Experiences from Attention Training Techniques among Athletes

Submitted by Frode Moen1, Ph.D*, Kristian Firing2. Ph.D*

1* Department of Education, Norwegian University of Science and Technology, N-7491 Trondheim, Norway

2* Department of Leadership, The Royal Norwegian Air Force Academy,  7450 Trondheim, Norway

Dr. Frode Moen is currently the head manager of the Olympic Athlete program in central Norway, where he also has a position as a coach / mental trainer for elite athletes and coaches. He also is an associate professor at the Department of Education at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology. He previously has worked as a teacher in high school where sport was his major subject, and he has been a coach for the national team in Nordic combined in Norway for several years. Frode received his Ph.D. in coaching and performance psychology from the Norwegian University of Science and Technology. His research focuses mainly on coaching in business, coaching in sport, communication, performance psychology and relationship issues.

Dr. Kristian Firing is currently Associate Professor at The Royal Norwegian Air Force Academy, where he conducts teaching, coaching and research. Kristian received his Ph.D. in educational psychology from the Norwegian University of Science and Technology in 2011. His research focuses mainly on leadership development, experience based learning, debriefing, coaching, process oriented writing and academic writing.

ABSTRACT

The purpose of the present study was to investigate how Attention Training Techniques (ATT) affects young athletes in sport. Six athletes who participated in a 12-week ATT training program participated in qualitative interviews that explored their experiences from the program. Our findings indicate that ATT training can influence junior athletes’ experiences of being able to switch from a mind wandering state to take executive control of their attention. Secondly, when the athletes experiences that they have executive control of their attention, they are also able to make an attention switch to key points that make the athletes mindful in context. Thirdly, when the athletes experience that they are mindful in context, they experience that they are able to understand themselves at a deeper level and thereby enhance their self-esteem.

Key words: attention, mindfulness, stress, burnout

INTRODUCTION

In sports science, one of the most consistent relationships is found between the amount of practice with high quality and the actual improvements in performance (15, 16). Ericsson and colleagues (1993) define this as deliberate practice. Deliberate practice is the type of training that requires intense attention and hard work. For example, a cross country skier might spend many hours skiing with an inattentive attention (not deliberate practice), or the skier can attentively practice the specific aspects of performance where he or she needs to improve, by, for example, focus his or her attention on force improvement (deliberate practice). Deliberate practice is found to be the key factor in the work of developing expertise and focused attention is its essential element (15).

Young athletes who are attending high school education at specialized schools for elite sports are exposed to a wide range of stressors as they normally have ambitions both academically in school, in their sports and in their social life (46). These different stressors might capture their attention and stimulate rumination, worries and negative self-focus (62). When athletes are exposed to several stressors it is important that they are able to take control over their own attention and use mental flexibility to handle the situation effectively. Training programs that are aimed at improving an athlete’s attention should therefore be of great interest in the field of sport psychology. This study aims to explore in depth how attention training affects young athletes in sport.

THEORETICAL FRAMEWORK

Attention is claimed to be a valuable capacity that serves as a telescope through which we select, bring into focus, and magnify the stimuli we experience in our world (59). The ability to use attention as a tool to put specific aspects of our experience into focus gives us an opportunity not to be lost in superfluous information (58). Wandering attention is not using the brain’s potential capacity (36). Thus, focused attention and mental flexibility aimed at the present are important ingredients in the work to unleash the potential of the mind. In sport then, an athlete’s attention must be aimed at the present moment and the task at hand to develop his or her potential (17). The ability to focus his or her attention towards the aspects that are relevant and most important is therefore critical. However, in order to be aware of the present moment, an athlete must first of all be able to use his or her attentional awareness aimed at the present moment (5). Thus, mindfulness and attention are related theoretical constructs.

Mindfulness

Mindfulness is defined as paying attention on purpose, in the present moment, and without judgment (5, 33). These three components together characterize the mindful-awareness state and are claimed to work together in producing beneficial outcomes (60). Mindfulness practices are found to increase athletes’ ability to enhance concentration so that the attention remains on the task at hand during action if desired (41). Enhancement of sustained attention and inhibition of alternative reduces rumination and facilitates shift of attentional focus to desired targets and impede thereby elaboration of unpleasant thoughts and feelings (41). Several studies support the benefits of attention training interventions on performances in sports (4, 35, 34).

