shift attention

There is more to vision than meets the eyes.

If the Zone is a matter of perception, perhaps we can play with our senses to try to enter it. In particular, we have seen that the athletes living the Zone are experiencing a change in vision. We also know that the athlete in the Zone is focused on the task at hand while keeping a great awareness of what is happening around him. A logical question is: Can we play on our vision and thus control our attention in order to enter the Zone and stay there as long as possible?

We know that the best athletes, via their knowledge of the visual patterns and tactics of their sport, have the ability to pick up the right clues and also to anticipate precise trajectories and actions. But our vision has other hidden features. A clue is given by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, who stresses the importance of vision in the development of flow: “Vision can be more than the detection of information. The advantage over a lot of techniques or activities is that seeing is immediately accessible!”

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We also know that in stressful situations our vision is affected: Our focus grows narrower. That’s what makes John Gorrie, author of Performing in the Zone, say: “You can see the level of an athlete’s performance by looking at his eyes.”20 We must therefore look at our attention. A professional skydiver said: “When performing in the zone, we move forward focusing on the next move and allow our subconscious to alert us to exceptions. We might see some subtle cue about our teammate’s body position or facial expression with a glimpse in just a fraction of a fraction of a moment. I can’t intentionally look for this sign, but if I am in the zone I see it and it is translated into a feeling, which in turn guides an instant decision to hesitate appropriately before continuing. I don’t know if you could train your vision to enter the zone. I don’t think it is a challenge of vision, I think it is a challenge of shifting attention.”

Probably the first to have understood the importance of this shift of attention is Scott Ford, a tennis coach in Denver, Colorado. For thirty years he has studied the relationship between the Zone and attention. With the help of Bill Hines, an ophthalmologist specializing in sport vision, and Michael Meshes, a neuroscientist, he has developed a method of tennis training based on a shift in attention. His hypothesis: A shift of focus allows a complete shift of consciousness, and thus helps us enter the Zone more often. This method simply uses the fact that by shifting our attention we call to another part of our brain, one that can more quickly process information because it’s more instinctive. Geoff Mangum, a golf coach passionate about neuroscience, explains this mechanism: “There are two visual pathways in the brain’s neural networks: once for identifying static information about objects, and another one for action in relation to objects and locations in space (the so-called ‘what’ and ‘where’ systems). In sports, there is no ‘what’ worth noticing. In golf specifically, and in putting more specifically, ‘it’s a hole—they’re all alike’ and ‘it’s a ball—they’re all alike.’” The system “where” uses brain mechanisms that use less energy, which we have seen correspond to the areas related to automation. Basically, this means: Be alert to the “where” and the body will take care of it! Thus, Ford and Mangum naturally teach to first focus our attention on the ball and the contact, then change the visual mode with a look at the contact area. I have also shown that this shift of attention could be extended even farther by keeping the gaze a little longer on this contact zone, with a sort of dead gaze or soft eyes.22

That’s exactly what is observed with Roger Federer or Rafael Nadal. These champions do not seem to watch the ball after contact; they remain focused just a little longer on the contact area. Their attention is not fixed but shifts from close attention on the ball to larger attention to the contact zone. Scientists call this skill attentional flexibility. This does not mean that Federer is not focused when he plays; only that he has the ability to switch his attention to what really matters. It’s a sort of super-consciousness in which “you focus on nothing but see everything.” Fiona Taylor, six-time world champion in windsurfing, calls this type of gaze “soft eyes” and says: “When we ‘soften our gaze’ and go into an expanded state of consciousness we are able to have focus of the internal and external without having to think.”

This gaze also appears in the advice given by Kazumi Tabata, a great master of Shokotan Karate, who presents in his book Secret Tactics some essential aspects of martial arts: “Seeing without seeing. It is crucial not to fix your eyes at a specific location.” He explains why: “The important thing is not to stop the mind on anything. This is an essential point. If you stop the mind, it will be captured by your opponent. If you move with the intention to be quick, your mind will be caught by your own intention. If you direct the mind toward something outside of yourself, it will be captured by its destination and you will be defeated. Then where should you put the mind? This is my answer: you must not put the mind anywhere. Then it will expand out to fill the entire body. If the mind is not put in one place, it is everywhere.”

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In our example, tennis, vision is used to collect the right information; then the visual system shifts, entering into a kind of rest mode and allowing instinctive action. If your attention is focused on following the trajectory of the ball, for example, your response will never be a perfect movement. On the contrary, champions assign less energy to the visual system, and the excess energy can be used for movement. In a way, to do less is to do better!

This process helps to simplify the chain of information and allows us to move faster. Indeed, we know that what we look at is intimately connected to our sensory channels (auditory, visual, or kinesthetic). This process is obviously unconscious. Thus, the movement of our eyes provides access to the mechanisms of thought. For example, an eye movement to the top right usually means we are remembering images.

And what interests us here is that a look downward and to the left means that we are in a kinesthetic mode. We feel our body sensations and emotions. This is precisely what champions do better than others. In this case, vision is no longer used only to take in information but also to switch from a visual mode to a proprioceptive mode. Champions have the ability to direct their gaze in order to place themselves naturally in the kinesthetic channel! Their recipe is simple: The more you play, the more you create the conditions of the Zone, and more likely you are to stay there! Because throughout the game, you do not need to think about complicated things. You just have to do the simplest thing: hit the ball.

Until recently, nobody was really aware of the role of vision in the Zone state. Now, with the work of the team of Scott Ford and my work on the role of soft eyes, we know that by learning to use our vision differently and adopting the right attention, we can create favorable conditions for a leap of consciousness and thus perhaps the onset of the Zone.

  1. Trust your vision. You already know where and what to watch.
  2. During your movement, soften your gaze. Don’t try to focus on something; only focus on what you feel.
  3.  Trust your senses.
  4.  Don’t try to understand what happens. Just do it.
  5. As I walk, I breathe deeply.
  6. I slow down and notice how my attention widens.

from “Back to the Zone” – Sport and Inner Experiences – Dr Damien Lafont, Breakaway Books NY – 2012.

If you want to improve your performance and to know more about Vida Mind, do a free session with Dr. Damien Lafont. Contact him at [email protected] or call 0435 819 262 and he will get in touch with you to schedule 45 min with you either in person or over Skype. In this free info session with him, you’ll go through what is keeping your performing at your best. You’ll know Dr Lafont, how he works and whether you are a good fit for each other.

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