Mind management and mental preparation begin with an understanding of how the brain might function in terms of our focus of attention.
I picked up on a piece of research this week that I found fascinating in terms of our knowledge of attentional focus and how to manage it. When it comes to Cognitive Psychology scientists are only beginning to touch the tip of the iceberg in terms of understanding how the brain works. A lot of the work we do is based on theoretical models, one such theory is that of attentional control.
Do we run the mind or does the mind run us?
In terms of our ability to focus our attention, we know that strong emotions, thoughts and behaviours can get our attention. People often cope poorly, for example when, at the beginning of an event they fail control their nerves. What on earth happens to them! Well, if we accept attentional control theory this explains things a little bit as to what happens.
We have two distinct areas of the brain that deal with attentional control.
The first one is governed by you. That is your goals. (see how important it is to actually set goals!!) and is named ‘goal driven attention’, I’ll call it ‘goal-mode’.
The second is driven by outside stimulation. (see how important your environment is) and is called ‘stimulation driven attention’. I’ll call it ‘Stim-mode’.
Neuroscientists tend to agree that these two systems wire to different areas of the brain, both work together as a team, to drive what enters our conscious minds. The interesting thing about this, is that our conscious mind is really small in terms of the amount of information it can hold at any one moment. Now this is very, very useful to know. If you’re experiencing thoughts, or emotions that make you feel uncomfortable all you need to do, is replace them with thoughts or emotions that make you feel good and everything’s sorted….
If only it was as easy as that!
As a performance coach, I’m constantly looking at the best ways to help people manage sometimes debilitating negative thoughts and feelings that have massive consequences on their performance.
One approach is to evaluate the relevance of any thoughts or feelings that come into your consciousness, both in event planning or training and during events themselves.
For example, you’re at the start of a marathon and it looks like its going to rain.
You might be saying things like “Oh man, I hate running in the rain. It’s going to ruin my performance. It’s not fair because I’ve worked very hard and now the rain is going to ruin everything”
And… It’s not even raining yet?!
If you’re in goal attention mode you might start with “oh man, it looks like rain. How will this affect my performance, can it help me in anyway, do I need to make minor adjustments to my strategy in order to deal with the conditions”
If you’ve prepared well, you will have these answers ready to go… think like a Formula 1 team… change of conditions… change of tyres.
The important point is that while you can stay in goal-mode quite easily in the planning/training stage of things, it’s more challenging to do so on race day or performance day. Your stim-mode is taking the reigns if you’re not mentally trained to notice this and manage this.
How to spot the dominance of the stim-mode.
It’s going to be linked to uncomfortable feelings sometimes, but always to irrelevant and unhelpful thoughts and actions.
If you’re taking up some of your limited conscious mind on the start line with a thought like “I hate running in the rain” ask yourself how is thinking like this helping the goal. Can we switch the rain off, or postpone the race, NO. You have limited resources within your mind to deal with your ‘hate’ of running in the rain at that moment. You’ll feel and think it for sure but then you have a choice to dismiss it as irrelevant, or make it your primary focus.
Of course, you might have to think about the rain from goal-mode, so we can thank our stim-mode for bringing this possibility to our attention and then remind ourselves that we’ve prepared for this eventuality and well… we don’t need to worry about it.
Stim-mode is pretty persistent and we’re glad that it is because that’s the place that notifies us of threat. SO until it gets the message the goal-mode needs to repeat “Irrelevant, irrelevant, irrelevant” when stim-mode needs to be kept in line.
The key thing to know is that goal-mode and stim-mode are constantly there, switched on and ready for action. Pre-planned goal focussed work, can possibly strengthen our goal-mode, if we are reminded regularly of what the goals are and how we are going to achieve them. We have to make a choice in training, or preparation, to do this.