Attention

Salient sensory, emotional, and mental information is filtered, processed, and analyzed through various attentional processes that are automatically or consciously regulated (9). Through directing the focus of attention experiences are shaped as good or bad, and it can dictate our subsequent affective experience and behavioural trajectories (58). Attention can vary widely from being effectively absent (e.g., when daydreaming) to intensely active alertness (6, 37). Attentional processing is not isolated from other cognitive processes, and can be influenced by perceptual, language, memory, and response mechanisms.

Working memory is a system in the brain that operates close together with attention, and both systems are critical aspects of our cognitive capacities. Attention gives us the ability to selectively process information and working memory is important to retain information in an accessible state (24). Working memory tasks require monitoring (i.e., manipulation of information or behaviours) as part of completing goal-directed actions in the setting of interfering processes and distractions (10). The cognitive processes needed to achieve this include the executive control of attention and working memory (29). Thus, attention is defined as a complex, cognitive system containing three independent, but related, network stages: orienting to sensory events, detecting signals for focal (conscious) processing, and maintaining a vigilant alert state (49). Importantly, working memory and attention do not have unlimited capacity; on the contrary, the capacity is limited (24). As a consequence, an athlete in sport can only have a limited amount of information in working memory at a time.

Young athletes who have ambitions in their sports might experience performance anxiety and worries when faced with athletic competitions (29). The thoughts and emotions that occur have the potential to occupy the limited space in working memory (26). Another important issue is the difference between explicit conscious and implicit automatic information. Explicit information is a conscious process based on explicit knowledge of how a certain things work, for example how to ski or play golf (2, 42, 43, 50, 51). Several studies claim that an explicit attentional focus during performance effects performance negative (3, 22, 27, 64). Explicit conscious information has the potential to occupy space in working memory while implicit automatic information does not (44). Thus, an athlete’s performance is influenced by his or her ability to operate within the capacity of their working memory with information that is important for their performance (28), and attention is the tool that makes the most important and relevant information accessible to working memory (24).

Interestingly, attentional regulation is found to improve through repeated practice in clinical psychology (40, 52). Attention Training Technique (ATT) is developed by Wells (1990) and helps individuals to reallocate their attention from emotional to neutral information processing through the use of three auditory tasks. In the original ATT participants are first asked to focus and sustain their attention on one environmental cue (e.g. clock ticking) and then selectively shift their attention to more remote sounds with increasing noise interference (e.g., sound of traffic, church bell, and so on) (61). Next participants are asked to alternate their attention between two sounds. To improve their divided attention, participants are later instructed to focus on several sounds simultaneously (58). ATT has, according to Wadlinger & Isaacowitz (2011), been successful in reducing several clinical symptoms (48, 47, 53, 61, 63). One of the main experiences was that individuals learned to disengage attention from internal thoughts and reengage their attention to help manage their emotions. Attention training should therefore help athletes to focus their attention towards important stimulus in the situation instead of distractions such as ruminations, worries, negative emotions and explicit thoughts about how to execute tasks. Thus, ATT should be an interesting tool in the work to help young athletes to take executive control over their attention and execute mental flexibility in stressful situation.

This study aims to explore in depth experiences from ATT training on young athletes in sport.

METHOD

A qualitative research approach was chosen in this study to reach a deeper understanding of the influence and the mechanisms of ATT training in junior elite sports. After obtaining approval from the Norwegian Social Science Data Services, 26 Norwegian junior athletes from handball, ski-jumping and Nordic combined were asked to voluntarily take part in a 12-week ATT training program. With this program as a common backdrop, six athletes were selected for interviews to explore how they experience the ATT training.

Attention training program

The ATT used in this study is a specific audio training technique developed by Wells (2000), which goal is to strengthen the mental control and flexibility (21). The training is made true use of a specific audio file that was translated into Norwegian from the original English version (62, 21). Professionals completed the translation and audio recording. The audio file that lasts for 12 minutes is built up true three audit, external focused attention tasks; selective attention, change of attention, and divided attention. The athletes in the study were asked to listen to the audio file (ATT) at least 5-times a week as suggested by Wells (2000). The aim of using ATT was to reduce excessive self-focus and to gain executive attention control (21).

