Training attention; taming and aiming the mind.

“Never confuse motion with action”

-Benjamin Franklin

“It is not enough to be busy; so are the ants. The question is: What are we busy about?”

-Henry David Thoreau

Across the broad spectrum of human endeavor, one major factor that separates the successful from the unsuccessful is the ability to hone and hold their attention in order to attend to a task, develop a skill, and/or achieve a goal. Whether the effort is akin to an arrow or a plow, great attention must be paid to ensure ones direction is accurate and effort effective. Indeed; no great achievement has occurred without focused, diligent attention to a purpose, cause or goal. Neither has any great achievement has occurred simply by chance; by definition that would be luck.

One of the most visually obvious example of this focus effort is the process by which great feats of strength, endurance, acrobatic grace and athletic acheivement occur. Although some sort of pre-ordained talent between their physical presets and mental resilience needed to be present for these folks to achieve such heights, none of their abilities came by luck. It required thousands upon thousands of hours of practice. However, not just aimless practice; it needed to be perfect practice.

Again, this is not luck.

However, for many people in our modern day, physical abilities and/or achievements do typically come by luck alone, if at all. As a species we learn to move reflexively from the womb to walking upright, and often times from there out little attention is paid to developing physical skills, much less a physical “diction”. Perhaps an interest in a sport or instrument motivates a level of practice to achieve competency, but otherwise our culture has a very poor attachment to their bodies. Our modern lives make scarce room for regular physical demands unless we are the few that labor for a living, or make a conscious effort to practice it. Detachment of our minds from the bodies that carry it is but one of many first world abuses.

Although an enormity of factors  contributing to our present lives are out of our control, arguably our experiences are framed by our ability to perceive and frame our inner and outer lives. We get what we make of things; ones trash is another’s treasure. An experience that is moving, inspiring or beautiful to one may resonate as insignificant to another. The same tragedy that would cripple one individual, may result in motivating another to pursue and develop a solution that could prevent or minimize such a thing happening again. Events may happen to us that are out of our control, but the outcomes of our experience are often times shaped by the way in which we consciously engage our world. Pushing aside inspecting whether one has the internal motivation to simply engage a situation, a problem arises if ones enjoyment in life involves mainly pursuing experiences of leisure and detachment. In other words; inattention. Why this is such a problem stems from the established fact that’s as a species seemed to have developed to thrive on engagement, challenge, and active interaction (1). Quite the opposite of checking out.

It is likely that we, like all creatures, have evolved to be keenly aware of our surroundings and possible threats; otherwise our ancestors would never have survived the lurking predators, or been successful hunting down other species equally paranoid about deadly threats. In that way attention has helped us survive and thrive up until this point. In addition, it is obvious that we have evolved the ability to inspect, pre-plan and create ideas, solutions and inventions in response to the demands of our environment.

However, our current, first world environment is increasingly phrenetic, filled with a constant supply of aggressive stimulation, if we so choose to embrace it. Never before have we had so many non-threatening distractions ever present, and never before have we been this distracted.

In previous decades the statistic that demonstrated the publics waning active attention span was the amount of hours spent watching television, flipping channels. Although many still do spend an enormous amount of time in front of the TV screen, this technology has evolved to that of our computer screens, tablets and phones.  Online advertisers know the that many individuals will not fully read any article, much less half of it, and are constantly adjusting their attention grabbing strategies, while we are constantly becoming increasingly numb to their efforts. Billboards on the side of the road, fliers on walls, flashing lights all become stimuli we have learned to ignore, all the while searching for more novel stimuli. In fact if the reader has made it this far into the article undistracted they should consider themselves an exception to the tendencies of our time and culture.

Arguably we have become a culture that is highly over stimulated and distracted, working more towards detached vacations and weekends than attachment to the every moment we inhabit.

Really, we should do better than this. After all, we are Homo Sapiens; the name quite literally means wise (sapien) man (homo). These are the shoes we given from birth to fill. Thus, although we do not have the largest largest brain to mass ratio known on our planet, we should nonetheless be able to live up to our namesake and train our minds to master a vast and varying amount of skills.

