Let’s talk about attention

Let’s talk about attention

As school kids we were always asked to ‘pay attention’. A good teacher would know when we were paying attention and when we were not. Either we were talking, chewing, fiddling, playing, or even doing nothing but with a glazed expression of someone with their head in the clouds, away with the fairies; certainly not hanging on every word to leave the teacher’s lips. Inevitably, this child will not take much from the lesson.  What does it mean to pay attention and how important is it to have our attention be focused on climbing if that’s what we want to do?

Consider this analogy: You’ve topped out a route and it’s dark. Your friend gets out her headlamp. Her headlamp shines over the landscape, its beam is wide but dim. She can see most things but not very clearly. The beam of your headlamp is narrow and bright; you can see particular things very clearly. In order to get down you need to search for cairns marking the decent path. Her light cannot distinguish between cairns and piles of rocks. Yours can.

The headlamp represents attention and the strength of the beam represents how much this attention is focused. The clearer you can see the more focused your attention is. To be focused is to have your attention be with what is relevant and leave out what is not relevant. Your headlamp is clear and bright and therefore illuminates what is relevant (you can see clearly what is a rock and what is a cairn). Your friend’s headlamp however, illuminates only what is irrelevant (you can’t see clearly what is a rock and what is a cairn). Her headlamp represents attention which is not focused and yours represents attention which is focused.
In order to do a task well we need our attention to be focused on that task, on what is relevant to completing it. Not only does it need to be focused it needs to be undistracted, undivided, conscious and present.

Focused attention is undistracted
A student in class won’t be able to focus on what the teacher is saying if naughty kids are talking at the back of the class. His focus is distracted; one minute it is with the teacher, the next minute it is with the kids in the back. In the headlamp analogy it would be as if the beam of light was constantly jumping from one thing to another. Or flashing on then off.  The beam may be strong and bright but if it can’t stay on an object long enough to know whether it’s cairn or a rock then it’s not useful. Whilst climbing we can often find that our attention is distracted. We should be focusing on the next move but if a fear, such as fear of falling enters our consciousness, we become distracted. Even something as simple as a talking belayer can be enough to jeopardize the focus of our attention to the task at hand.

Focused attention is undivided
Have you ever wondered why, if asked to walk along a train track, or a slack line and then asked to subtract 3459 by 1089, you’d fall off or at least slow down? Focused attention cannot be divided by two different tasks. As soon as you move your attention on to a second task, you start to fail at the first one. Back to the headlamp analogy: it would be as if my friend also asked me to shine my headlamp at her feet so she could see her footing. With this second task I would inevitably struggle to spot the cairns. This is why onsight trad climbing can be more difficult than onsight sport climbing. Not only are we thinking of the coming movement, we are also looking for gear placements.

Focused attention is conscious
Why is it that we can drive a route using a map and remember it for the rest of our lives, but if we drive the same route with directions from google maps we are completely unable to reverse it? Not only unable to reverse it but we might not even be able to remember anything from the journey; no landmarks, no other cars, no buildings, not even the direction you came from. This is because our attention was not conscious. Or you could even say that our attention was absent almost entirely. We were following the directions subconsciously. Perhaps our conscious mind was with our forgotten shopping list at home, or with relationship troubles. Yet if we were asked to find the way to the shops old-school style with a paper map our attention would have to be conscious and inevitably we would notice much more about the route and where we were going. Which leads me to the next point…

Focused attention is here and now
Focused attention must be here and now. Our mind is often distracted when we start to think of something that happened in the past or more likely: something that may happen in the future. I call this mind wandering and as soon as your mind wanders you are no longer focused on what you are doing. Just as your belayer can pull your attention away by talking, you can sap your own attention from the task at hand by letting your mind stray from what is present. Rock climbing happens in one place (here) and at one time (now). Thinking about something that has happened or might happen is not here nor is it now. Mind wandering is not only a distraction it is usually done anxiously. In fact, fear of falling is simply an anxiety about a possible future event (falling). This is why a climber’s fear of falling can disappear when she is completely focused on the climbing, for example during a red point attempt. Yet whilst dogging the route she is terrified. Her mind is not focused on the climbing and therefore is free to wander and worry about what would happen if she fell.

Note, mind wandering towards positive or desired future events can be just as distracting as worrying about negative events. Have you ever got close to the chains and you think the route is in the bag, only to fall on the very next move? Your mind wandered to clipping the chains before your body got there. You were giving yourself a pat on the back before you deserved it. But mostly, your mind was in a place that wasn’t here or now. No matter how close you are to the chains, you’re not there yet and imagining yourself there is a distraction, it’s a sap of your focused conscious attention.

We need attention to be focused to climb and yet also climbing focuses our attention. To rock climb well is to focus our attention deliberately. This is a very powerful experience and this is why we love climbing so much.

Training to focus our attention

Much of my coaching is centred around either minimising distractions of our attention or training our minds to be focused despite potential distractions (internal or external).

Some examples of how we might minimise distractions:
- Reduce fear of falling as a distraction by doing fall practice
- Reduce fear of gear failure and injury by improving your safety skills and experience
- Reduce fear of failure as a distraction by changing your conception of failure
- Reduce the stress of being on the rock by practicing breathing and relaxation exercises
- Minimise the distractions of desiring end-goals by replacing the desire to win/send with the desire for mastery
- Reduce pre-climbing nerves with visualisation techniques

Ways of training our minds so we can be focused despite distractions:
- Use meditation as a means to practice bringing our minds back to the present moment when it wanders
- Use mindfulness techniques daily to improve focus on ordinary daily activities.
- Use techniques which position our minds in the present moment, such as coming back to sensory feedback
- Improve awareness of when we are distracted and when we are not so we can do something about it.
- Reduce internal distractions with distancing techniques

Please don’t hesitate to contact me about coaching if you would like to work on any of these issues.


** Photo credit: Andy Earl

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