How can attentional focus improve athletic performance?
It’s that time of year again – when many people choose a stronger
focus on exercise or physical fitness as their New Year’s resolution.
In terms of overall body and neurological health, I wholeheartedly endorse
such athletic performance goals. However, as many of us have also likely
experienced, keeping New Year’s resolutions can be challenging.
Most of us ditch our new year resolve within one month – by February
1. Especially when it comes to exercise goals, many people abandon ship
because they don’t see results as quickly as they’d like or
suffer an injury because they started to hard, too fast. But what if I
told you there are ways to train the brain to exercise better and more
efficiently – potentially increasing the likelihood of results sooner
The mind-muscle connection is a phenomenon talked about most frequently
among bodybuilders who channel the use of the brain to build brawn. The
theory goes that proper form when lifting weights may be more important
than the type of equipment used, and the number of repetitions performed.
Essentially, the suggestion is that isolating and prioritizing the specific
techniques used in weightlifting by maintaining a consistent mental focus
on them is crucial for unlocking greater body-building strength and “gains”
and reducing the potential for injury.
One consideration, and something often employed by fitness trainers, is
that training one’s focus on specific muscles during an exercise
movement can help correct form issues present in the person performing
the exercise. American author James Redfield, who spent 15 years as a
counselor to abused adolescents and went on to become a #1
New York Times Best Selling Author on human potential, once wrote – “Where attention goes, energy
flows.” The simple truth is your brain is always connected to your
muscle movements and every other function of your body. You’re just
rarely “conscious” of that connection. The mind-muscle relationship
suggests that training conscious attention on the exercise movements and
the muscles performing them can result in more significant exercise benefits.
Having intention is one significant way to improve athletic performance.
The clinically published science about the mind-muscle connection to fitness
is a bit murky and somewhat lacking. Scientifically, however, what the
public has termed “mind-muscle connection” is called “attentional
focus.” It is a widely-recognized part of motor learning. Attentional
focus is what a person thinks about when performing a movement or activity.
Attentional focus has two primary types – internal and external.
Internal attentional focus involves thinking about the muscles their body
is using to perform a given movement. I, personally, think about and can
be heard chanting the letters “BDNF” during some high intensity
portions of my treadmill and stationary bike workouts. My hope is that
it’s not only motivational, but the expectation that the high intensity
work is increasing Brain-Derived Neurotrophic Factor (BDNF) production
and release will have a positive and additional physiologic effect. External
attentional focus instructs the person’s attention to the environment
outside of their body. As an example, an external attentional focus prompt
during a push-up might be to “think about pushing the ground away
from your body.” Some studies suggest that an external attentional
focus may provide better fitness outcomes than an internal attentional focus.
So, if there is a substantial potential benefit of the mind-muscle connection
on athletic performance, might the inverse also be true? Can physical
activity help a person achieve better cognition? As it turns out, the
science in this regard is promising. Even in older adults with cognitive
impairments, including Parkinson’s Disease, exercise improves cognitive
function, episodic memory, and executive functions. These studies support
exercise as a non-drug strategy to reduce the damaging effects of the
aging process on the brain. Some studies suggest that the positive benefits
of exercise on protective brain health may be slightly higher for women
than men. Multimodal combined training (aerobic and resistance training
exercise) is also associated with more significant benefits on cognitive
function, episodic memory, and word fluency.
Whether you want to improve your athletic performance for fitness, aesthetic,
or cognitive gains – your brain is the gateway to it all. As you
walk into a new year with a fresh perspective and big aspirations, remember
to train your focus on the task at hand. Your brain is a powerful tool
and, with some intentional direction, can help you achieve your goals
– well beyond January.