An Understanding of Focus Using TAIS

What’s Running Through Your Head?


An Understanding of Focus


Pounding.  Constant movement.  No, these aren’t your feet talking and it isn’t your heart either. The blood being pumped through your circulatory system and the bones in your feet place a distant second and third in a race with an opponent that doesn’t wear a bib and never quits.  Running with you every step of the way, be it one mile or twenty-six, are a myriad of thoughts that would fill the halls of the National Archives if they were printed, bound, and stored.

The difference between winning and losing at the highest levels in sport has more to do with mental factors than anything else.  It takes focus, confidence, and commitment for athletes to perform well under pressure.  In fact, years of training can crumble in less than ten seconds if a highly talented, finely tuned sports car of a sprinter doesn’t have what it takes when the gun goes off. A lack of confidence can throw a marathoner against the proverbial wall and stress can seemingly tie your shoes together when you can’t deal with it effectively.

Winning Mind is a high-performance consulting company that helps elite and Olympic athletes perform under pressure.  In our experience, we have found that the best athletes in the world have the ability to remain focused when it matters most and that being focused in the right way is really the key to success.

The term “focus” is one that is thrown around loosely to help direct and describe athletic performance.  But does anyone ever tell you what it really means to focus?  How do you stay focused when fatigue overcomes you?  How can you get the best out of yourself on a more consistent basis?  What follows is a simple yet comprehensive definition of focus, an explanation of how pressure and attention affect performance, and some real world examples of how runners use different styles of focus to get through important phases of their training and competition.

What is Focus?

The easiest way to explain focus is to compare your mind to a TV set that only gets four channels.  We’ll call these channels Awareness, Analysis, Problem-Solving, and Action.  Focus can be defined by its scope and direction and these four channels are distinctly different from each other on these dimensions.  Scope simply means how broadly or narrowly you are focused.  Direction tells whether your focus is external or internal: whether you are paying attention to the outside world or if you’re in your head.  When you plot scope and direction on a graph, you can see how the four channels are divided and what kind of scope and direction makes up each one.


The awareness channel combines a broad focus with an external one.  This is that “in the moment” concentration that a quarterback uses to read a defense or a point guard uses to find a teammate filling the lane on a fast break.  You use your awareness channel to read and react to the environment.  Runners use awareness while trekking on city streets to navigate through traffic without ending up on the front grill of a commuter’s Mercedes.  Trail runners rely on awareness to see where their paths are leading, especially if they are on unfamiliar terrain.  Track runners need to be aware of other runners and have to watch their spacing when running in close packs or while drafting or they risk collisions.


The analysis channel comes from the same broad scope as awareness, but the direction is internal.  You use this broad-internal focus when coming up with a game plan, when thinking about many different ideas at once, or when capturing the big-picture from a strategy perspective.  Great coaches have extraordinary talents for using this kind of focus to create complex systems for practices and games.  Runners use analysis to determine the best spots in their races to overtake their competitors or to push themselves for PRs.  Many runners use a broad-internal focus to take their minds off of the intensity of the run itself and on to other issues in their lives.  I once worked with a runner whose day job was VP of Marketing in a large corporation.  He ran sub-three hour marathons, but also used running to come up with new creative concepts for work.  He found that his best thinking was done out on the trails.


This channel has a narrow-internal focus.  You use the problem-solving channel to work through simple problems (what’s 15-8?) or to call up visualization and imagery scenes.  For example, stop reading right now and picture yourself running your favorite course, with your shoes tied as tight as you like them, hearing the sound of your feet contacting the pavement or the track or the dirt, which kicks up in little plumes as you glide over it.  Could you create a vivid image from my directives?  If so, you probably weren’t thinking about anything else (ergo, your focus was narrow) and you probably weren’t picking up on much going on around you (internal focus) while you were concentrating on that image.


