, then getting away from other people to practice will make us more able to enter broad (and narrow) internal needed for practice without distraction.

Preferred Attentional Style (and Drivers)

There is evidence that although a particular activity or situation suggests an adoption of a specific attentional focus, there are individuals who exibit what can be referred to as a 'Preferred Style'. As with Growth/Fixed mindset they will be drawn to their preferences and therefore perform well when the situation demands that attentional focus, and less well when it demands an alternate focus.

These behavioural (Drivers) and cognitive style differences can range from Obsessive (dominant internal focus), Hysterical (dominant external focus and therefore completely reactive) and absence minded (broad internal focus leads to highly analytical but 'in their own headspace')

From the above you can see that many of the less extreme preferences or drivers have their useful place. They are no more or less valuable, but merely suited better to certain situations and roles.

The good thing though is that, reinforced by Mindset theory, in all but the most extreme circumstances every individual can train themselves to alter, or control their focus, and to do this faster and faster.

We concentrate on reading a book, watching a film, playing a video game and focus narrowly externally which means we can shut ourselves off from what's going on around us. (if you haven't watched the video at the start of the article this is the time)

Riding, we can go from broad external (read the trail ahead) to narrow external (miss the rock) and back again with relative ease (with practice)

This ability to change focus as can be seen in fig 4 is a pre-requirement for the easiest path to successful learning, and so development of this skill of refocussing can be seen, like generating a Growth Mindset as a pre-requisite of affective learning.

Examples of natural focus areas and drivers are, for instance people with a strong social driver, always aware of what's going on around them (Typical Broad External Behaviour) struggling to concentrate on developing a skill with people around them (needing an internal focus for development).

Nideffer suggests that while situations may either attract a dominant style, or develop that style in an individual, most people are capable of developing all four focus areas, and moving between them as circumstances require.

However, where a dominant style can make a situation harder is where the dominant focus leads us away from this optimum focus. We've already heard about focus needing to be in the right area on a micro scale, but in a larger scale, then someone with a natural broad internal focus will be more able to sacrifice to train hard than someone with a natural broad external focus who will be aware of the big picture 'sum' of the sacrifices. This can be the simple difference between a successful elite athlete and a less successful elite athlete.

Mostly, as riders we are well able to swap about our focus as necessary as it is a key part of our sport, but we need to be aware that under pressure we will more likely revert to our natural state. In this case errors are more likely to occur from a move from the necessary focus towards our preferred focus state.

With a brief reference to Myers Briggs Types

The final 'distraction' in terms of developpmental focus needs, in this section is in reference to Myers Briggs types. The Myers Briggs Model suggests that people can be split into Introverted and Extroverted processors (as well as, thinkers and feelers). These can be described as people having a tendency to think internally and externally (which map straight on to Nideffer's model) and into thinkers (internal focus with a lot of processing) and feelers (more external focus with much less processing of information).

It is sufficient to say that where people sit on the Myer's Briggs model will give them a preset tendency toward one of the Attentional Focus areas too. If you prefer to concentrate on a detail when someone gives you more information then you have an internal focus naturally, but if you crave the big picture when something new is given to you, then you have more of a tendency towards an external focus. This is quite considerably simplified!

All sorts of distractions going on, who's focussed on what?

At this point we're getting a picture that what is affecting our ability to perform is our ability to be aware of what focus state is the best one for our circumstances, and our ability to control that focus, when Maslow's enviromental factors, our preferred style, and our Mindset state may all be trying to refocus us in a less optimal focus area.

In the second half of the article we'll look at some of the other factors we need to be aware of and work around in order to have the optimal focus at any given time.