Unfortunately our modern society seems to have an increasingly poor ability to focus and reflect. There is an ever increasing fixation on only the new, the novel, the never before experienced, and if the nature of our social media is any insight, we as a majority seem to move quickly onto the next big thing. In contrast, mastery recognizes a hierarchy of skills that cannot be rushed. True mastery requires attention to detail and attentive repetition (at times ad nauseam), all while recognizing that every moment (and movement) experienced is truly novel unto itself.

Arguably one major factor preventing one from reaching greater heights is that they have not cultivated the simple skill of attention to a physical task/effort; therefore the mere act of attending to a fixed effort, goal or skill is incredibly difficult. In order to train and ultimately work towards mastery of any skill, one must first understand what that skill is. This is where we come to the irony of paying attention to what makes up attention.


Attention is a concept that most all of us understand and recognize when it is both present and absent. However, to understand how to train and/or coach attention, it is helpful to understand its likely components. Attention has been extensively studied throughout neurophysiological research, and the following model has been excellently summarized by Eric I. Knudsen (2):

“To behave adaptively in a complex world, an animal must select, from the wealth of information available to it, the information that is most relevant at any point in time. This information is then evaluated in working memory, where it can be analyzed in detail, decisions about that information can be made, and plans for action can be elaborated. “

What makes up the functioning process of attention can be summarized into four interacting components (2):

  1. Working memory: This is our immediate memory that holds information for a period of seconds while it is evaluated based on our internal state and stored short/long term memories.
  2. Competitive selection: This is the process that decides what information perceived gains access to our working memory.
  3. Top-down sensitivity control: A portion of our attentional control that regulates selection and what information in the working memory is deemed important. This is driven more by the prioritized tasks and goals of the individual, how our plans and intentions effect our selective attention.
  4. Automatic bottom-up filtering: A second portion of our attentional control that regulates selection and priority in our working memory. This focuses on stimuli that appears infrequent or random, or of instinctive/learned biological importance, and is  much more of our reactive portion of attention.

Essentially attention is process of selectively focusing on particular stimuli within our internal and/or external environment, all while ignoring all other possible perceptions. Just like shining a flashlight into the dark, a direction or object must be prioritized for anything to be truly seen; one can only effectively illuminate a small portion at at time. Truly it can be trained, and certain perceptions be placed on auto pilot allowing more complex tasks to be attended to. This is keenly observed in the case of juggling; where one may have to begin slowly with two balls before moving to three, four, five or even six objects. There are limits, though, as anyone who has attempting juggling can attest.

Now, again, our modern day attentional focus is so heavily pulled in varying directions that many of us fall into the habit of regularly multitasking, especially when it comes to media sources (3). Whether it is placing the public in danger via checking our phone while driving (4), texting while listening to music and binge watching the latest season of our favorite show, or simply listening to a podcast while doing the dishes, multitasking, particularly with multiple forms of media has become a regular part of many of our lives. Unfortunately, this appears to come at a cost.

Multitasking has been associated with decreased cognitive control abilities, depression and social anxiety, and poor academic performance (5). Although there are many factors that may also be contributing to these symptoms, more alarmingly a recent study showed that the more one multi-tasks with media, the smaller the density of the gray-matter in their anterior cingulate cortex (5). This is an area of the brain that is associated various higher level functions including impulse control, emotional regulation, decision making and reward anticipation.

Chronic media multitasking has also been associated with higher attentional impulsivity, lower working memory and consequently poorer long term memory performances (6). It appears that the more one media multitasks the wider the scope of your attentional focus, but (like any diluting) at the same time less accurate. The net one casts into the world can become too spread out to catch any decent fish. Like any lesson in maturity, one must learn that we cannot have it all, and it may pay to create priorities and attend to them.

At times, though, it is not just habits that can challenge ones ability to hone and hold their attention; some of us truly have attentional challenges from birth. Such is the case of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). A comprehensive discussion of this complex disorder is beyond the scopes of this article, but a brief overview will be helpful to understand how vital the development and cultivation of attention control is to leading an enjoyable and fruitful life.

ADHD is considered to be the most common neurodevelopmental disorder of childhood (7), with recent statistics estimating the prevalence of the disorder being 7.2% of minors worldwide (8), and symptoms persisting into adulthood ultimately effecting an estimated 4.4% of the US adult population (9). The disorder is characterized by hyperactivity, inattention, disorganization and impulsivity, to the level where functioning both and home, school, and in the case of adults, work, is significantly challenged. Beyond the obvious behavioral and academic challenges a child will typically have with this disorder, children with ADHD have also been observed to have delays in motor development (10), and difficulties in general motor performance (10). Logically this makes sense, as acquiring any skill/ability requires patience, practice, trial and error and attention to detail in order to improve.