The action channel is the one that is most compelling to athletes.  This is the channel you must be on to execute your skills. Imagine Tiger Woods burning a hole in the fairway with his competitive, single-minded stare.  It is Dennis Mitchell, eyes bulging with intensity, as he settles into the blocks for the start of the 100 meters. You use the action channel when you see the finish line in front of you.  This narrow-external kind of focus is most important to you in order to get the job done.

Properties of Focus

With your TV channels come a few restrictions on viewing.  First is that you can only be on one channel at a time.  There is no picture-in-picture capability in your head.  You cannot be both broad and narrow with your focus at the same time.  Neither can you be internal and external simultaneously.  If you have ever had a “daydream” during a meeting or a lecture and had no idea what was being discussed when you checked back in to reality, you understand this concept.

Next is the fact that each person has a favorite channel.  We call this your “dominant attentional style.”  This favorite channel gives you the most confidence in dealing with the world.  Most elite athletes prefer to operate on the action channel.  Most business executives, coaches, consultants prefer the analysis channel.  A computer programmer or an accountant might prefer the problem-solving channel.

Knowing your dominant attentional style is important because when you start to feel pressure, you first tune-in to your favorite channel (even if it is the wrong channel to be watching).  This explains the common occurrence of “paralysis by analysis”, which happens when athletes try to think their way out of trouble instead of attending to external cues.  In the sports world, there aren’t many chances to stop and think, you have to read and react instead.

When you are performing at your best, you use all four channels, as you need them.  A true “Zone” experience is one in which you switch from channel to channel effortlessly without relying on your dominant channel (unless the situation calls for it).  An elite runner uses all four channels by having a plan (Analysis) before a run, staying aware of the competition (Awareness), working through tough spots with visual and kinesthetic images, taking his/her mind off of racing to help get into a rhythm (Problem-Solving), and narrowing down to just the essentials when it’s time to deliver the victory (Action).

Case Study

Jessica is a successful management consultant for an international firm.  She played soccer in college and continues to run and go rock climbing for enjoyment, exercise, and to stay physically competitive.  While she occasionally enters 10Ks and half marathons, she doesn’t “race” with any particular need to finish at the top of her age group or to set a PR. Jessica has had some experiences with mental training and had a college coach who worked with the team on “the mental side.” This relatively positive experience has inspired her to schedule a few sessions with us to work on improving her performance in training runs.

We began by assessing Jessica’s dominant attentional style with a powerful questionnaire called The Attentional and Interpersonal Style (TAIS) inventory.  TAIS is a sophisticated performance assessment tool that was originally developed to measure concentration and personality factors in Olympic athletes.  Not surprisingly, Jessica’s favorite channel was analysis.  Her work as a management consultant requires that she carefully plan and thoroughly analyze various business and interpersonal issues. Indeed, one of her favorite things about running is that it gives her time to sort through all of her thoughts without having colleagues, clients, family, and friends vying for her attention.  Running is her time for personal reflection.  However, when she gets to critical points in her runs, her tendency to analyze becomes a weakness.  She calculates remaining distance, estimates mile pace, compares her exertion levels and fatigue to previous runs, and so on.  While the wheels are turning faster and faster between her ears, she loses focus on the simple things that control her pace and keep her running smoothly.  In addition, she has times when her thoughts turn to poor performances, fear that she is losing her edge, and doubt that she can continue on her normal pace.

One of the strategies that we and Jessica agreed upon was that she needed to find a way to get “out of her head” at those times when she felt like her thoughts were overtaking her.  The first step was to recognize that this was happening. The next step was to consciously “change channels” so she could have a narrow-external focus for action.  To do this, she was to start focusing on her breathing.  We asked her to count the seconds it took to inhale and exhale while continuing to run at her normal speed.  After a few counting breaths, she was to turn her attention to her feet.  Her task was to count her steps to ten and start over with one, but not tally the total sets of ten or any other sets of numbers.

