How Focus and Attention work

This section briefly explains the necessary theory behind the way in which your brain works. This will put subsequent sections into context. There are two main things you need to understand:
  • How parts of your brain work together
  • How your brain has evolved to react to stimuli

How Parts of Your Brain Work Together
Your brain is a hugely complex system made up of a vast number of components interacting in a hugely complex and sophisticated way. Much of its function is still not understood.

You will probably be aware of the theory that function of the brain is separated into left and right hemisphere functions. This theory grossly oversimplifies the complexity of brain function. It does, however, provide us with a useful model to apply to sports psychology that has a feeling of intuitive correctness.

The Left Brain/Right Brain Model
This model holds that different high level functions of your brain are localised into either the left side or the right side in the following way:

Your Left Brain performs analytical activities that are processed logically, in sequence, such as:
  • Logic and rational thinking
  • Language and verbal self-instruction
  • Mathematics
  • Planning and Goal Setting
  • Analysis of a complex skill and construction of an image of how that skill should be performed

Whereas your Right Brain controls complex activities where many factors are handled together, such as:
  • Imagery
  • Coordination, and execution of complex movements in space
  • Integration of complex skills into flowing movement
  • Intuition and creativity

The Left Brain (often called the Analyser) tends to be dominant, as skills it is responsible for are most intensively trained during education. This part of the brain analyses and understands new skills, and examines existing technique or attitudes for errors and faults. This part of the brain is highly effective during training in improving technique.

The Right Brain (called the Integrator) controls the best performance of a skill by integrating all the components of the skill into one flowing movement in which all the isolated components of the skill work together.

This is important because either your analyser or your integrator should be dominant in different circumstances:

During much of training the Analyser should be dominant, picking up errors, faults in technique or harmful attitudes. It will then send corrections to the Integrator to amend the complex skill. Letting the 'Integrator' control practice can end up in empty training, in which nothing new is learned.

During performance, however, the Integrator should be in control, so that all the skills learned are performed in a completely co-ordinated, flowing way. Similarly in a sport where complex movements of other competitors have to be taken into account, the Integrator is most effective in making tactical decisions. Letting the analyser control performance by criticising or analysing execution of skills distracts the integrator.

Effectively, you have achieved 'flow' when your integrator is in complete control of a performance, and is not being distracted either by analysis from the left side of your brain, or by external factors.

How Your Brain Reacts to Stimuli
Your brain has evolved to protect you from danger. An important part of this is the response that draws your attention to unexpected or unusual stimuli. These might, for example, indicate that a predator is about to strike. Things that indicate danger might be:
  • Intense stimuli such as loud noise and flashing light
  • Movement
  • Unusual stimuli - things not experienced before can be dangerous
  • Absence of usual stimuli - lack of noise might indicate that other animals are aware of a predator

In a natural environment, this drawing of attention is very important for survival. However in a modern sporting environment these are distractions that break flow. Loud noises can come from cheering crowds. Flashes of light can come from flash photography. Movement can come from performers in unrelated events, etc.

Part of learning flow is learning to isolate the important stimuli for the sport from the irrelevant ones that cause distraction. This will involve learning to selectively override your brains natural reaction to stimuli.

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