Unfortunately, the diagnosis of ADHD often carries lifelong challenges if not effectively managed. Into adulthood, individuals with ADHD have higher rates of academic failures, lower incomes, higher rates of job loss, higher rates of car accidents, and increased divorce rates (9). As if that wasn’t enough, adults with ADHD have a higher prevalence of anxiety, depression and substance abuse than the general population (9).  If there were any doubts that command of ones attention was vital to success and happiness, these statistics should put them to rest.

Although ADHD often requires medication to allow the individual a chance to sufficiently practice attending (7), attention is nonetheless a skill. Even if one does not fit into the 4.4% portion of the adult population that qualifies as having the diagnosis, many of us have and will experience to a lesser degree the symptoms of ADHD, and most of us will have to work consciously and consistently throughout our lives to cultivate control of our attention. Other cultures throughout the world and history have long recognized this, and have placed a high level of value on cultivating attention.

Asian culture in particular has felt that attention could and should be trained. This is seen in the significant components of mental discipline throughout all forms of martial arts, as well in the Buddist concept of “Monkey Mind”, or, “Mind Monkey” (11). This refers to the constant, chaotic jabber that can often occur in our minds if we do not take on the work to tame and aim our inner lives.  Truly our modern attentional tendencies could be more readily described as such; easily distracted, constantly consuming, ever vigilant, and rarely committed to a consistent task. Perhaps this is just a result of our ever increasing rapid pace of life, access to visually stimulating media, and ability to select from a multitude of attention of demands via our finger tips, all without the imminent threat of death or starvation. Our evolutionary vigilance is now problematic amidst our modern convenience.

Unfortunately our modern culture does little to foster effect/focused attention; from the format of various social media platforms, to the bombardment of magazine headlines at the check out line we are encouraged to move on from the present to bigger, bolder, better, always something else. Even is one does not qualify as having ADHD (as the majority of us do not), many of us lack the awareness/insight to steer our attention. The tragedy here is that if you have a hard time attending in the first place, you are likely to never recognize the problem. Things go over, around and through ones head a little to easily. But it is not just a wash of mistakes, mishaps and spilt milk one may leave in their ignorant, inattentive wake, one may actually miss out on experiencing a deep level of happiness in ones life.

Yes; ignorance is not bliss.

How so? It is simple–


The ability to steer ones attention and the level of happiness ones attains in life both are both highly related. Pleasure in of itself, despite our cultures widespread belief, does not seem to provide a deep level of happiness we all seem to seek. What does, is engaging in enjoyable activities that may our may not be pleasurable. What makes an activity enjoyable is actually fairly well understood, and is best understood via the concept of flow, defined and researched by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (1). Truly I recommend the reader obtain a copy if his book/audiotape on the topic (“Flow; The Optimal Human Experience“) to fully grasp it, but a brief overview will be helpful to understand how ones attention and a life enjoyed are intricately linked.

Flow is a term used to describe what is agreed upon as the optimal human experience. This was discovered by Dr. Csikszentmihalyi and his team via both interviewing thousands of successful individuals who were known to enjoy their work (surgeons, artists, dancers, musicians, chefs, athletes,etc), and noticing a near identical description of what it is like when their craft is going well. Even the term “flow” was chosen not only because it effectively described the sensation common to all these individuals, but also becuase it was spontaneously used by many that were interviewed.

So what exactly is flow?

Flow is unique to any and all possible experiences, but we can best understand it by understanding it’s parts. We can summarize eight components that have been identified as making up a typical experience of flow. They include:

  1. Our skill is met by the challenge of the task; although not guaranteed we have a chance of completing it; in this way the task is neither impossible nor boringly easy.
  2. Absolute concentration is attained and necessary.
  3. The task has clear goals.
  4. The task provides immediate feedback; ones knows without question or consideration whether they are doing well or not.
  5. The concentration is such that one becomes removed from the concerns of everyday life; they are lost in the moment/action. Often times the perception of time with be changed; moments become stretched out, and/or hours fly by while immersed.
  6. A sense of control is felt throughout.
  7. During the experience the sense of self disappears, and paradoxically–
  8. After the experience ends a stronger sense of self emerges.