The ATT training was followed up with group sessions with the participants every third week throughout the project. The athletes were stimulated to communicate openly about their thoughts and feelings related to their experiences with both the ATT training, their training and competitions in their sports and their daily routines. The group sessions were conducted to provide deeper reflections, open new perspectives and relate the attention training (the auditory training) to their sports. All athletes were given a notebook that they continually used for writing down their own reflections during the whole project. They brought their notebooks to the group sessions and shared their reflections in the group.

Qualitative interviews

A qualitative case study is often characterized by researchers spending time in the environment and being personally in contact with persons and activities of the case (56), and this case study was no exception. We met with the athletes several times prior to the individual interviews. To explore the participants’ experiences from the ATT training program, in-depth interviews were chosen because they can provide greater breadth and allowed the athletes to articulate their own thoughts and feelings about the attention training intervention (23).

As mentioned, six out of the 26 participants in the ATT training program were selected for qualitative interviews. Two athletes from handball, two from ski jumping and two from Nordic combined, equally mix on gender. Their average age was 18 years old and they all studied at a Norwegian high school specialized for elite sport. These athletes were all in an elite training group in their different sports and were considered to be the best athletes in their sports.

Informed consent was obtained from the participants before conducting the face-to-face interviews in April 2014. At the beginning of each interview the participants were informed that the information they provided would remain confidential, and that they could terminate the interviews at any time. From here we wanted to stimulate a production of storied communication, meaning extensive elaborations of a topic and how these topics influenced their lives as athletes. All stories were spontaneous and the episodes spread throughout the interview were considered narratives and later given a meaning analysis (38). The interview guide consisted of five main sections. The interviews started with: (a) demographic background; (b); an open question about how they experienced the intervention; (c) the athletes experience with the present during the period (mindfulness); (d) their perceived stress and amount of exhaustion; and (e) their performances in sport and in school. The participants were encouraged to express their views as fully and freely as they possibly could, both prior to and during the interview. The interviewer was flexible to change the order of questions and probe areas that arose to follow the participants’ perspectives. Probes and follow-up questions were also used to deepen the responses. The interviews (ranging from 30-50 minutes) were recorded and transcribed (36 pages).

Data analysis procedures

The interview transcripts were analyzed through Interpretive Phenomenological Analyses (IPA), a process conducted through six steps (54). First, the transcripts were read to ensure the focus of the athlete involved. Second, initial coding, attaching one or more code words to the text paragraphs of relevance, was conducted to identify what mattered most to the athlete (e.g. how the ATT training had enhanced athletes’ ability to focus). In this stage we stayed close to the athletes’ meaning in a descriptive way. Third, to develop emergent themes, we reduced the volume of transcripts and initial codes. Fourth, using a table with relevant utterances in one column and code words in another, we developed clusters of meaning bringing significant statements into themes (e.g. how different utterances considering breath and body were developed into the theme “mindfulness” as it was experienced during the ATT training). In the fifth step, the four first steps were repeated for all athletes. Through the sixth step, bringing different tables with relevant utterances and code words together, we developed common patterns across the different interviews, a process of gathering information about the same theme within its respective category (e.g. how the athletes’ self-esteem had been developed through the ATT-training). In our case, three categories were developed.

RESULTS

In examining how the junior athletes experienced the attention training we developed the categories executive control of attention, mindful in context and self-esteem, as outlined below.

Executive control of attention

When it comes to attention, we wanted to see how the audio training may have mediated the focus as it was experienced when conduction their sport. The athletes described their experience of executive control of their attention as follows:

  1. At the end of the season I felt that I managed to be aware of it, because then the only thing that was in my head on my way down was the exact point that I am to take my stance and achieve balance. When thinking through afterwards, reflecting, I noticed that there was quite a bit more than that, but that was not important (Athlete 1).
  2. When it comes to my attention it may be to shut out different things and focus on what I probably should do. Not to be disturbed by various things, such as coaches and spectators at a hand ball game. Not to have such a wide span of attention (Athlete 3).
  3. Yes, being able to push oneself maybe, knowing that you are tired but just deciding that on the next hill, then it is just to “click”, give everything. And I have the noticed that in the last races of the season, before I have never managed to go so hard that I threw up when I got to the finish, but it happened in the last three races of the season. Because I took point by point where I was instead of focusing more forward into to future (Athlete 2).
  4. I have found that I am one who overanalyzes quite a lot. By listening to the soundtrack, it became much easier to have one focus at a time. I feel it is something I have managed to take to the hill then, exactly that to keep the focus. Because on the ski jumping hill, other destructive thoughts often arise. Performance anxiety and stuff like that. I noticed that by listening to the audio files, I have become much more aware of those thoughts arising. I can accept them, refocus, get focused on the tasks I am to do. It has contributed to creating more mental peace, at least for me (Athlete 6).