By narrowing her visual field to the space on the ground just in front of her, she would continue to stay focused on a simple, yet overlooked, key to running: not falling down! We didn’t want her to be so focused on something else that she didn’t realize where she was stepping.  Knowing that nobody can be on two channels at the same time, Jessica could limit her analytical thinking by staying narrowly and externally focused on her steps.  But if she counted too high, she would end up focusing internally on the number she was on instead of just on taking the next step, so we limited the count to ten.

Final Words

The key to effective focus is not hard to find if you know where to look. You use all four attentional channels every day with ease.  Success, from a mental perspective, does not need to involve mastering a complex set of exercises, but it does require some confidence and discipline.  You must be willing to learn enough about yourself so that you can break the attentional channel-surfing habits preventing you from focusing effectively. You must also be patient enough to develop the ability to quickly and effortlessly switch channels when and where your performance environment demands it. As Confucius said, “A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.”   Think about that on your next run…but only during your regularly scheduled analysis channel time!



Geoff Miller is a partner at Winning Mind LLC, a San Diego based high-performance consulting group dedicated to helping people improve their ability to perform under pressure and achieve meaningful goals.  Winning Mind works with elite performers in Fortune 500 companies, professional and amateur sports, and Special Forces military units.  For more information on Winning Mind coaching programs and assessment of dominant attentional style, visit or email Geoff

World Champions and Olympic Medal Winners

Building A Psychological Profile of Olympic Medalists and World Champions

Robert M. Nideffer, Ph.D., Jeffrey Bond, Alberto Cei, and Umberto Manili

Kevin Curran a first time finalist at Wimbledon a few years ago was being interviewed by a television commentator. The commentator asked Curran why it had taken someone with his talent, so many years to reach the final of a grand slam. He also wanted to know if this was the “break through” that would lead to greater things in the future. In a very honest and open way Curran responded by saying “No, it wasn’t a break through.” He went on to say that he had a lot of talent and once in a while would hold things together enough to make a final and/or win a tournament, but he didn’t have the kind of drive and dedication that consistent winners have.

Those of us who have worked with world class athletes would intuitively agree with Curran’s assessment of those champions who are consistent winners. There is something different about them and it isn’t their physical talent. In fact, we often feel it’s the opposite, consistent winners have a mental toughness that in many athletes seems to compensate for a relative lack of physical talent.

In spite of Kevin Curran’s comments and our intuition there has been little hard evidence to show that there are indeed important psychological differences between world class athletes who win once, and those that win repeatedly. There are probably several reasons for this. First, we may have been measuring the wrong things. Second, there may not be enough variability in the athletes scores when we are looking at elite level performers. Finally, it is difficult to get a large enough number of subjects to obtain reliable results.


The purpose of the present study was to determine the extent to which those concentration and interpersonal skills measured by The Attentional and Interpersonal Style (TAIS) Inventory, could differentiate between world champion athletes based on the number of medals or world championships they had won (Nideffer, 1976).


We searched a TAIS data base of approximately 10,000 elite level athletes, and were able to identify 239 individuals who had won at least one Olympic Medal or world championship. These two hundred and thirty nine athletes were competing in 23 different sports. There were 171 males and 68 females. Combined, these individuals had won 113 Olympic Gold Medals, 44 Olympic Silver Medals, 73 Olympic Bronze Medals and 170 World Championships.

For purposes of this study, the subjects were divided into two groups. A multiple medal winners group (N=87) with a mean age of 26.5, that consisted of 69 males and 18 females. A single medal winners group (N=152) with mean age of 23.5, consisting of 102 males and 50 females.


The Attentional and Interpersonal Style (TAIS) inventory is a 144 item questionnaire that measures eighteen different, performance relevant characteristics. A table listing the attentional and interpersonal characteristics measured by TAIS is appended to this paper. For the past fifteen years, TAIS has been administered to elite level athletes at Olympic training centers around the world. The purpose for administering the inventory at these centers, is use it to educate athletes about their concentration strengths and weaknesses. Information from the inventory is then used by the athletes, coaches, and sport psychologists, to develop athlete specific performance enhancement programs. This fact is important, because it minimizes defensiveness on the part of athletes and encourages very open and honest responses to the inventory.

