Attentional State and Performance

In the previous article we introduced the concept of Nideffer's Attentional Focus areas and how we need to be in the correct zone for performing certain tasks. We went on to look at some of the models which influence our focus.

In this second half we'll look at some more of the influences and explore some of the ways we can help ourselves create or maintain the optimal focus for our performance.

Attentional Focus and Arousal / Stimulation

With reference to fig 5 – Stimulation vs Performance

Nideffer claims that different tasks make heavier demands than others for certain kinds of attention.

1 – He believes that the inverted U can be explained by arousal affecting an individual's willingness and/or ability to shift attention in response to changing task demands.

Riding a fire road stimulates us little, and our focus can drift more and more external and broad, which is fine until we don't notice the big hole in the trail that requires a more narrow external focus to negotiate.....

Riding a gnarly bit of steep and muddy trail we focus so much on the trail immediately ahead that we don't notice where the trail actually goes, or that a fellow rider is lying by the side of the trail, where they fell off.

2 – As arousal increases, individuals become more dependent on their preferred attentional style, whether this is the best way to respond or not. A preferred narrow external style brings us to the point above much quicker.

In general, the more fatigue, stress, or arousal present, the narrower the focus, even to the point that athletes training to exhaustion referring to tunnel vision.

In fact over stimulation equating to fear, in a 'Fight or Flight' mode or completely gripped by getting out of your depth on a trail can trigger a physiological reaction and see adrenaline being pumped into the system resulting in High blood flow, high respiration rate, and increased muscle tension, all of which can in themselves damage physical performance, even without overly-focussed attention creating a mental state affecting performance also.

Nideffer described this potential downward spiral using the diagram below (fig6)

Pressure as a concept is an emotional one, and while we might refer to pressure as performance anxiety there is also an emotional element dependant on our level of emotional investment (and mindset) in the outcome, and so this can affect our level of stimulation.

The graph shows that some pressure resulting in stimulation will result in better performance (Area A) as this stimulation focusses concentration and allows the 'blocking out' of unwanted external factors (or narrowing of focus) – we become unaware of the drop off to one side of the trail, however as the stimulation increases then as riders we become increasingly focussed on a more and more narrow area, which we can see will be detrimental to performance (fig 5 and 6), with performance crashing if over stimulated and overloaded.

Performance Under Pressure

Nideffer recognised 4 things affecting the ability to perform under pressure:

1 – Biogenetic differences – some people are more capable of narrowing their attention faster than others, and therefore reacting appropriately to stimulus.

This can be the only difference between elite athletes

2 – Individual's awareness of self and ability to use 'chunking' strategies to minimalise attention demands. Learned strategies can be applied consciously to retain appropriate areas of focus.

Recognising the skill area most in demand on a particular section of trail can allow a rider to focus on that area without distraction. This comes from self awareness, and is a chunking strategy allowing attention to only be placed on elements of the situation that are deemed to be important:

“This section will require use of the rear brake only, and I will need to pre-angle the bike for the mini-berm on the exit” would be a strategy for coping with what may otherwise be

OMG a steep muddy slope with roots andtrees all over the place – I'm going to crash!!!”

3 – The extent to which the performance is 'automated'. This can allow an individual rider to function 'unconsciously' while performing other tasks. In a high pressure situation, then the more actions that can be automated the more capacity for the rider to make a few really important decisions. The way to automation is practice and repetition.

Coming up to a double jump, rider 1 is self coaching;... get the speed right, press into the front face, keep the weight back a bit, release at the lip, now change angle ready for the landing, right, where does the trail go next... oh..

Rider 2 comes up to the same double, okay, double, what next, oh the trail goes right, and into the trees next, okay it will be a bit rooty in the next section...

Less decisions, more capacity – More Practice!!

4 – The individual's confidence in their ability to cope – With a narrowing focus when aroused, it is increasingly important to focus in the correct area to be able to function well, and this comes with confidence. Confidence will allow an individual to focus on the right areas, process their environment well, possibly put a positive spin on their circumstances and in general cope with a higher level of arousal while still functioning successfully.

With riders 1 and 2 above, the confidence of rider 2 means they are less aroused by the same stimulus and more confident in a positive outcome, with a sudden gust of wind mid-jump responses may differ from:

Rider 1 - “Oh No!”         if any response is forthcoming due to the high level of stimulation

Rider 2 - “side wind, better drop the bike over a bit, I'll have to ride this one out”

After analysing these 4 areas, Nideffer responds with the following advice:

1 – Identify performance relative cues that don't increase arousal – perhaps put odds against things happening and reduce the emotional pressures on the rider – “I'd never managed that jump with style yet, so I didn't worry about doing it stylishly this time”

2 – Build confidence in order to enable yourself to control and direct your focus more efficiently.

