Continued from Part 1

Stages Of Attention Control

Not only is your neuromuscular (motor) control being trained, so is your attention, because the two are working together intimately in the development process.

At first the attention is directed onto the part of the body being trained, and gradually directed to the way that body part is interacting with the outside environment, and eventually directed away from the body altogether to the outside environment. This requires other parts of the brain to take over control of the movement and respond to that environmental information far faster, far more competently than the athlete could if trying to focus on it directly.

Photo by Quino Al on Unsplash

There are different dimensions to increasing attention control. Let me describe some of those…

You are going to gradually move from holding a single focal point in attention at a time to holding a few closely-related focal points in attention, or ‘chunking’ them (that’s the actual technical term, not mine!). These closely-related focal points blend together in the attention to form what Total Immersion Head Coach Terry called ‘stroke thoughts’ that encompass a general sensation that all those individual focal points together create in your nervous system. A single focal point may be (on the freestyle recovery arm swing) to focus on dragging the knuckles behind the elbow. A chunk of focal points may have you feel all of those together as the smooth, light, fluid swing of the recovery arm, sliding parallel to your spine.

You are going to gradually move from focusing on a single task to handling dual tasks at the same time. A single task may be to focus on (in freestyle swimming) sliding your extending lead arm to the target. A dual task may add to that also holding in attention the catch arm holding its place in the water while the lead arm slides forward, past that point. Or it may be like holding part of your attention on the extension of your lead arm to the target while counting strokes each time you touch that target, counting with another part of the brain.

You are going to gradually move from using internal focus to external focus. An internal focal point may be (sticking with the freestyle swimming example) to keep soft the muscles of forearm and hand and fingers of that extending lead arm. An external focal point may be to imagine reaching that lead arm 2 inches farther ahead in anticipation of getting a grip farther in front of the body.

And, an expansion of external focus is to pay attention to information coming to you from the environment, or environmental focus. This information may influence your performance, such as noticing how much faster, yet shorter the strokes are of the swimmer next to you. Or it may be information that does not relate to your performance, from benign things like the beauty of a sea turtle suddenly appearing deep below you in the Mediterranean Sea or the distracting shouts of spectators lining the pool. 

You are going to first work with task-related focal points, and then later add non-task-related focal points. Task-related may be like coordinating your stroke to the BEEP of a Tempo Trainer. Non-task-related may be like singing a song or writing your next blog post in your head (which I do from time to time), doing math with the counting of laps, or wondering what other people swimming around you are thinking.

Each of these progressions for attention develop aspects of control that are necessary for an expert athlete in order to handle the full complexity of the race or expedition conditions. In other words, it’s going to get more and more challenging on your attention as you get closer to actual, race-like situations. Rather than avoid these increasing challenges to attention because they are difficult, they should be designed into the training plan. They are a part of the process that moves your skills from something you have to consciously control to something you can rely on without thinking about, so you can give your attention to other, more important things and raise performance to a higher level.


Be Patient

If your coach understands the stages of motor learning and attention control she is going to test and watch, and as you show signs of progress in these areas, she is going to assign another layer of complexity to your training. She is going to add another layer of challenge upon your brain and body to keep provoking your brain/body system to grow further toward autonomous control.

I don’t want you to misunderstand or get frustrated by this process. At an early stage, maybe you feel a breakthrough of understanding and some initial improvement in how easy it feels, and you want to just sit back and enjoy that, to step away from the demanding training, or think ‘I’ve got it!’ now. It’s not enough. In order to keep growing toward neuromuscular automation, the coach needs to keep your skills on the edge of that optimal level of challenge until control shifts to its most hard-wired, resilient state.

If you are coaching yourself, then you would benefit from understanding where you are in these stages, to keep gradually stacking new challenge onto your training to keep moving that skill toward automation. You’ve got to keep challenging your brain/body to automate these skills for the conditions you intend to use them in. It is not enough to have them feel easy and seem automatic when doing drills for a few minutes in the calm, warm water of a pool, when in reality you need those skills to perform automatically in wavy, cold water of the sea for hours. You’ve got to see the process ahead and work patiently and persistently, with gradual increases in complexity, with frequent testing, to see that they are getting hard-wired to the point of being automatic, and resilient enough to hold up under those race-like conditions.


You may view Part 1 and Part 2 and Part 3 of this series.


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