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How to protect and strengthen your ability to focus
Last week I shared the framework of why mindfulness training has gained so much steam in the world of sports. To recap, it’s largely due to its ability to help us maintain presence and train our attention. We perform best not when we are ruminating on past mistakes, or when we are worried about future outcomes, but when we are present and attentive to what is important right now.
This week, I want to share some evidence and speak to some very interesting research backing up mindfulness training in high performance settings. The research has been done by neuroscientist and professor at the University of Miami, Dr. Amisha Jha. Dr. Jha has been featured in just about every publication and been on every podcast you can imagine.
In this week’s 3 point’s, I’ll discuss attention, how it is impacted by prolonged stress, and what we can do sustain ours.
1. What is attention?
Dr. Jha describes attention as a flashlight. So if you are reading this, your flashlight is directed here. You may not notice the humming of you air conditioning or what’s going on around you until you direct your flashlight elsewhere. We have the ability to select where we direct our flashlight. The ability to focus (something I’m confident every coach is interested in) is really the ability select and sustain where we direct our flashlights.
As USOPC Sport Psychologist, Peter Haberl says, “attention is the currency of performance.” Meaning, despite the environment, how your’e feeling, the consequences of the outcome, are you able to keep sustain your attention on the task at hand. Dr. Jha takes it even further, because attention is required for thinking, feeling and connection, she believes that attention fuels performance and well-being.
2. Stress depletes attention
Dr. Jha’s research focuses on how prolonged periods of stress impact our capacity for attention. By studying military cohorts in pre-deployment training and NCAA football players during their pre-season training, Dr. Jha’s research has found that periods of high cognitive demand can have a detrimental impact on sustained attention (Jha et al. 2015, 2016) as well as emotional well-being (Jha et al. 2010). If we do nothing, our attention will decline.
So, when are your periods of high cognitive demand? The pre-season? Conference play? Post-season? The whole season?
3. The good news?
Mindfulness training can protect our ability to sustain attention in such high demand situations. However, in order to reap this protective factor, you actually need to practice.
Dr. Jha knew she was working with high-level performers, and with that came very busy schedules. So she sought to study the minimum effective dose of mindfulness training. Her research shows that 12 minutes a day has a measurable effect on the ability to sustain attention in such high-demand environments.
A helpful tip:
When using mindfulness training (see mental push-ups from last week), the goal is not to stop your mind from wandering, the goal is to notice wandering and bring it back on track.
Focus -> Notice -> Redirect.