The first quotation illustrates how the programme has helped the athlete to take control of his attention during ski jumping. Against this complex context where both thoughts and emotion can occupy an athlete’s attention (26), this athlete reallocates his attention and makes an attentional shift towards “the exact point that I am to take my stance and achieve balance.” A common challenge at this stage is to have a rather mixed attention, and a shift of attention towards balance seems to make the athlete take executing control of his attention. Importantly, balance information in working memory seems to be important for a ski jumper, since it will help the athlete to execute learned responses automatically (18).

In the second utterance we see how the athlete “shut out different things and focus on what I probably should do” and gives him an opportunity not to be lost in superfluous information. The main difference is the former wide span of attention and the ability to make an attentional shift and focus his attention towards the aspects that are most relevant and important in the situation. This utterance may mirror a shift from a wandering mind that is being effectively absent in the situation, to intensely active alertness by executing selective attention.

In the third utterance the athlete uses his attention “point by point” aimed at the present instead of focusing “forward into the future”. The benefit of this present attention seems to be that the athlete manages to use his attention to “click” and give everything. To “click” can be understood as aggressiveness. Thus, the athlete takes control over his attention so that his emotions are influenced in the present. The effect of such an attentional shift is that he is able to push his mind and body harder (throwing up) because of the hormone response that is affected by the emotion aggressiveness, probably enhancing the athlete’s performance (26).

The fourth quote shows that the athlete starts out by having the tendency to overanalyze things, having too many explicit thoughts about how he is supposed to do the task at hand occupying his working memory. However, by listening to the audio files the athlete experienced increased ability to “refocus, get focused on the tasks.” Thus, the athlete seems to have learned to take executive control of his own attention by doing attentional shifts from ineffective focus of attention to a more effective focus.

By analyzing these findings, the program seems to have developed enhanced ability to focus and refocus in complex situations. Even though the selective attention and attentional shifts leave information in the situation in the background, the athlete seem to experience a relief by putting the relevant and most important information into focus and not to be lost in superfluous information (58).

Mindful in context

When it comes to executive, we witness that the increased attention had mediated how the athletes experienced their sense of control when conducting their sport. The athletes described their experience of mindful in context as follows:

  1. It is more like feeling your body, using one’s breath to feel your body when sitting on the start gate. You know you can do a ski jump because you master the technique and all that. And when you sit down and think that now you must bend down over your body, you are to bend down your rear, then there can quickly be a lot of mixed ideas in your head. You are not aware of where you sit and balance. In any case, that’s what I found out at the very end (Athlete 1).
  2. Yes, I can take that with me when I’m sitting on the boom, and I get a little stressed out. I’ve learned to just let my thoughts out and just be aware of my body. And one of the first things we learned was to just use the breath, and breathe with the stomach and just feel it. And when I exhale, then I just look inside my lungs. And that’s just from being up here and not feeling the body at all (Athlete 1).
  3. I was able to know that I had more contact. And I used the breath quite a lot. So, I was able to collect myself and be in the present. And then I feel that I have managed to sink further down into the ankle, if that tells you anything. Managed to relax more, knowing that you don’t have such high shoulders. That there are things going on around you, things you can’t do anything about, so I go more into myself and think about what I can do. It creates a great calmness in me (Athlete 6).
  4. As I managed to push away or accept the idea there that it’s okay to make mistakes, I have gained much greater personal development, and performance has also gone up then. When I allow myself to make mistakes on the hill, then I get much higher quality in what I do. And I know that it is worth its weight in gold, even when I am socializing with others (Athlete 6).

