I’d like for you to think of a past sport (or activity) that you participated in. Be sure that it’s one you derived meaning from. Now, think back to 2-3 moments when were at your best. What was that like? Where did it take place? When was it? Who was involved? What transpired? If you want to take it to another level, close your eyes for a minute or two and try to bring your 5 senses (or however many you’re able to) into it.
Next, open up your eyes and identify the inverse: those moments in the same sport / activity when you performed at your worst. Be sure that it is the same sport in which you focused on your best. What happened? When did you know things were going to play out as they did? What were you thinking about before, during, and after?
It’s obvious which one was more “fun” to revisit. But, in really thinking about both experiences, was the difference solely physical? Barring injury, sickness, or an unlikely - and unrealistic - exponential plummet in skill, it’s likely that thoughts were a part of the picture you visualized. But how much did they influence both experiences? Whatever number you come up with, there’s a clear gap between best and worst performances, which leaves ample room for more questions, and maybe some insights, but likely just a little more self-awareness.
There could be an infinite number of factors that could be attributed to above gap between best and worst. Rather than grappling with all of them, it’s largely agreed upon that most of that gap is comprised of your thoughts. Thoughts influence behavior; they dictate action. Unfortunately, they only seem to render attention when all eyes are watching and the stakes are high. he truth is seems that physiological response is only evident when the stakes are high. The truth is thoughts were there all along, ruminating long before those “crucial” moments came to fruition.
Some thoughts are random, they seemingly come out of nowhere (this is definitely the case for me on most of my runs). Other thoughts are not. Dr. Anders Ericsson, author of the book Peak, spent years studying the world’s virtuosos across a wide variety of domains. One common denominator he found that it wasn’t necessarily the number of hours invested towards something (which Malcom Gladwell claimed in Outliers), but rather, it was what was poured into those hours that separated the best from the rest. Essentially, quantity is necessary, but not at the cost of quality. He coined the term Deliberate Practice which means purposeful practice done systematically with the goal of improving performance (Peak, 2016). Still, whether your in Gladwell’s camp or Ericsson’s, the only guarantee you get from 10,000 hours is 10,000 hours. There is no golden number. Moreover, there is no formula that can be replicated across domains, sports, or even down to the individual that guarantees a specific outcome.
Just as the physical piece can mature (skill set, fitness, technical), so too can the mental piece. In terms of growth, research yet to identify the capability of the latter. Thought, or lack thereof (which can be a good thing), is the common denominator amongst all athletes. Thoughts don’t discriminate one group of athletes or sports from another. Every athlete in every level of every single sport has to contend with his or her thoughts. If this wasn’t the case, then there would be no nerves, tension, or pressure. There would be only one mode of operation: autopilot. Sport would no longer be entertainment. It would robotic, bland, and predictable. Look at any athlete whose the best in their craft and it’s their ability to thrive when uncertainty reaches its apex.
To be at your best, removing thought doesn’t need to be the goal. That’s an unrealistic starting point. Rather, a better point to move forward from is awareness. Awareness can be trained through workouts, practices, and recovery sessions. By paying attention to what you’re focusing on and when, you’ll be better equipped to understand the relationship between thought and action. Sure, it can be cognitively demanding, but through repetition, you become not only more attuned to your internal dialogue, but that of others as well. A spot on example of that is legendary beach volleyball player (and current U.S. coach) Karch Kiraly on an episode of The Finding Mastery Podcast.
I loved the challenge of being so tired, so drained that it’s really hard to think straight and to operate and see if you can get back to thinking straight. Being on the verge of exhaustion was awesome to me. There was one time, I was playing in a tournament in Rio and it was 114 degrees and 99%. There was one guy we were playing against who had a ton of willpower and I knew he knew what was going on, so I decided to make it a contest to see who has to call a timeout first.
I’ve never had my heart beating so hard in my life. I was gasping for oxygen, but at around 25 minutes into it, he called the first time out. At that point, I knew we had the match because I just decided I’m not going to back down. I don’t care if I’m getting dizzy at times. Part of me wanted to call the time out, but I would not call it.
Thoughts carry weight. Through intention and repetition, you - the doer - can determine ways in which to harness that weight. Eventually, through your journey, the weight becomes familiar, maybe a little lighter, and likely more manageable, granting you the ultimate freedom: you being in complete control of you. There is no one-size-fits-all approach to get there. Rather, there’s many, and I’ll be exploring some of them and their utility, applicability, and effectiveness in the next month.
Ericsson, A., & Pool, R. (2016). Peak: Secrets from the new science of expertise. Boston, MA, : Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Gervais, M. (2015, August 19). Karch Kiraly: Leadership, Passion Risk. Finding Mastery Podcast. Podcast retrieved from http://findingmastery.net/karch-kiraly/