AVOIDANCE INSTRUCTIONS HEIGHTEN THE AWARENESS OF THE OBJECT TO BE AVOIDED
Dugdale, J. R., & Eklund, R. C. (2002). Do not pay attention to the umpires; Thought suppression and task-relevant focusing strategies. Journal of Sport and Exercise Psychology, 24, 306-319.
Ironic-cognitive-processing theory served as the basis for two investigations. While the theory is complicated and involved, the practical import of its findings are relatively simple.
Ss (M = 50; F = 52) watched a videotape of a series of events involving Australian Rules Football players, coaches, and umpires. Study 1 had some Ss listen to an out-of-sync audio tape of game commentary and background noise as a condition of high cognitive load. A general-instruction condition consisted of receiving the instruction; "Your task is to closely observe what each person is doing in the video". In the suppression-of-umpires condition Ss received the instruction; "Your task is to closely observe what each person is doing in the video. Whatever you do, do not pay attention to what the umpires are doing." In the suppression-of-intentional-harm conditions, Ss were told: "Your task is to closely observe what each person is doing in the video. Whatever you do, do not pay any attention to any player who intentionally tries to harm another player." Ss completed a questionnaire after viewing the video tape.
It was revealed that Ss were more aware of individuals, in this case umpires, when instructed not to attend to them. There was no significant difference between low and high cognitive load conditions for awareness of the target individuals (umpires). There was no difference between general and suppression instructional conditions. The "ironic" effect was that Ss increased their attention more to the objects they were told not to attend to.
Study 2 was a replicated extension of Study 1. It assessed whether the ironic effects could be negated by a task-relevant cue word.
Ss (M = 36; F = 28) also observed the same football video as in Study 1. The suppression-of-umpires condition was replicated. Ss in a suppression-of-umpires + cue word condition were told to immediately refocus attention on a single cue, the ball, if they found themselves paying attention to umpires. Low and high cognitive loads were again involved.
It was found that both instruction conditions produced the same level of awareness of umpires. However, under high cognitive loads, the introduction of the cue word produced significantly less awareness of umpires.
Implication. It is desirable to have athletes not think of negative or irrelevant thoughts during a contest. If an individual is told not to think something, or not pay attention to a sensation (e.g., pain), it is very likely that attention will be heightened to those stimuli rather than reduced. However, if an athlete performs high cognitive demands, such as concentrating on a detailed prepared strategy, the ability to be distracted by "not to attend to" stimuli, is reduced.
On the other hand, the best set of instructions is that which says to attend to positive thoughts and activities and pay attention to a detailed planned performance strategy. This focus of instructions does not include attending to avoidance behaviors, such as not making mistakes or errors.
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