The first quotation “… using one’s breath to feel your body when sitting on the start gate” illustrates how the athlete takes executive control of his attention to focus at the present moment and the task at hand instead of drifting away thinking mixed thoughts about the situation and what he is supposed to do. This seems to be a situation where explicit thoughts about how to execute the task (the ski jump) have the potential to occupy space in working memory “there can quickly be a lot of mixed ideas in your head.” A possible unconscious drift of attention towards explicit thoughts will bring the athlete away from the present moment and the actual task at hand. As with the first quotation, both the second quotation, “…use the breath, and breathe with the stomach and just feel it,” and the third quotation, “And I used the breath quite a lot. So, I was able to collect myself and be in the present,” illustrate how the athletes use their breath to take control of their attention by doing a shift of attention into a mindful presence state by observing their breath. Our breath is always there, and it does only exist in the present. So when the athletes pay their attention to their breath, they anchor their mind and body in the present moment, and give them the possibility to focus their attention on effective stimulus (60).

The second quotation “I’ve learned to just let my thoughts out” illustrates how acceptance and a non- judgemental attitude about possible thoughts is important to let possible thoughts drift into the background of attention and bring the athlete in the mindful presence state. Also the fourth quotation “…accept the idea that it’s okay to make mistakes …” shows that acceptance seems to be important in order to let thoughts drift into the background. Interestingly, performance enhancements are found to be linked with the tendency of being experientially totally immersed in the activity during performance, defined as a state of flow (11). Thus, paying attention none judgementally is an important element to achieve the mindful state that is found to be effective for athletes in order to perform (4, 35, 34).

Self-esteem

When it comes to self-esteem, we witness that the ATT training had mediated how the athletes experienced themselves in relation to their sport. The athletes described their self-esteem as follows:

  1. I’m more satisfied with what I’m doing. At the same time as it makes me a better athlete, I will be happier with the things I can do. I have a sense of self-control then, better control of my life. It’s much cooler to keep on with the sport, and be aware that there is a lot of fun keeping on with. There are perhaps some who do not realize it until they are finished, that this was in fact incredibly cool to work on. Try to be aware of it while you are doing it, I think that is very important (Athlete 1).
  2. I’ve worked a bit with adversity periods. For instance, if I fell short there were a lot of thoughts, or you became a bit cowardly, that you became a little passive, and maybe a little afraid of making the same mistake, that I had experienced. There were a lot of thoughts that went around then, everything was really too much. Thus, I have to think straight, visualize and perhaps see myself succeed. Bring a new way of thinking to the situation. Instead of thinking that you lose there might something to gain from the situations. And I felt that helped me when I’ve gone into games. If for example, I was going to start a game, I have felt that I am more in a position to succeed than to be in a position to fail (Athlete 3).
  3. What that has made me more aware of is when it comes to what everyone else thinks. We have a kind of exercise we do where we stand on such a board with wheels underneath, then we are to jump from there. The board could shoot forward or backward very quickly, and you can clearly see that you don’t completely cope with it. Even the people on the national team struggle a bit with it, because it is a very difficult exercise. I almost started to cry when I tried it because there were so many people who saw that I did not manage with it. So it became a breakthrough for me when I became aware that I was afraid to fail. It has helped me to accept that everyone makes mistakes and that’s something I have to do to develop myself. So then I have taken a greater grasp of the things I’ve struggled with and challenged myself with them. And then I have notice that I have become much better (Athlete 6).
  4. A little try and fail then, something that this project has allowed me. I’ve always been a little afraid of making mistakes or what others may have thought about me. That was the first time I dared to be open about that with others. And by doing that, I felt very vulnerable. However, I notice just when that I realized that, I’ve gained a very fine feeling of calm (Athlete 6).

In the first quotation we see that the athlete experiences “a sense of self-control” and “better control” of his life. This enhanced feeling of control has lead to a state of having more “fun” and being “more satisfied” with what he is doing. This may mirror a process in which fun and gratitude replace the anxiety of not being good enough. Finally, we see that the informant perceive himself as “a better athlete.” From theses expressions we might imagine the connection between the athlete’s perceived enhance control, well-being and performance.

In the second utterance we see “a new way of thinking” from being “a little passive…afraid of making the same mistake” to thinking that “there might something to gain from the situations”. This new way of thinking is conceptualized through the utterance “I am more in a position to succeed than to be in a position to fail.” This utterance mirrors a shift in motivation from defensive orientation to performance, being afraid of failing to offensive orientation to performance, wanting to succeed (1, 14).

