“90 Percent of the game is half mental” – Yogi Berra

Dubious claims to Yogi Berra aside, the above quote doesn’t even make sense.  However, I think what Yogi was trying to say, the mental game is key, the last athletic tool to be unlocked, and at the elite level, probably the most important.

WHY SHOULD I CARE:

“When you are an elite athlete, one of the best in the world, the physical differences between you and your peers are very, very small.” says Scott Grafton, a researcher at the University of California, Santa Barbara and a Dana Foundation grantee, who studies action representation, or how the brain organizes movement into a goal-oriented action. “So what really determines success? The way athletes are approaching their sport at the cognitive level.” 

From Erica Saint Clair of breakingmuscle.com

“Our minds are one of the least discussed factors in success and failure. We think more of what training plan to follow, what to do on our rest days, and what to eat than we do about how best to utilize the most powerful tool in our arsenal.

When it comes to personal records and maximal effort, our minds shy away because they like the neat and the organized. What they don’t like is the dark place we have to go to in order to crank out our new personal records. Our minds like R&R, repeat and recycle. They don’t like hitting the redline and trying to surge past it into new ground.

You may have found yourself a great coach and a great place to train, your technique is improving, your times are getting faster, your weights are heavier – things are progressing logically, for the moment. And then you ask yourself to push just a little harder, and out of the blue, your progress has flat-lined.

You find yourself stagnating away, even though you are doing all the right things for mobility, nutrition, muscle care, and supplements. You find yourself failing at the same weight, day after day, week after miserable week.

You think that maybe you should go more often, maybe you need a one-on-one class, maybe you need a different coach. You don’t think that it is just your mind messing with you, holding you back.

But it is.

In 1984 the Russians realized that Olympic athletes who mentally rehearsed their sport experienced a positive impact on their performance. Since then the area has been widely studied. In the 1990s a researcher showed that just five minutes of mental visualization, versus five minutes of basic tasks yielded a significant difference in overall performance – and the dramatic increase in performance wasn’t limited just to experienced professionals, the researcher showed that it applied to novices as well.”

MEMORY:

In general there are three types of memory we as humans utilize.

  • Sensory memory – holds information for about 200-500 milliseconds (12 items). The shortest-term element of memory. It is the ability to retain impressions of sensory information after the original stimuli have ended. It acts as a kind of buffer for stimuli received through the five senses of sight, hearing, smell, taste and touch, which are retained accurately, but very briefly. For example, the ability to look at something and remember what it looked like with just a second of observation is an example of sensory memory.
  • Short-term memory – holds limited information temporarily (10-15 seconds, 7 items). Acts as a kind of “scratch-pad” for temporary recall of the information which is being processed at any point in time, and has been referred to as “the brain’s Post-it note”. It can be thought of as the ability to remember and process information at the same time. It holds a small amount of information (typically around 7 items or even less) in mind in an active, readily-available state for a short period of time.
  • Long-term memory – involved permanent storage of information.  Intended for storage of information over a long period of time. Despite our everyday impressions of forgetting, it seems likely that long-term memory actually decays very little over time, and can store a seemingly unlimited amount of information almost indefinitely. Indeed, there is some debate as to whether we actually ever “forget” anything at all, or whether it just becomes increasingly difficult to access or retrieve certain items from memory.

CONCENTRATION:

The ability to pay attention is vital to memory because it is the process that moves information from sensory memory to short term memory.  There are the more traditional methods of concentration, typically repeating the information out loud, and writing down the information to review and repeat at a later time.  It can take a significant amount of time to learn something for the first time – it is always faster to re-learn something.  This equates directly to muscle memory as well (more on that later) where if you have developed your body to a certain conditioning in the past, and maintained that conditioning for a significant amount of time – your body will remember that state.

It is important to distinguish memory from comprehension i.e. short-term memory to long-term memory.  This is the act of actually transforming information into useful knowledge and into differing sensory channels.

MUSCLE MEMORY:

Our muscle/brain connection is an important aspect of concentration, memory, and focus.  The more efficiently we can make these connections – the easier it will be to recall techniques and strategies for success.  Muscle memory is a type of “procedural memory” which guides the processes of how we perform and most frequently resides below the level of conscious awareness. When needed, procedural memories are automatically retrieved and utilized for the execution of the integrated procedures involved in both cognitive and motor skills. It is a type of long-term memory.