In this way, the challenge of the activity  must be enough to be very difficult, but within ones grasp of success. As ones works to improve their abilities, the challenge of the task must then progress to keep it demanding of ones attention, and thus immersive and enjoyable.

Now this may seem a bit counter-intuitive, in that some folks would think that enjoyment would come from activities that are not generally challenging, and they are familiar enough with to know how to do well. Indeed, this appears to be true when one is taking part in activities that they feel forced into it (12). In these cases, where the activity performed does not feel immersive, a relatively low level of challenge is likely to be most enjoyed. However, adherence to this over any long term does not add up to a fulfilling life (1). When, however, activities are intrinsically enjoyable, challenge is desirable. In fact, there appears to be a specific level of challenge that is desirable.

Researchers looked at online chess players, a situation were ones ability could be easily rated, and likelihood of wining against an opponent estimated as a result (12). They polled a large sample of the chess players (121 adults) immediately following each game, and asked them to rate how interesting, exciting and fun the game they just played was, as well as how challenging they perceived the game, and how well they felt they played. What they saw was interesting; games against a superior opponent that resulted in a loss were rated as more enjoyable than games against an inferior opponent that ended in a win. What was most notably observed though was that the players rated the games most enjoyable when they played against opponent that were more likely to beat them. In fact the likelihood in these situation was deemed a 20% chance of winning. This is perhaps another way to say “just beyond ones ability, but attainable”.

It truly is the challenge that we enjoy.

So, provided that the activity is intrinsically rewarding, the investment of the activity must be in the process itself, not simply in the desired outcome(s) of it. Aiming to simply satisfy ones needs can be pleasurable, but in those situations the goal is separate from the experience of attaining it. In contrast, an enjoyable experience is enjoyable for the process in of itself, not merely achieving the desired outcome. How this is related to physical activity, challenges, exercise should begin to be more and more clear.

In this way our ability to steer our attention and hold it on tasks that are both challenging and achievable are what seems to make our lives and experiences highly enjoyable. Although this is not limited to physical tasks (social interaction, puzzles and mental challenges of all sorts, creative endeavors, reading are all a commonly reported flow activities), physical activities are one of the easiest ways to practice aiming ones attention, with the rules and feedback plain as day. Besides, it is the topic of this article.

So it can be seen that gaining awareness, appreciation and control of our attention is critical for our success, health and happiness. However, understanding what to attend too is just as important. This brings us to the next point—


Now one could simply stop short and cultivate the ability to be ever increasingly perceptive in breadth and depth, but this would gain us very little. In order to become immersed in ones present tense (meaning; in flow), and work towards some identified goal, one must choose what perceptions to attend to. This is dictated by ones intention.

What does all this have to go with physical function? It is simple:

Until you define an intention, your attention cannot be tamed.

Until you tame your attention, you cannot harness your mind.

Until you can harness your mind, you cannot own your body.

In reality, we will never really own our body, but we may have the chance to consciously inhabit it. In fact, just by learning to be aware and focus on certain parts of our body, we can train and practice movements, actions, and even isolated tensions.

How mental focus can effect muscle activation was shown in a study where subjects were asked to perform a bench press at varying intensities under two conditions (13). The first was performing the movements as they would normally, the second condition while either focusing on using their triceps and pectorals more within the movement. What they found was that when performing sub maximal loads (up to 60% of their 1RM) all subjects showed notable increases in activation of their triceps and pectorals, while EMG readings above 60% 1RM appeared similar between groups. So; at sub maximal loads, simply focusing on specific muscles can increase their neuronal activity!

In fact, even just regularly imagining the movement (mental training) without actually physically performing it has been shown to have positive effects. Researchers showed that by simply rehearsing a movement mentally has the ability to improve ones physical strength and power within that movement, even without physically practicing it (14). This same study showed that mental imagery along was sub par to actual physical training of the movement, but it was nonetheless significantly better than no practice at all. One would assume that combining the two (as many elite athletes, dancers and musicians do), would yield superior results.