Data Analyses

Subjects score on the various TAIS scales were converted to percentiles comparing them to a much broader population of elite athletes (Individuals who had competed at state, national, and/or international levels). The characteristics of this group of elite athletes have been described elsewhere (Nideffer, et. al., 2000).

Subject’s scores on TAIS scales were clustered into five groups, those measuring: 1) Concentration Skills; 2) Concentration Errors; 3) Impulsivity and speed of decision making; 4) Leadership; 5) People Orientation, and; 6) Communication Style. Analysis of variance procedures were then used to make comparisons between the two groups on the different scale clusters.

The first analysis was a 2 (groups) by 3 (concentration skills) analysis of variance. Results of this analysis are presented in Table 1, and in Figure 1.

Table 1

Effect df F p-level
Groups (Single vs. Multiple) 1,237 .0460 .8300
Concentration Skills 2,474 8.4300 .0002
Groups x Concentration 2,474 7.3000 .0007

Figure 1

A Newman Keuls analysis of the main effect for concentration skills revealed that for these athletes, the ability to focus concentration is significantly more developed than either environmental awareness (p=.0001) or analytical ability (p=.003). The groups by concentration skills interaction shows that multiple winners are more focused than they are aware (p=.00006), or analytical (p=.00006), and more focused than single medal winners (p=01). For single medal winners there were no significant differences between the three types of concentration. Interestingly, single medal winners were significantly more analytical than multiple medal winners (p=.05).

The second analysis was a 2 (groups) by 3 (concentration errors) analysis of variance. Results of this analysis are presented in Table 2, and in Figure 2.

Table 2

Effect df F p-level
Groups (Single vs. Multiple) 1,237 .0390 .8426
Concentration Errors 2,474 5.9900 .0020
Groups x Errors 2,474 7.6100 .0005

Figure 2

A Newman Kuels analysis of the main effect for errors revealed that these athletes were significantly more likely to make mistakes because they were overly focused and under-inclusive than they were because they became externally distracted (p=.03) or internally overloaded (p=.001). The groups by errors interaction shown in Figure 2, suggests this finding is due largely to the scores of the multiple medal winners.

An analysis of the groups by errors interaction revealed that there were no differences in terms of the types of errors that single medal winners would make. When compared to multiple medal winners, single medal winners were much more likely to make errors due to over analyzing and becoming overloaded (p=.02). Multiple medal winners on the other hand were much more likely than single medal winners to make errors because they became excessively narrow or under-inclusive in their focus (p=.03).

The third analysis was a 2 (groups) by 2 (impulsivity and speed of decisions) analysis of variance. Results of this analysis are presented in Table 3, and in Figure 2.

Table 3

Effect df F p-level
Groups (Single vs. Multiple) 1,237 .5760 .4480
Concentration Errors 2,237 6.0100 .0100
Groups x Errors 1,237 4.7400 .0300

Figure 3

Impulsiveness in this analysis is measured by the behavior control scale on TAIS. The higher an individual scores on the behavior control scale, the more likely he or she is to behave in an impulsive way, and/or to lose control over anger. As you can see, both groups score much lower on this scale than the “average” elite level athlete.

Cautiousness in this analysis is measured by the obsessiveness scale on TAIS which is really a measure of speed of decision making. The higher an individual scores on the cautiousness or speed of decision making scale, the more he or she is concerned about avoiding mistakes. Hence, the more likely the person is to emphasize accuracy over speed when making decisions and/or performing.

The main effect for groups indicated that these athletes were more cautious and careful than they were impulsive (p=.01). A Newman Kuels analysis of the groups by decision making interaction indicated that multiple medal winners were more cautious and more concerned about avoiding mistakes than single medal winners (p=.005).

