At one time or another, you may have received the rebuke, “Don’t think about it so much. Just do it!”

In some consequential situations where self-control is needed, slowing down to think is a really good thing to do. In others, where a different kind of control is needed, thinking can actually hinder our learning or performance.

Sometimes confusion arises because the word ‘thinking’ is used without clarification or used interchangeably with awareness and attention which are actually quite different processes from one another.

Photo by Anastasia Taioglou on Unsplash

The ‘slow down and think’ kind of thinking that is often being referred to is a cognitive or higher brain kind of processing. At this level, we are consciously developing interpretations (this is caused by… and will result in… and it means…) and judgments (this is good or this is bad… I like this or I don’t like this…) and intentions (I am next going to do this…) about what you are experiencing.

There are obviously many situations in life where we want to be doing this kind of thinking. However, when we are entering into a new learning situation that has concepts and processes that are unfamiliar to us, at first it can be very helpful to receive a persuasive explanation for what, how, and why you will do things in a certain way so that we can initially accept and enter into that process in a trusting way, letting the body enter into a more calm, creative mode. Then this kind of thinking can be set aside until after the lesson when it’s time to process the experience we’ve just had.

Awareness is the brain scanning the external environment and the internal bodily environment and taking in all the information about our experience. Some part of this can be happening consciously – more so if we have been training our awareness – while most of it is happening below consciousness.

Awareness is always taking place, as long as the brain is functioning to keep one alive and safe. The quality of awareness is a matter of how much information it is taking in and how much our consciousness can participate in an organized, productive way. That comes from training our awareness.

Attention is like the beam of a flashlight drawing our consciousness to a particular point of information within that broad scanning of awareness. Attention draws more brain resources into the sensing and processing of information at that point.

Attention is often directed unconsciously, by lower or deeper brain functions that keep on the lookout for potential survival dangers or opportunities. And it can be directed by our conscious choice. Some describe attention metaphorically like a muscle – it needs to be trained and strengthened in order to control it. No matter how weak one’s attention currently is, it can be strengthened. The more we train our attention consciously, willfully, the more we are able to intentionally choose the point of our attention and hold it there against distraction, even against survival alarms (for those trained to an intense level).

Strong awareness and attention are the keys to strong learning and mastery of swimming or any complex movement art.

Stronger awareness means our brain is tracking a broader range of potentially useful information.

Stronger attention means we can select between points of information and extract something useful from it.

These set us up to be in better control of our emotional responses and behaviors… if we practice a delay in thinking (interpretations, judgments, and intention formation). By habitually creating a gap between taking in information and cognitively responding to the emotional effects of that information in our bodies we create the opportunity to change thinking and behavioral responses.

In the learning process, which involves success and failure in actions and the kinds of emotional and physiological reactions the body would have to those, using awareness and attention are essential to our progress, and practicing a delay in thinking may enhance that further. As is the case with virtually all students of the art, the thinking part of each of us may need as much reprogramming as the movement patterns we are trying to develop.

We can certainly be ‘thinking too much’ cognitively when we practice and train in physical skills. But it is unlikely we will ever be too aware or be in too much control of our attention for the good of skill development and performance.

We may certainly want to be able to eventually swim with excellent form and efficiency, with the brain controlling these features autonomous, or what we might call ‘swimming on autopilot’. But just like the professional pilots who fly us around safely and smoothly in jets, sometimes on autopilot, we want to have strong awareness actively monitoring all the vital swimming systems and information, and we want the attention trained and poised to focus on any signal sent up into consciousness for higher processes and response.

We earn the ability to be swim safely and smoothly on autopilot by strengthening awareness and attention and by (re)training our thinking and responses to what is observed by these.

Consider then how we spend practice time. When we tune in with awareness and attention, when we exercise delay and intentionally regulate thinking and behavior response, we are truly practicing, we are truly engaged in an improvement process. When we tune out, we are not.

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