Last month, I was riding up a grueling climb at the Pisgah Stage race. It was day 3 out of 5, and I was donning the leader’s jersey with a razor-thin lead. The pressure of racing to broaden my lead and not lose the jersey was on my mind. My legs were tired, and I wondered if my competition was gaining on me somewhere else on the climb. Where was my mind going?
Pushing hard is something most of us have experienced. Whether interval training or simply trying to make it home from an adventure, using our bodies to propel ourselves forward in space takes energy, and it isn’t always comfortable. And, as we know well, sports teach us tools to use in daily life.
In Sports Psychology, there is a tool called Association. We can either look to what’s happening inside (association)- how my legs felt, what my heart rate was, how fast is my breathing, what is my power, what is my self-talk; Or, we can look outside of us (dissociation) to distract from the discomfort like listening to music, focusing on the scenery, ruminating on the past, or anticipating and planning the future. In my example above, I was dissociating thinking about the past and future. Once I noticed it was happening and that it wasn’t improving my performance, I shifted my focus internally.
Essentially, do you tend to tune in or tune out? Several studies from the 1970s and 80s of elite runners find that most elite runners associate in the heat of battle while most recreational runners dissociate. That said, the association and internal focus wasn’t happening for most of the race, but shifting attention to maximize performance was the key. Association isn’t necessarily better than dissociation, but being able to intentionally shift your focus and knowing when to do so to improve performance matters.
When would association be unhelpful? An example would be heart rate drift in a very long race. Having a lower heart rate at a similar effort is normal over time. If you start worrying that you are slowing down and that worry becomes a problem for confidence, it may be time to dissociate for a while.
When would dissociation be unhelpful? The example I gave where I was worrying about what I had to lose was not helping my performance and causing tension. I shifted my focus to association. That looked like having a word to bring my attention back to my body, how I was feeling, and what was within my control. I actually would just say “No” or “this moment.” Another way I practice association is saying, “I am the pain.”
If you want to practice another form of association, you can train your self-talk. Instructional self-talk is particularly helpful because you essentially tell yourself what you need to do. “look through the corner” or “relax your jaw.”
Essentially, we are training self-regulation. It’s like having a dimmer switch on how your thoughts and emotions impact your outcome.
Final Word: When it comes to association or dissociation, one is not better than another, but the ability to be flexible is key to performance. Your attention and focus impact other overarching mind states and emotions. As always, sport is a metaphor for life. These skills that are easier to train during exercise also apply to stressful situations in daily life.
How to train it: Learn to Shift Your Attention.
Develop a mindfulness practice. There’s no way to do it wrong. First, you just pay attention to your thoughts. You can even try it during a workout. Notice where your mind is going and even label it and look for a pattern. Try training without music or podcasts to create space for your mind. If it’s too hard while you are training, try a meditation practice and notice where your mind goes when you get distracted, and then practice bringing it back. Once you start having an awareness of your thoughts, try shifting your focus. Try it in different scenarios in daily life too!