This may seem like a strange question. Surely, mankind would not have got where we are today without the focused and intense ‘brainstorming’ of our finest intellectuals forcing ideas out of their minds by hard concentration (what author Guy Claxton refers to as d-mode for ‘default’). D-mode is what we are conditioned to believe from a young age in schools actually allows us to achieve enlightenment. Why then have some of the most important discoveries/inventions been made by accident? Alexander Fleming accidentally discovered penicillin whilst researching the bacteria that cause food poisoning. Metallurgist Harry Brearley accidentally invented stainless steel whilst experimenting with alloys to eliminate erosion in gun barrels. Add microwaves, LSD, Viagra and Teflon (amongst others) to the list.
This blog has been inspired by a book I’m currently reading: “Hare Brain:Tortoise Mind” by Claxton. The book explores the idea that the best ideas come not when we are trying to wring our brain cells dry through conscious processing, but when we are in fact relaxed and the ideas just tend to ‘pop into’ our consciousness. This rings true from a couple of examples I can provide. Firstly, on my drive to work I realised I could name a lot of the side roads that I drove past without ever actually being conscious of looking at the signs. Also, being a puzzles geek if ever I struggle with a crossword, walking away and coming back later when less frustrated often leads to the answer just coming out of supposed ‘thin air’. Therefore, it appears that sometimes we can learn by ‘osmosis’ – something my high school biology teacher told me was impossible whilst I was daydreaming about playing football! The subconscious mind (according to one of Freud’s more believable theories is huge compared to the actual conscious apart that we are aware of. This would make sense as to be aware of all of our stored memories and knowledge at once would not only be terrifying but also lead to put ourselves in danger due to not focusing on what we are doing (although Freud’s interpretation was that the unconscious was full of repressed memories just waiting to pop up and spoil our day). Our consciousness exists for a reason: we need to be focused on whatever is important at a given time: survival, reproduction, etc.
Guy Claxton: ” Modern Western culture has so neglected the intellectual unconscious – the undermind… that we no longer know that we have it, do not remember what it is for, and so cannot find it when we need it. We do not think of the unconscious as a valuable resource, but (if we think of it at all) as a wild and unruly ‘thing’ that threatens our reason and control.”
The same then can surely apply to sport. If we over process what are the implications? And what are they if we simply just let things ‘flow’ (see blog on daydreaming) and can we learn from coaches without necessarily showing them that we have learnt something immediately. In my (modest) playing days it often took a few weeks for ideas presented in training to actually come to consciousness during matches. If I struggled with a certain aspect during match time I might try to think of a solution and it would be then that my mind would return to what information had been given in training. For example, as a centre forward who often stood behind a defender and expected a miracle pass from a defender/midfielder, I eventually remembered what I had been told about ‘showing for the ball’ taking the defender away and then dropping into the vacated space to receive a pass. When this became successful, it became stored and repeated. Next, I would keep giving the ball away, so my next remembered solution would be to make the right decision about whether to try to turn the defender (if space existed between me and them) or hold the ball up and bring others into play. So this was a gradual process and reflects the need for players to be able to make and learn from their own mistakes (see blog on mistakes) and be given the correct feedback in the correct way (according to their preferences – are they an ‘arm round the shoulder’ player or one that likes that metaphorical ‘kick up the backside’).
The important part of this is that the players (whether junior or older) are given the time to assimilate new information into their memories and aren’t forced to try and ‘over-think’ in D-mode. This way of thinking can be damaging. Using the conscious part of the brain (rather than the stored memories) can cause increases in arousal and anxiety (see blog on being in the zone for catastrophe theory and IZOF) leading to a fear of failure and ultimately choking:
Guy Claxton: “Thinking about what you are doing may introduce a kind of analytic self-consciousness which gets in the way of fluent performance – an effect reminiscent of the famous centipede who was rooted to the spot when asked which leg he moved first.”
The same can be said of coaches/managers in pressure situations. Shouting and bawling at players and becoming overly emotional can lead to poor decision-making and applying adverse pressure to players including blaming individuals for failures e.g.:
For me, Sven Goran Eriksson was a master of controlling himself in an intelligent way, which subsequently radiated to the players who remained calm and continued performing under stressful circumstances:
The latter approach would sensibly seem to be the way forward. The logic behind it being that athletes from any sport can make and learn from their own mistakes. It is only when the same mistakes are made repeatedly that the coach would need to step in with appropriate advice which would framed in the right way for the age and personality of the performer (some individuals prefer to be shouted at). Constant barracking shows incessant ‘over-thinking’ from the coach/manager and leads the athlete to question themselves or to consciously try to process what they are doing. One thing that we do know about peak performance is that it comes when we are in a state of ‘flow’ or the ‘zone’ which is characterised by a lack of processing, things are done on auto-pilot and without conscious thought – we ‘just do it’.
So how can we as athletes or managers allow this to happen and prevent ‘over-think’?
- Encourage use of regular visualisation by athletes (and coaches) not only to pre-empt possible pitfalls in a performance, but also strengthening the pathways in the brain responsible for technical execution. The recommendation for top athletes is a minimum of 30 minutes structured (putting aside specific time) visualisation a day. Anything above this would be a bonus. This allows you to have a ‘memory before the action’ and the theory goes that you will simply refer to existing patterns stored in your memory banks.
- Encourage performers to make mistakes – although this seems absurd, a paradox exists where we are told to be careful and not make mistakes we are more likely to do so. Encouraging mistakes should therefore mean they are less likely to occur as we are free from the anxiety associated with fear of failure.
- Support athletes when they do make mistakes and don’t berate them whether you are coach/manager or team-mate. A blame culture quickly becomes toxic and those that perpetuate it should may be removed from the system. This is, however, different from being overly positive and ‘happy-clappy’ all the time and not acknowledging mistakes. By acknowledging them we can then learn from them i.e. what can we do better next time? And then move on – see section on the 3Fs (visualisation blog).
- Focusing on ‘process’ goals rather than outcome goals is important. If we are thinking about the end product, we are probably not focusing on the task in hand meaning we are likely to switch off at key moments. Concentrating on what we are doing at any given moment is a better alternative and if we do it well enough “the score will take care of itself” (Bill Walsh – legendary San Fransisco 49ers coach).
- Develop a developmental approach instead of ‘win at all costs’: support players through bad form or mistakes.
- Develop pre-performance routines (see separate blog) that allow you to switch on certain groups of brain cells responsible for certain actions. These might be general in terms of pre-competition routines or ones that occur before initiating certain closed skills, such as set pieces in invasion games or a golf swing or throwing a dart, etc.
This is by no means an exhaustive list, but each of the above place an emphasis on not thinking too much; switching off the conscious mind and letting theundermind take over – a vital pre-requisite for sport (especially for closed skills).
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About James Barraclough
I currently work as a lecturer in sport at the Manchester College. I am also under 14s coach at a Championship football club's academy. My third role is as a sport performance (psychology) consultant specialising in football and mixed martial arts.