Association and Dissociation in Sports


What do you do when you’re not the most talented, fastest, or even strongest athlete? Well, change your focus… literally. Mental strategies, association and dissociation, can affect the outcome of a given event, just as speed, strength, and talent can. Association is a tool that athletes use to internally monitor their performance (cues, heart rate, pain and stress), whereas dissociation is directing attention away from said examples to help better performance.

It has been shown that elite long distance and middle distance runners tend to use more associative thinking strategies during an event. Further, as the intensity of the activity increases, there is a positive correlation with amount of athletes that use associative strategies. This may be due to the fact that when less time is required to complete a task, more focus is needed. (1)

If your boss gave you a task to be completed within three months, you may find yourself multitasking and putting more effort or thought elsewhere. In comparison, if your boss gave you the same task to complete in one week, you would generally focus immediately rather than be distracted by outside means.

I feel that more associative thinking does not always equate to more success, especially with sports that are determined by split-seconds. I think back to one of Vern’s posts “Technique” and the story of the centipede. If you allow your athlete to over-think cues and technique, it may be detrimental to their performance.

Don’t force your athlete to think a certain way. You can guide them to what you feel is best, but ultimately allow them to figure out the best strategies to use. There are always outliers and exceptions to any rule and research. What works for a high percentage of athletes, does not work for all.


1. Tammen, V.V. Elite middle and long distance runners associative/dissociative coping. Journal of Applied Sport Psychology. 8.1. 1996

John Grace

John Grace

Sport Performance Coach at Athletic Lab
John is a Sport Performance Coach at Athletic Lab. He earned his Master's degree from Ohio University in Coaching & Sport Science. John holds his CSCS, USAW-L1, and USATF-L1. He is the former Assistant Fitness Coach of the MLS Vancouver Whitecaps FC.
John Grace


Performance Coach | @ChicagoFire | I tweet about all things sport science, coaching, training, and athlete development.
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