This positive effect of mental training is not isolated to gross movement patterns, but has been observed to actual result in increased strength of specific muscles (15). Researchers took 24 volunteers and divided them into 3 equal groups. The first group was trained to perform “mental contractions” of the the little finger abductors, the second group “mental contractions” of elbow flexion, and the third group served as a control. Six more volunteers were trained to perform maximal little finger abduction isometrics. All groups (except the control) did this for 12 weeks for a total of 15 minutes a day, 5 days a week. At the end of the 12 weeks all groups that performed exercise, whether simply mental or physical, showed significant improvements in strength of the muscles targeted (with the physical training groups results the most notable), and the control group showing no change. So, as has been shown elsewhere (16); while physical training is far superior to mental training alone, what one does with their mind has an enormous effect and potential.

This insight, however, is nothing new; athletes of all walks, martial artists, dancers and musicians all have known the enormous benefits of mental rehearsal outside of their regular physical practice. Some of this likely stems from obsession, so of it simply intuitively recognizing that a for a physical act, skill or event to be master, the terrain must be familiar.

Now, for all these instances of mental practice to be effective, the perception of ones body and environment must be accurate; otherwise one is aiming to miss the target. As stated before, perception dictates response. If we cannot perceive an external stimulus, we will have no ability to react to it, much less react accurately. When we step on a tack we must not only immediately perceive the pain and potential damage of this event, and have an immediate withdrawal reflex, but our perceptions of the environment must be accurate enough to allow us to not fall on our face while pulling our foot away.

Additionally; even if a stimulus can be effectively received, that does not provide the needed motivation to meet its challenge. Truly; intention will precede attention; we must have the intentional desire to hold onto certain perceptions in order to attain certain outcomes. Whether attainting a new skill set or simply a new habits; conscious attention to a stimulus and a positive attitude about the process is typically crucial (17, 18).

It can often be difficult to focus ones attention on a singular activity or stimulus, particularly when one has neither the natural predilection, nor practiced this rather useful life skill. This is the idea behind meditation; the practice of observing ones thoughts. Meditation, however, does not have to solely rely on a sedentary held posture; any focused activity can become a meditation, including a movement. This has been observed time and again throughout history with problems solved and worked on via a long walk, or a strenuous physical task.

Traditional forms meditation have used (among other things) awareness and the breath to train ones attention to the present. Although I would whole heartedly agree that general present tense awareness and the control of ones breath is vital for ones well being and mindfulness work, at some point we truly have to get up off the floor and learn to love the world around, and our selves with in it.

This brings us to the point of all this build up:


So how exactly do we apply the concepts  previously covered to the realm of physical fitness, movement and rehabilitation? At times I have heard colleagues tell individuals that they should try to be more “mindful” of how they are moving, functioning, etc, but it is likely this is not good advice in of itself. Why? Quite simply, one needs to know what on earth to be mindful of to even attempt the practice! One answer to this may be that we need to find and hold on to reference centers that will be beneficial to focus our attention on (19).

One of the most dose intensive forms of exercise that can provide challenges to ones attention is strength training (body weight, barbell, kettlebell, power lifting or weight lifting, it does not matter). Truly I have found strength training to be an excellent teacher of attention, in that it requires strict, focused attention merely to survive, much less thrive on it. This is best surmised by the statement;

“Strength training and attention deficit cannot go hand in a hand”

-Pavel Tsatsouline

In other words; if you are going to push your limits you better be able to pay attention to when you are nearing them.

Our lives and our endeavors are typically our responsibilities, and any mature adult has to take on the necessary burden of learning to focus their intentions on what ever goals they have. What better place than regular exercise?  Beyond training ones body to be more healthy and resilient, exercise serves as a regular time of focusing on the action of ourselves within our environment. We just need to understand what one should focus on while doing it.  A method of cultivating attention and thus effectiveness with strength training is to focus on various reference centers in our bodies. I will advise that there are at least (if not many more) four general places to direct and hold attention via creating tension within them during basic strength exercises. These include:

1. Abdominals: We must learn to create tension in our middle in order to hold our trunk steady in an effective and strong position. This is best described HERE and HERE. Essentially, we must learn to hold this area steady without collapsing or locking out.

2. Armpits: We must learn to hold our shoulders steady on our bodies while our arms push, pull and carry the world. To lose tension here will result in a variety of shrugging patterns, and straining ones neck, shoulders, and even elbows (leverage for the upper extremity will be lost). Unfortunately, a loss of tension at our middle (abdominals) will equate to a lack of steady grounding of our scapulae on the rib cage. The two go hand in hand (or, rib and shoulder).

