This week I would like to turn my attention to attention. This topic has been brought into focus by my little run on Sunday, participating in the Leicester Half-Marathon. I may have mentioned it before.
I always knew that a large part of the challenge would be psychological. It is often the case that our successes and failures in life’s challenges can be traced back to how we think about them. Studies have shown that recovery from surgery is better for those patients with positive expectations. And in sports psychology, much is made of creating positive imagery about success. For archery, it is the arrow hitting the bull’s eye. For running, being first over the line. For boxing, landing that knock-out blow – or having the skill and stamina to win through on points.
It seems that there are two processes at work here. Firstly, bringing to mind – or turning one’s attention to – the salient topic. Secondly, how we henceforth think about the topic. Often we find our thoughts swinging backwards and forwards – or side to side – like a pendulum. We move from expecting the best to expecting the worst, and our emotions – excitement and fear respectively – drag along behind, hanging on for dear life. The move away from thoughts of a good outcome is accompanied by a growing sense of dread, and the move in the other direction brings relief. This is the nature of anxious thinking – the unknown future has too many possibilities, only some of which are likely.
In the build-up to the race and at varying stages throughout it, my thoughts were caught in a rinse-wash cycle – periods of hope and joy interspersed with fear. What do you think about when you are running for more than 2 hours? The surroundings can certainly offer distraction from all the internally-focused thinking (“Oh, my calf muscles are beginning to tighten…What is that twinge in my hip flexors?..How can I get through the next 10 miles?… How on earth am I going to manage that final uphill bit?). No-one should ever under-estimate how motivating it is to be cheered on by on-lookers, they do a great job with their words of encouragement. At around Mile 11, when we were coming through the city centre and beginning the slow climb to Victoria Park, there was a band of drummers. That beat was brilliant, giving that extra boost to very tired muscles. Earlier, I was able to enjoy running on leaf-strewn woodland paths between stretches of water on either side as we traversed a country park – a lovely contrast with the main city streets on a fine autumn morning.
The internally-focused thoughts offer the real challenge. At times it would have been so easy to stop running and opt for a fast walk. However, I knew from training that once this happened, it was really difficult to get back into running again. I had a mantra in my mind – “never walk”- and this helped me through. Also, I imagined the satisfaction and relief of crossing the line, of seeing my daughters, of telling my friends and family, and of taking a swig from the little bottle of Prosecco I left in the baggage drop!
So, what is the message? I think it is to be aware of how we can take control of our attentional processes. To a large extent we choose what we want to think about. If others or the environment send us down other paths, we can recognise this and make a decision about whether or not we want to follow that particular path. And when we are focused on a topic, we need to try to be realistic about how we understand it and about the extent to which the “unknowns” will create the biggest challenges.
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