A winning advantage for the Olympics and everyday life | Information Center


How do you get to the Olympics? Train, train, train… but also know what to focus on during the heat of the competition.

How fast someone is running, swimming or paddling; how high or how long they jump; how accurately they hit a target; how well they balance each other; or how much weight they can lift depends to a large extent on where they are focusing their attention.

I am a sports scientist who for decades has studied how people acquire motor skills. In the late 90s, I began to examine how a performer’s center of attention influences learning.

Research suggests that what an athlete focuses on can be the difference between winning gold and even not being on the team. What may be surprising is that moving your attention from inside yourself – what’s going on in your body – to what’s out there – what you’re trying to accomplish – is a winning strategy. .

The brain of an athlete is busy

Consider what the brain needs to do to organize complex movements.

He has to coordinate the necessary muscle contractions – making sure they happen at the right time, for the right duration and with the required intensity. He must also inhibit the other muscles, essentially telling those not involved in the movement to stay on the sidelines for the time being.

Temporary, task-specific connections between relevant brain networks are a prerequisite for smooth, efficient and precise movements. The functional connectivity of certain areas of the brain and the suppression of other areas allow an athlete to produce elegant jump shots, tennis shots, golf swings, or tumbling routines.

Learning how to produce effective brain activation patterns is a long-term process, of course. Achieving a skill level where performance is consistently precise, automatic, smooth and economical requires considerable practice. Athletes hone their skills over many years, if not decades.

Nonetheless, as they occur, their center of attention plays a vital role. If athletes have poor concentration, their performance will suffer.

Where to target your focus

Based on the results of numerous studies, it’s clear that athletes should never focus on their own movements – what movement scientists call a hotbed of internal attention.

It may sound contradictory to how many people learn a new sport. After all, those who instruct others in the process of acquiring motor skills usually refer to body movements. Think of a coach who tells a young basketball player to kick his wrist while shooting the ball, or a golf coach who tells a player to focus on rotating their hips. Therefore, athletes think about how to move parts of their body, especially at the start of learning.

But surveys have found that even experienced athletes often focus internally. Especially when under pressure – as they would be in competition – they tend to focus on their movements. Often the result is that they “choke”.

Instead, for optimal performance, the focus should be on the goal of movement. This is called a focus of external attention.

This can mean focusing on a target to hit, such as the corner of a goal, a golf hole, a target, or a catcher’s glove. It can also be the intended movement or trajectory of a tool such as a javelin, disc or bar; the desired rotation of a ball; force exerted against an apparatus or equipment, the ground or an adversary; water being repelled by swimming or rowing; or the finish line of a race.

It is not the hand releasing the object or pulling the water backwards, the muscles producing the strength or speed of the leg movements.

More efficient to focus on whatever the how

Focusing on the desired outcome of your actions, rather than the movements of your body, reveals the body’s remarkable ability to produce effective and efficient movements. Even the form or technique of movement often improves immediately when a person moves from an internal center of attention to an external center of attention. The body does what it needs to do to complete the action – unless you are intervening with conscious attempts to control your movements.

The researchers noted the effects of an external focus on many aspects of performance: improved precision of movement, better balance, greater peak forces, higher speed, and better endurance.

With an external focus, the movements are more efficient. Because brain and muscle activity is optimized, the resulting movements are produced with less energy. This is seen, for example, by reduced oxygen consumption or lower heart rates for the same physical labor when artists adopt an external focus.

Researchers have quantified just how much this shift in focus can bring to athletes. With an external focus:

Considering that races are often won or lost with very narrow margins, sometimes in the order of a few hundredths of a second, an athlete’s center of attention can determine whether or not they win a medal.

Many advantages beyond the Olympic stadium

While most people will never be Olympians, an external orientation offers benefits regardless of the level of expertise, age or (disability) of the performer, or type of skill.

Whether you are learning to play a musical instrument or are an experienced musician, an external focus will result in better performance. Whether you are an elderly person with Parkinson’s disease or a healthy young adult, your balance will be improved by external focus. Whether you are unharmed or have had a stroke, you will be able to carry out activities of daily living more effectively by focusing on the outdoors.

It turns out that your body can perform the actions you desire more masterfully if you are able to shift your conscious attention from what your body is doing and instead think about what you want to accomplish.

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