Schmidt and Lee (2008) summarize the historical psychological research on attention, outlining the types of attention, the theories of attention (single channel or multiple-resource), and different conclusions that have been drawn through years of research. The most well-known studies demonstrate the “Stroop Effect,” the “Cocktail Party Problem” and “Inattentional Blindness,” different forms of attention phenomena. The authors also briefly cover the different theories of anxiety and arousal and how they affect attention. Attention is still not fully understood or definable–yet the power of attention is universally acknowledged, especially in sport.

Swimming is a very solitary sport in which one can easily get lost in your own thoughts. The benefits–there are very few external distractors because your face is in the water and your ears are filled with only the sounds of rushing water. The disadvantages–you have very little else to help you maintain or regain focus when your face is submerged–no teammates, coaches, etc. As such, swimmers quickly learn the effects of stream of consciousness or self-talk. One can easily head down the path of negative self-talk which is difficult to stem unless you focus on doing so. Imagine missing pace time after pace time, your old shoulder pain popping up, and the knowledge that you have two more rounds of this set. You know your body is run down and you probably will not hit your paces today. What do you do? Stay focused on the pain and failure? Hopefully not. Attention is a limited capacity and as such, it is very important to redirect your focus on what will help you get better, be it stroke technique or race execution, and not just physical pain. This is difficult to achieve but becomes easier with consistent practice and the use of cue words or actions. One thing I always did to help me refocus: jump up and down in the water a couple of times–it always reminded me of being a little kid playing in a pool and I loved the feeling of being surrounded by water. In other words, this helped me tap into my intrinsic motivation.
On a somewhat related note: in the past five to ten years, states have passed increasingly stringent laws about cell phone usage while driving in reaction to the number of accidents caused by distracted driving. Colorado law prohibits texting and driving for all ages, and drivers under 18 years of age are prohibited from talking on the phone and driving, unless it is an emergency situation. Hands-free devices are still allowed, but I have heard rumors that even these devices will be made illegal in the coming years. Some may argue that hands-free devices are okay because they eliminate “structural interference.” However, hands-free devices cannot prevent “capacity interference” as the driver is still dividing his/her attention between talking and driving. One can make the counter-argument, however, that conversing with passengers while driving, or listening to music while driving are other forms of “capacity interference.” For some, driving is automatic…which can partially explain the age restriction in Colorado law. So where do we draw the line?