The neuroanatomy of memory is widespread throughout the brain; however, the pathways important to motor memory (consolidating a specific motor task into memory through repetition) are separate from the medial temporal lobe pathways associated with declarative memory (long-term memory that can be consciously recalled such as facts and verbal knowledge). As with declarative memory, motor memory is theorized to have two stages: a short-term memory encoding stage, which is fragile and susceptible to damage, and a long-term memory consolidation stage, which is more stable.

Muscle memory consolidation involves the continuous evolution of neural processes after practicing a task has stopped. The exact mechanism of motor memory consolidation within the brain is controversial. However, most theories assume that there is a general redistribution of information across the brain from encoding to consolidation. Hebb’s rule states that “synaptic connectivity changes as a function of repetitive firing.” In this case, that would mean that the high amount of stimulation coming from practicing a movement would cause the repetition of firing in certain motor networks, presumably leading to an increase in the efficiency of exciting these motor networks over time.

I could go on and on about this – and in a future post (like the next one) I will.  But l digress….

NEURAL DARWINISM: See my previous blog post here for a more detailed look – Neural Darwinism: 31 Billion Ways to Get Faster in Triathlon.  A brief look on how the brain develops both declarative and motor memories – and how to use that knowledge to gain a competitive advantage, in sports and beyond.

CONCENTRATION:

Concentration consists of four components: Width, Direction, Intensity, and Duration.  From Jacques Dallaire’s book Performance Thinking:

“The width of attention can vary from a broad perspective, where you process a large amount of information coming from various sources to a narrow one, where only a limited amount of information is allowed to capture your attention. There are instances where a broad focus of attention is appropriate while at other times, you need to shift your focus of attention to only a few thoughts… When you’ve mastered the ability to shift from broad to narrow concentration and back again, and the capacity to maintain the correct focus based on the demands of the activity, you’ll be able to avoid irrelevant thoughts since they can negatively affect both your decision-making and your reactions.

The second component has to do with the direction of your focus. There are occasions when
an internal focus of attention is necessary… you selectively filter external events. At other times, an external focus of concentration may be more appropriate since you must continue to focus on the changing events that are occurring around you in real time.

Concentration can also vary in terms of its intensity – from being weak to being intense. Finally, concentration can vary in terms of its duration. Here, concentration varies frombrief to sustained periods of time. It’s important to understand that these components of concentration are mutually exclusive in that it’s not possible to concentrate both broadly and narrowly at the same time, nor can you concentrate internally and externallyat the same time. Likewise, the more intense your concentration is, the shorter will be the length of time you can maintain focus at that intensity before mental fatigue sets in.

Under relaxed conditions we possess greater mental flexibility – we are better at shifting amongst these four different components of attention. But under conditions of pressure or when we allow emotional stress to increase, we tend to rely on our own particular concentration bias. This may become a disadvantage if your bias is inappropriate for the particular demands of the situation at that time.”

Components of concentration are mutually exclusive in that it’s not possible to concentrate both broadly and narrowly at the same time, nor can you concentrate internally and externally at the same time. Likewise, the more intense your concentration is, the shorter will be the length of time you can maintain focus at that intensity before mental fatigue sets in.

PRE-PERFORMANCE ROUTINES AND ATTENTIONAL CUES/TRIGGERS:

Pre-performance routines help athletes block out irrelevant internal and external distractions by giving them something to focus on, assisting athletes to relax by providing a sense of familiarity which helps remind them this is just another shot, serve, race, etc., and finally, providing athletes with a consistent approach to their sport which, in turn, helps maximize the potential for consistent performance.

Cues/Triggers consist of usually no more than 1-2 cues to be used and their purpose should generally be helping athletes focus in the present moment, ready to instinctually react.

MENTAL TOUGHNESS:

Mental toughness consists of 7 components – as listed below:

  • Resilience – bounce back from adversity, pain, or disappointing performance
  • Focus – ability to focus in the face of distractions
  • Strength – ability to handle an unforeseen turn of events
  • Preparation – ability to anticipate situations ahead of time and feel prepared with a plan of action
  • Vision – ability to keep moving forward with your objective
  • Openness – ability to learn and be open to possibilities
  • Trust – ability to have faith in oneself