The fourth analysis was a 2 (groups) by 3 (leadership) analysis of variance. Results of this analysis are presented in Table 4.

Table 4

Effect df F p-level
Groups (Single vs. Multiple) 1,237 .0010 .9670
Leadership (CON, SES, P/O) 2,474 2.8800 .0500
Groups x Leadership 2,474 .2280 .2280

The three TAIS scales that make up the leadership group include the scales measuring need for control (CON), self-confidence/self-esteem (SES), and competitiveness (P/O). There were no significant differences between the two groups on any of these measures. A Newman Kuels analysis of the main effect for leadership revealed that these athletes scored significantly higher (p=.01) on the competitiveness scale (65%), than they did on the control scale (60%). The difference between scores on the control scale and scores on the self-esteem scale (63%) approached, but did not reach significance (p=.09).

The fifth analysis was a 2 (groups) by 2 (people orientation) analysis of variance. Results of this analysis are presented in Table 5, and Figure 4.

Table 5

Effect df F p-level
Groups (Single vs. Multiple) 1,237 .9430 .33200
People Orientation (EXT, INT) 1,237 15.8800 .00008
Groups x People 1,237 5.8600 .01000

Figure 4

The main effect for people orientation revealed that these athletes were significantly more introverted than extroverted (p=.00008). A Newman Kuels analysis of the groups by people orientation interaction revealed that multiple medal winners were more introverted than they were extroverted (p=.00004), and less extroverted than single medal winners (p=.02).

The sixth and final analysis was a 2 (groups) by 3 (communication styles) analysis of variance. Results of this analysis are presented in Table 6.

Table 6

Effect df F p-level
Groups (Single vs. Multiple) 1,237 .0240 .8750
Communication Style 2,474 2.3600 .0900
Groups x Communication Style 2,474 .7740 .4610

Communication style in this analysis is measure by three scales. These include the intellectual expressiveness scale (IEX), the scale measuring expression of anger and criticism (NAE), and the scale measuring the expression of support and affection (PAE). As you can see from Table 6, neither the main effects nor the interaction reached significance. In comparison to the elite level normative population, the average scores on the communication style scales for the 239 athletes in this study were 56% on IEX, 49% on NAE, and 54% on PAE.


Results of this study provide strong support for the belief that there are significant psychological differences between those Olympic medalists and world champions who are consistent winners, and those who win only once. We feel strongly that the entire pattern of results shows both the skill sets champions need, and highlights the sacrifices they have to make to be consistent winners.

Looking first at the results of the attentional analysis, as we would have expected multiple medal winners were more highly focused that single medal winners. Their attention to detail and willingness to engage in the same behaviors again and again (NAR), combined with their concern about avoiding errors and perfecting their skills (OBS) undoubted contribute to their repeated success and to their ability to perform under highly competitive conditions.

Looking at the types of mistakes these two groups make we can see that there is a “down side” to being as focused and dedicated as multiple medal winners are. When they make mistakes it’s because they become too focused, failing to make adjustments (RED). It is important to note that higher scores on the under-inclusion (RED scale will occur when an athlete recognizes that his or her personal commitment to sport is causing poor performance in other areas (e.g., the failure to respond to the needs of a significant other). It may be that some of the elevation we are seeing in this scale is a reflection of the social and interpersonal sacrifices that world class athletes have to make. This would be consistent with some of the other findings.

Nideffer et. al. (2000), reported that introversion increased and extroversion decreased with increasing age for elite level athletes. That finding suggested that continuing success at an elite level requires athletes to spend more time alone, and/or to limit their social activities. Dan O’Brian, the Olympic gold medalist in the decathlon made the following statement at the 1999 meeting of the Association for the Advancement of Applied Sport Psychology (AAASP) in Banff: “I no longer have friends who aren’t as committed to my training as I am and/or who don’t believe I will win the gold medal again.” The finding that multiple medal winners are more introverted and less extroverted than single medal winners adds additional evidence to the need for athletes to be willing to make significant sacrifices to be successful.