In the third utterance we witness a development from being aware of “what everyone else thinks,” “being afraid to fall” into a state of accepting “that everyone makes mistakes and that’s something I have to do to develop myself.” This change in mind has made the athlete challenge himself and become much better. This development may mirror a transition from social comparison to internal comparison (reference about self-esteem).

The fourth quote shows that the ATT has brought the room for a little try and fail. However, the athlete’s starting point was being “a little afraid of making mistakes or what others may have thought about me.” Through openness and feeling very vulnerable, the athlete has “gained a very fine feeling of calm.” This mirrors the development from being very concerned about “the other,” going by vulnerability, being left with your “own feeling of calm.” At the end, the self-esteem is now based on the athlete himself.

Looking back on these findings we see how the ATT has provided training to pay attention to the interior, what actually is happening, at the same time as they shut out other things. This focused attention has resulted in an increased sense of control. This may also mirror a shift in motivation from extrinsic motivation to intrinsic motivation (12). Regarding self-esteem, the athlete has paid less attention to ”the other”, e. g., audience and coaches, and paid more attention to themselves. By taking control, being mindfully present in the situation, the athlete has become more himself. There has been a transition from others to self.

DISCUSSION

One purpose of the present study was to investigate how ATT affects young athletes in sport. Our findings indicate that Attention training techniques and the follow up group sessions can influence junior athletes’ experiences of being able to switch from a mind wandering state to take executive control of their attention. Secondly, when the athletes experiences that they have executive control of their attention, they are also able to make an attention switch to key points that make the athletes mindful in context. Thirdly, when the athletes experience that they are mindful in context, they experience that they are able to understand themselves at a deeper level and thereby enhance their self-esteem.

From mind wandering to executive control of attention

This category indicates that these athletes were not aware of their mind wandering into areas that were not effective for their performances before the ATT program started. Both thoughts and emotions were reported to occupy the athletes’ attention during action. Interestingly, one of the first themes that were brought up by the athletes at the group sessions were their reflections about how hard it was to complete selective attention and attention switching during the ATT training because of mind wandering. Interestingly, as a consequence the same discoveries were also reported from their training and competitions. This finding might have at least two positive implications. First of all, this might explain why mindfulness programs provide an opportunity for athletes to enhance their concentration and performances (4, 35, 41). Thus, if they are unconscious lost in superfluous information during action, it is impossible to take control and do something about it since they are not aware of it (13). On the other hand, when they are aware of their attention and how they use it in the present moment, they also have a potential to take control over it. Secondly, when the athletes are becoming aware of thoughts and emotions that are present during action, it might also help them to accept these possible stressors and by that free their resources in working memory from ruminating about possible stress consequences (19). Thus, this category indicate that the athletes have moved from being lost in possible unconscious rumination and complexity, by handling superfluous information about the situation, to take executive control of their attention, by putting specific and simple aspects of the situation into focus with the help of an attention switch.

From executive controlling one’s attention to mindful in context

This category indicates that when the athletes are aware-, and are able to control their attention, they also have the possibility use their attention to enter a mindful state in the present moment. This argument may be supported by the theoretical overlap between mindfulness and flow (26, 34, 35, 57). Flow can be seen as a state of mind or consciousness in which a person is completely absorbed in his or her actions and experiences a unity of body and mind (11). Interestingly, such a state is found to facilitate peak performances both in sport and in general (31, 32). The process of entering a mindful state in the context of training or competitions seems to be regulated by an attention switch towards a stimulus that is important for working memory and the execution of automatic responses. An athlete’s breath can be one such stimulus that anchors the athletes in a mindful state in a context where expectations from others and oneself, or fair of failure are natural stressors. Such an attentional switch might function as a distraction from possible ruminating about possible stress consequences from such stressors (19, 62). Interestingly, the result from such an attentional switch share important similarities with what Wells and Mathews (1994) define as “detached mindfulness”. Detached mindfulness is defined as a state where the athletes can view particular cognitions and other internal events in a non-self-relevant and non-threatening way (62). Thus, detached mindfulness gives the athletes an opportunity to pay their attention to stimulus that is important and effective in the situation instead of being caught in mind stress.

