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Wednesday, September 9, 2009

A thinking man's game? Perhaps not

Spending 10 days with triathletes of varying ability, from world class to their countries best, but somewhat beginners still, I have wondered about learning & skills acquisition, both mentally & physically.
When it comes to their training, in a perfect world, most endurance athletes are considered by their coaches & themselves as being methodical. In my empirical experience nothing could be further from the truth. Both running & triathlon require some significant skills development. This is hopefully done in the tried & tested pedagogic method of setting a purpose for a workout or skills session, breaking it up into its separate parts, then learning those separate parts & finally putting it all together in sequence repeatedly until it becomes automatic.
We learn 1st automatically & instinctively as a response to the demands of our event – then as those demands evolve, so hopefully do we. Of course there are those who carefully study what we do & through science, physics, debate & thought come up with possible models by which we can do things more effectively. Then the athlete faces a daunting task; unlearn what was learned without thought through thoughtful, cognitive processes. This unlearning is best done with a “replacement” mindset – i.e. replace the existing behavior with the new (& hopefully better) behavior & then have the patience to accept a period of decreased effectiveness while habituating the new skill set & then with a little luck come out the other end a better athlete.
Good athletes allow themselves to be open to constant learning – it is a natural process. Even habituated skills get better each time we use them, especially under pressure. Like peeling the layers off an onion, we can only get to deeper realizations about our physical ability mentally, by experiencing & then revisiting our experience after the fact. Here video & photography are very useful, as we cannot always trust what we feel, but video (in slomo) does not lie! Great athletes have a hard time teaching what came “naturally” to them. I use parentheses, because it really was quite a formal, but perhaps unconscious effort on their part to get that good. Some have been lucky to have great conscious thinkers for mentors or coaches who took them along the journey with great care & attention to the processes of learning.
The process of “making automatic” is an interesting one – keen, but inexperienced coaches try to create rules for each process & then teach these rules & often young athletes learn these rules with great fervor & are left in competition trying to remember the rules for each situation without allowing habitually learned responses to show up automatically. This is also a product of anxiety – you can literally see an athlete thinking in competition – a fatal flaw! True habituated skills acquisition actually makes the conscious mind emptier. This is the true meaning of the sayings: “I just knew it. I had a gut feeling. I stayed out of my own way. I got out of my head. I just went on auto-pilot.”
Great athletes can give reasons for why they worked their magic at a certain time. The truth is they think this after the fact when they go through their performance in their mind. When Tiger Woods was asked what he thought of the phenomenon that he is, his answer was both astute & revealing. He said that he is busy with the process of being a golfer & not observing what it is to be a golfer – a BIG difference.

1 comment:

  1. Brilliant as usual Bobby. Very much in line with the work that I have been learning about this year. Barbara