The fact that multiple medal winners make fewer mistakes than single medal winners because of over analyzing, or over thinking is important. It’s conceivable that their ability to focus helps them shut off some of the analysis that goes on for others. It’s also conceivable that they are simply less analytical, and therefore less likely to become overloaded by their own thoughts. This interpretation would be consistent with the fact that multiple medal winners scored significantly lower on the TAIS scale measuring analytical thinking (BIT), than single medal winners.

In summary, our results indicate that there is such a thing as a world champions profile. When we compare world champions, both single and multiple medal winners (and especially multiple medal winners) to other elite level athletes and to the general population. They are much more capable of narrowing their focus of concentration to attend to details and to develop and perfect their skills and abilities. They are less likely to make mistakes of all types, but are especially those mistakes due to external and/or internal distractions.

World champions are more willing to take responsibility and assume a leadership role (CON), more confident (SES), and more physically competitive (P/O). Elite athletes as a group, when compared to the general population tend to be somewhat more extroverted and slightly less introverted. The higher the level of performance of the elite athlete, however, the smaller these differences become. When world champions are compared to other elite athletes, they tend to be more introverted and less extroverted.

From a developmental perspective, these findings are important. There are a great many extremely talented athletes who have difficulty staying focused, either because they are overly analytical, or because they are too socially oriented, failing to make some of the sacrifices necessary to fully capitalize on their physical talents. It is conceivable that the early identification of potential problems could be used to help athletes either develop their own skills, and/or to organize their competitive environments so that they help them stay focused and committed.

For more information on using TAIS in your business, please contact us

TAIS Application in Corporate Settings

Leadership Development and Performance Coaching

Winning Mind Leadership Programs prioritize focus, confidence, commitment and adaptability in high-pressure settings. Our systematic assessment of individual and team attentional and interpersonal characteristics help identify developmental targets. Winning Mind Performance Coaching provides the insight and support necessary to take performance to the next level.

Building High Performance Teams

Team members who know themselves and understand one another have a much better chance of achieving collective success. Successful teams need the right people in the right places and must have the requisite trust and commitment in place in order to get the job done well. Winning Mind Team Programs typically include a comprehensive organizational review, in-depth individual profiling, feedback and team performance program sessions.

Identifying, Selecting and Retaining Effective Performers

Winning Mind helps organizations improve selection, hiring and succession-planning efforts. TAIS results, operational job descriptions, interview information, and performance data are brought together to create a comprehensive picture of “position:job fit.” Mission Profiling™ is a breakthrough process by which optimal, job-specific, performance profiles are generated and then used as benchmarks for comparison. Armed with this information, organizations can make better personnel decisions and take the necessary steps to retain and advance high-performers.

Reality-Based Training

The Winning Mind model for performance under pressure is ideally suited to experiential learning settings. Organizations looking to enhance existing experiential programs or design customized reality-based training should inquire about integration options.

Many powerful training metaphors can be applied to enable senior managers to reach their full potential and re-evaluate their responsibilities for creating rewarding, high performance corporate cultures. One excellent example of this is the “Redline” Program. Designed jointly by Winning Mind and Williams Gerard Productions, the program invites senior executives to convene at a world-class Skip Barber Racing School for first-hand experience with competitive driving techniques in Formula racecars. Throughout the program, driving becomes a metaphor for moving one’s self and one’s company forward. Current habits often must be “unlearned” and replaced by strategies to increase speed without sacrificing quality results. Winning Mind professionals participate in the program by guiding discussions and evaluating TAIS inventories prior to the driving exercises. The data serves as a basis for predicting how the executives will perform on the track and, hence, how they might typically respond to the pressures of fast-paced, competitive business environments.

For more information about TAIS application in corporate settings, please contact us at