Peak Experiences vs Focus

The ability to focus entirely internally or entirely externally is very difficult indeed, as there are many distractions. The minimum of conscious processing needs to happen, and so anything that is seen as important (whether it is or not) will grab attention and draw focus.

If a rider is expecting something bad to happen (lack of confidence) they will unconsciously seek that thing out, and even seek to find indicators that it is about to happen. This flow of information will require processing and thus provide a distraction. Even being concerned about how they are perceived by others can cause this (fixed mindset – natural external focus), especially for those seeking 'the zone' with its external focus; the rider needs to forget about themselves and 'become the performance' which is extremely difficult. This last ego trigger is hard to lose, and so many people who enter a peak experience will do so only when completely alone.

While in the zone, with its external focus, if the responses to a narrow set of inputs that are deemed relevant can be narrowed to almost a checklist with 'yes' or 'no' responses the conscious processing can be minimised and so the focus maintained in the correct area with more ease, and the peak experience maintained.

Focus Effects on Performance Development

It has been shown experimentally that the endurance of muscle groups and the perception of fatigue can both be positively influenced by an external focus. In fact believing this can even be shown to increase performance measurably. Further to this in multiple events, concentration on an external focus can improve both recovery and further performance on a second event. This is particularly relevant in trail riding with alternate climbs and descents, and especially in Enduro riding with multiple timed descents.( Perform, rest, recover, perform....)

To further improve performance focus can be developed from internal focus through associative focus, to dissociative focus, which is the most effective.

Thinking about pushing the pedal round is a way of focussing dissociatively (as opposed to pushing the foot round) which may seem pretty petty, but can actually result in a 5% performance gain in power and endurance.

On the road bike, dissociatively thinking “Push pedals round in circles” rather than the internal associative “must keep pushing my thighs” will actually speed me up by 5kmh

The key to this, and several of the other factors (especially mindset) can be the way you get feedback and the way you are given instructions. Here, the coaching methods most affect the focus, and it's this point that it needs to be said that this is where Real World Riding works hardest.

We balance these factors for and with riders, and carefully create a positive and non-critical environment where growth mindset is promoted, and give growth mindset promoting feedback. It's also why with coaching often comes riding, in order to build confidence in newly acquired skills. The positive feedback from our coached and guided clients doesn't come by accident you know.

Summary – How can I use all this?

Taking each of the sections and the conclusions from each of them produces a picture of a set of actions that can help us develop and perform to the best of our ability. Brought together these actions are:

1 – Practice, practice, practice. This will allow you to consciously process less when you are riding and reach a peak performance easier. It will allow you 'head-space' to consciously re-set your focus should you be distracted, and practicing this will make you able to re-set faster.

2 – Allow time to re-set. If you have a mishap, your focus will change, in fact you may have crashed due to a sudden change of focus from the optimum state. Take as long as you need to remove the distractions and re-focus in the correct area. This may take a few minutes, or a few seconds, or even a moment while still riding.

3 – Build your confidence up slowly in order to have less to process should anything unexpected happen.

4 – Maintain an external focus whenever things get physically tough, tell yourself to focus as externally as possible and you will suffer from less fatigue, and recover quicker.

5 – Be aware of your needs (Maslow) and either address them proactively, or mentally prepare yourself for the effect they will have on you.

6 – Beware of over-stimulation and be prepared to get off if you see it coming.

7- Concentrate on trying to develop a Growth Mindset, and help others by giving them Growth feedback. Seek to see every experience as a learning opportunity (even if you learn that you shouldn't do it that way) Seek feedback whenever possible, and don't worry about the opinions of others.

8 – Accept that if you find something difficult then it is an opportunity, and that hard work is a sign of progress.

9 – Try not to invest too much emotionally in the result of a ride. Measure your performance against no one but yourself, and only judge your development not the performance – remember YET, maybe you fell off twice this time, next time you will be better prepared..

10 – Try to identify the way you prefer to learn and seek feedback and coaching delivered in that style.

11- Try to develop strategies for common riding situations so that you can develop toward an automatic response in these situations, rather than having to consider everything.

12 – If you are enjoying, you are learning – laugh your way through the day and perform well and learn more.

13 – Practice some more. Competence, and confidence will see you through many things.