3. Feet: Quite literally this is our connection to the ground/earth whenever up right. Of most importance is maintaining our heels on the earth (left as much as right), and an active arch. This means both avoiding rolling to the outside of the foot as much as the inside.

4. Grip: Since this our connection to whatever we are looking to move, it is vital that we are effective at it. In fact, our grip strength is correlated to the strength of our shoulder (20).  At some movements require the hand to be weight bearing (as in push ups, handstands, planches, etc), but even then specific attention to how one is gripping the surface they are engaging in necessary. Other movements may simply require the hand to be reaching into space, but again, even then some sort of intentional splay of the fingers is often necessary and useful for the body to move as an effective unit. This is seen in typical proprioceptive neuromuscular facilitation (PNF) patterns (21). To appreciate how significant a role our hands play, we only need to look at the cortical homunculus; here we would note the enormous amount of motor and sensory neurology is dedicated to our hands alone.

It is interesting to note how the terms attention and tension are seemingly related. The reader should say the two terms aloud to best appreciate this. Ones attention to a stimulus, whether one being experienced or simply anticipated can at times be so intensive it can become counterproductive. This excessive attention can contribute to excessive body wide tension, commonly observed as hypervigilence. The ideal is likely somewhere in between; just enough attention to adjust to task demands, just enough tension to not crumble under its demands.

Now, there is a fifth area to use as a reference center, and that is our eyes.

5. Eyes: Our vision plays a crucial role in postural control, in that it provides a reference for the horizon, and an orientation for our body in space separate from our sensing the world via our limbs and/or inner ear (22). The dependence on vision for effective high level sport performance has been extensively documented (23), as well as the negative effects our ability to maintain our balance when it is impaired (24). Fixing our gaze on a static object, or simply focusing our attention on our periphery while performing a strenuous activity can provide often times crucial stability to allow the movement to be possible. At times it will be useful to look up, at other times it will be useful to look down, but typically it is helpful to look straight forward (relative to ones body).

This is by no means a complete list, merely just the more common and typically used cues areas of attention I have found working with folks. When a situation is not flowing as desired there are at least two other reference centers very much worth noting:

6. Mouth/jaw: Our jaws are loaded with proprioceptors, and it seems that what tension is produced here (or lack there of) persists throughout the whole body. When the jaw clenches, or simply moves, muscles of the neck shoulder complex have been observed to co-contract (25). Voluntarily clenching the jaw has been shown to improve the performance of various motor tasks, as well as simply improve grip strength (26). It has been shown that by simply clenching ones jaw we can improve our postural stability on stable and unstable surfaces (27) when compared to an open mouth or relaxed jaw. These results were repeated when subjects were instructed to not clench their jaw, but instead press their tongue against their upper incisors (as compared to allowing the tongue to naturally rest) (28). Again, postural stability was improved by increasing the tension within the mouth. Anectdotally I will often observe neck pain with upper body loading diminished with cuing to relax ones jaw and take the tongue pressing strategy. Whether one takes a tongue pressing or jaw clenching strategy may depend on the effectiveness of their occlusion (if the jaw does not align, the feedback from a bite will not be ideal), and in the case of notable map-occlusion, dental intervention may be warranted for ideal outcomes.

7. External Environment/Drivers: The previously listed reference centers all refer to internal cues (eyes are in between), but at times one needs to attend to the way in which their body interacts with their external environment in a more gestalt fashion. This refers to coaching the individual to “aim chest down to the floor”,  to maintain “nose over toes”, to “push the floor away” when lifting a weight, to “drive the shoulder into the socket” when pressing overhead. When to use these sorts of verbal cues that allow one to focus proprioceptively on their bodies interaction with their environment will be based on the individual. Ideally their will already have the ability to engage their abdominals effectively, tense their armpits, grip what needs to be held, and dig into the ground without compensation. Sometimes though, the right cue helps them find all the above. We are all just so unique unto ourselves.