From mindful in situation to enhanced self-esteem

The backdrop of our study is the athletes’ relationship to stressful situations as they play out in the ski-jumping hill, in cross-country skiing or on the handball field. In that respect, Mischel (2004) argued that peoples’ behavior is not stable across situations, and developed an integrationist approach in which both person variables and situation variables were considered as equal contributors to behavior. The concept of play may shed light on these person-situation interactions. Play’s back-and-forth movement taps into the playful nature of the contest. Play’s attraction and fascination means that it may become master over the player (25). Our findings illustrate that the athlete starts off being a little passive and afraid of making mistakes, presumable letting the situation take control, or limit the athletes space for performance. However, through the ATT training in which the athletes developed enhanced executed control, the athletes became more offensive in the person-situation interaction thinking that he is more in a position to succeed than to fail. Holding that the self is amenable through person-situation interactions, the difference might be important. Staring off being defensive, asking how the situation might control me, the athletes ended up being offensive, asking how they might control the situation.

The participants of our study are, both if they participate in individual sports or team sports, heavy into a social context during practice and competitions. In that respect, they are subsequent to social comparison with others. Given a situation with a lack of objective or non-social means, people would evaluate their options and abilities by comparison respectively with the options and abilities of others (20, p. 118). Recent developments in social comparison theory also emphasize the influence of the social context, tapping into social influence of groups and social identity (7, 8, 30). Our study indicates that the ATT training has made the athletes enhance their executive control by placing focus on factors they are able to control, such as how they sit in the hill, stand on the field. Choosing such focus may have provided a shift in motivation from extrinsic motivation to intrinsic motivation (12). The athletes are driven by intrinsic motivation, the task at hand, as opposed to extrinsic motivation, being occupied by protecting one owns self against others. This may as well lead us further into social comparison. Making the athletes focusing on their own attention may develop a shift from social comparison to internal comparison. At least the utterance of the athletes paying less attention to “the other,” e. g. audience and coaches, and paying more attention to themselves indicates a transition from the others to self. At least it discloses a tendency to base self-esteem less on “the other” and more on one’s own self.

Limitations and implications

Having investigated explore in depth possible experiences from a 12-weeks period with the use of ATT training on young athletes in sport one may question the possibility of generalizing our results to other situations. Other sport activities as well as other high performance work such as police and military operations might represent such situations. Bearing that in mind, we argue that this study bears the potential for “naturalistic generalization” (55) in which one argues for the understanding of research through a more intuitive approach, through people’s experiences (39).

The study has theoretical implications as it extends the literature on ATT training in junior elite sport. Moreover, the study has revealed social implications as the ATT training and the group sessions have contributed to a deeper understanding of oneself in social interactions with others. Finally, the study has several practical implications. First of all, our findings indicate that the ATT training, where young athletes were listening to sound files, did function as an effective tool to learn more about their own attention and how they can use it to be more effective in different situations, especially in sport. However, it seems to be important to use reflection as a tool to discover possible transfers from the sound training into context (e g., sport context). This transfer, from specific training to the sport context, seems to be difficult to become aware of without reflections. Thus, our results seem to arrive from a combination of specific training and reflections in group sessions. Second, attention awareness seems to be a capacity that the athletes need to train on continually to be in executive control of their attention. During the intervention period some of the athletes reported that they stopped their sound training for a short period, and also reported that during this period they started to mind wander more often. Thus, it is not something that you learn, and then have it forever; the athletes need to take their time to practice continually over time in order to have executive control over their attentional resources. Third, it seems to be essential that an athlete’s needs to be aware of what stimulus that is most important for working memory, so that he or she can execute the wanted action automatically and by that take executive control in the situation to perform better.

CONCLUSIONS

Against the background of ATT, the athletes have developed enhanced executive control and enhanced mindfulness, and finally this has made them discover their own tone (voice) and listened to this to greater extent. You might say that they have found their own keynote (voice), who they are, and dare to hold on to that, somehow regardless of what coaches and friends may think. This makes the ATT-training quite exciting: it is a matter of discovering and exploring your own keynote.

APPLICATIONS IN SPORT

Junior athletes in sports are exposed to a wide range of stressor on their path towards elite sports. Their ability to handle different stressors effectively is essential to develop their potential effectively.

These inclusions of ATT training will not only have the potential to improve athletes’ performances, but also help them to understand themselves at a deeper level and enhance their self-esteem.

ACKNOWLEDGMENTS

This study was done in cooperation with The Olympic department in middle-Norway and the Center for Elite Sports Research, Norwegian University of Science and Technology

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