For those who have extra time, if I could choose a third skill for you to build and strengthen I would choose awareness and attention.

Awareness and attention increase in strength and skillfulness when they are applied to challenges and used frequently. Yet, people complain about having attention-deficit issues, or brag about so-called ‘multi-tasking’ with their attention, or say they are too tired to focus, or insist on playing music to distract themselves from the unpleasantries of exertion. Once there are swim goggles that project the contents of one’s social media, I imagine the excuses will only increase. But you don’t have to be one of those making excuses and thus losing strength, losing control over your mind and attention.

This essay is part of a series discussing the kind of complementary training you can do while kept away from the pool that will prepare you to be even better when you go back. These are not merely nice suggestions, these are actually essential, fundamental skills that, if made present or if made stronger, could dramatically improve your performance as a swimmer.  

A quick Google search will pull up many articles decrying the loss of attention in our society and its consequences. I do not worry too much about this because the more people there are who let their strength of attention be torn down by addictions and distractions, the more valuable and the more successful those who cultivate awareness and attention will be. Which group would you like to be in? 

Mindfulness is the practice that encompasses the strength and skills involved in awareness and attention. So, if you want to improve these, mindfulness training is the more targeted, the more powerful way I know of to do that.

This is an essay in reverse. First, I am going to ask you some questions and make my main point. Below that is a section where I offer you recommendations for what to study and tools you can use for practicing mindfulness. Then at the end is a section where I discuss the definitions of awareness and attention, in case you are unclear or want to discuss this further.

 

How Are You Basic Strength and Skills?

How far does your awareness expand in a given situation? How much information are you aware of within your own body and within the environment surrounding you? 

Can you choose your point of attention within that realm? 

Can you then hold it there consistently for 5 minutes? 

How quickly do you notice it when it wanders? 

How emotional do you get when you notice it has wandered?

How quickly do you return it to the chosen point of attention? 

How many times can you go through this process without getting frustrated, without giving up? 

Your first lessons in mindfulness would help you develop your skill for holding attention longer, noticing a wander more quickly, having less emotional reaction to that wander, returning more quickly to your chosen point, and building your contentment for doing this hundreds of times. This is pushups for the brain and mind.

Image used by licensed permission from 123rf.com

 

Before You Can Change Something…

Awareness and attention precede your ability to change, your ability to improve in the way you would like to.

There is a reason one of the leading researchers in motor skills training, Gabriele Wulf, has titled her textbook Attention and Motor Skills Learning and another popular researchers, Robert Gray has titled his podcast the Perception & Action Podcast (I underlined those words for emphasis). The science knows that the attention/perception must be linked to the learning process in particular ways for it to be effective. Do you need more inspiration for how attention is linked to improvement? Read Norman Doidge M.D.’s book The Brain That Changes Itself to understand the power of attention in retraining a brain and body to work better in people who have far more difficult physical and neural limitations to overcome than most people reading this essay. 

Awareness and attention enable your improvement in self-regulation – regulating your emotions, your thinking and your behavior.  

Awareness and attention create space between a stimulus (something that might trigger you to react) and your response (how you feel, think and behave). This space enables you to notice and then conscientiously resist or cooperate with internal and external forces of influence. This space enables you to correct or strengthen movement patterns related to your performance.

That space between stimulus and response is the most valuable real estate in your whole world.  The larger that space the more opportunity you have to shape your feelings, thoughts and behaviors to align with your values, beliefs, goals and overall well-being. The smaller that space, the less you are in control of how you respond and the more control over you those things outside of you have.

By working on the strength and skills of your awareness and attention in an athletic setting, which is relatively easy to do, you make these strength and skills available for more difficult personal realms, as in relationships,  work settings and in the pursuit of life goals. 

There is no doubt that everyone has very strong awareness and attention to things you are already programmed to notice and respond to – food, sex, safety, chocolate, beer, social media, and whatever else you are programmed to crave or feel aversion to. The question is: do you have the ability to willfully control your awareness and attention and keep it directed on those things that matter most to you?

It is not an issue of whether you can work on this – for science has proven that you most certainly can – but will you work on it? 

 

Recommended Reading

Mindfulness Training Resources

 

Definitions Of Awareness And Attention

Though there is some discrepancy between neurological definitions of awareness and attention, and the psychological, philosophical and the common, I will attempt to give definitions here that cover the main ideas…

First, you have consciousness, which is your “subjective sense of knowing” (Aware by Siegel, p.7), which includes both the realization that you are in the act of knowing things and the realization of things in and around you that you are knowing. That part where ‘I know that I am knowing things’ is your awareness. It is your mind’s ability to take in the larger range of signals concerning energy and information in your environment (inside and outside of your body). It’s a general overview of your immediate world, without fine details. 

Then you have attention that allows you to focus on a particular, more narrowly bounded part of what is within awareness. “Attention is a data-handling trick. It’s the brain’s way of focusing resources on some signals, boosting them and processing them at the expense of other signals” (article by Graziano, 2016).  Attention is ‘focused awareness’ (though I see in the literature that it is important to point out that awareness and attention are two completely different neural activities), targeting some specific thing you have been aware of. Attention enables you to see the details – like zooming in – at the cost of being able to give attention to other things. Meanwhile, your awareness may still be monitoring your internal and external environment.

A mind that has strength and skills can expand awareness, and also focus attention where it chooses. A trained mind is able to optimize self-organization and be “flexible, adaptive, coherent, energized, and stable ((Aware by Siegel, p.9). This mind is able to direct attention upon relevant and important information in a harmonious way, avoiding becoming chaotic or rigid in feelings, thoughts or behaviors (p.10).

I imagine you sitting somewhere right now while reading this. Perhaps you are in a room. You are aware (lightly or heavily) that you are in a room, and aware of the general orientation and the features of this room. You are aware of the time of day. You are aware that you are safe or not safe. You are aware of other people or their absence. At any moment you could turn your attention upon something in that room – a ticking clock, a cat scratching, a movement outside a window, a book out of place on a shelf. To read and comprehend these words right here, you have to turn attention back to your reading.

When you go swimming, your awareness could encompass your body, sensing internal features and states (of happiness, of fitness, well-being, stress, injury, etc). It could encompass the space around your body within the lane you are swimming in. It could encompass the entire submerged part of the pool and the people in it. It could encompass the deck and the people within the pool space. 

As you take in more, you can imagine your awareness being ‘thinned out’ so that though you are aware of more, you have less and less detail about any thing within that realm of your awareness. But actually, awareness can be strengthened. You could possibly improve not only the range of awareness, but the depth of it too, without it all becoming chaotic, without triggering direct attention upon any one thing yet. 

Something in your realm of awareness can trigger an interest (an attractive swimmer) or a threat (a kid playing in the path ahead of you) mechanism in your brain and you will instantly be urged to put your attention on that object. This is when your attention is being commanded by external stimulus connecting with internal programs for what to pay attention to.  Or, you can choose to direct your attention upon something that you have chosen from among your values and goal – something positive and productive – in order to use your time effectively for increasing skill and performance.

The stronger you are in awareness, the more (possibly relevant and important) information is available to you from within your body and from your environment. The stronger you are in attention, the better you are at selecting what is relevant and important, and then holding your attention on that in order to more powerfully make lasting improvements in your performance.

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