Now there are times that objects/stimuli in our environment can interfere with our ability to attain and maintain an attentive hold on these various reference centers. The significance of each of these factors are all unique to the individual, but can be at times be the difference between success and failure with a moment, movement or training session. They include:

1. Shoe Wear: This is very individual and context/activity specific, and unfortunately shoe wear (or lack there of) has become a controversial topic in the last decade. Suffice it to say the solution is very much an “it depends”, in that a multitude of factors can contribute to what is needed/helpful. In the context of strength training there are times that a minimal amount of shoe wear is warranted in order to allow for effective ground contact. Shoes with an excessive of cushioning are typically inappropriate when one needs to dig in under a high load or challenge movement. At times minimalist style shoe wear will suffice, others may fine barefoot works best. However, what is excessive will depend on the individual; at times a significant amount of arch/heel contact is necessary for the individual to perceive their heel/foot contacting the ground, and shoe wear or a variety of orthotic aide will be necessary to assist this. Anecdotally this can be observed via squat depth, single leg stability, and/or resting tone of pelvic/trunk musculature improving near immediately with addition of sufficiently helpful shoe wear.

2. Music & Environmental Noise: This is where ones personal tastes and presents can really clash with the environment they find themselves in. Every training setting has its culture, vibe, feeling that it is attempting to create and cultivate. Problems may rise when the sound culture of the training environment does not support the training needs of an individual within it. At times music may be too loud, or simply to abrassive/aggressive, other times it may register as annoyingly sappy and irritate an individual more than anything else.  Other noise distractions can be experienced when weight lifting and power lifting are being practiced within the same environment as an individual who may need a more predictable, quiet environment to prevent going sympathetic. The bangs and slams of weight bars typical of weight/power lifting can be extremely jarring to some individuals.

3. Chaotic Environment: We all have to make choices as to what visual stimuli to attend to and not attend to. It has been shown that our gaze selection highly effects where our attention goes (2), and if our environment is filled with a great deal of fast moving visual distractions, effective focus on our desired task may be challenged. What constitutes as chaotic or distracting will differ from individual to individual, and it is assumed that the more advanced one is in their training/ practice, the better they will be at filtering out competing visual stimuli within their environment.

4. Mental/Emotional Distractions: All the above refers to distractions/challenges to attention that originate externally to the individual. However, at times the most significant drivers of attention are within ourselves. This is where one has trouble getting their “head in the game”, or difficulty focusing on the task at hand due to challenges in their lives. Relationships, work/financial stresses, and even a poor nights sleep can all effect ones ability to train effectively. Although sleep can often be improved with good habits, there is no avoiding the many challenges of living a full life; these distractions often simply have to be awknowledged and adjusted for, and on days when present sub par focus accepted.

5. Pain: Another internal distraction to attention is one that appears hard wired within us all to regularly function just as that: a distraction. Pain can be simply seen as a request from the body to avoid loading/tensioning an area, or make a change. Although there are times and situations where the experience of pain can be amplified beyond what seems appropriate for the situation (29), by and large pain should always be respected within training, exercise and movement practice. Pain has been shown to alter motor control in unpredictable ways (30), and so the rule of thumb is that unless one finds them self in the middle wartime or being chased by a bear, the ideal of “no pain no gain” is not particularly helpful to long term success. The discomfort of fatigue and significant challenge must always be confronted and often worked through, but pain must not. Knowing the difference between the two is crucial.

These five factors constitute by no means a definitive list, but are simply the most common ones that I will observe and find myself managing with individuals. For us to be successful in our own movement practice, strength training and athletic pursuits, as well as aiding others in doing so, we must learn to be increasingly aware of distractors from our goals, focus and ultimate success.


Even if we have no lofty goals of physical achievement, for us to live a thriving enjoyable life we must learn to inhabit both our body and environment, moving along, with and through; for truly this is all we ever really have. The option is to exist outside our bodies and environments, attempting a delusion of moving above/beyond. Such things make daydreams, and although they can been often wonderful and very much a part of a good life, dreaming alone never achieves a goal, and when applied to physical pursuits almost certainly lead to failure and/or injury. If you have a goal, particularly one that is physical in nature, you must learn to make you body follow you there.

Intention grounds attention; attention aims ones efforts. Cherish and cultivate your attention and what you spend it on; for it is our life line to our present tense and present purpose.


  1. Csikszentmihalyi, Mihaly “Flow: The Pyschology of Optimal Experience” 2nd Edition 2008 Harper Perennial Modern Classics
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