Selections: The Book
Mike McGowan’s stunning Photo Book, spanning over 50 years of skydiving...
Second article in Dan BC's series on training for peak performance, extracted from his much-loved book, Above All Else…
Training ourselves to stop telling our bodies what to do…
Few concepts are less understood than that of trusting your instincts. We all get the idea. But isn’t it something that just happens by chance? Something only exceptional athletes can do? And what exactly are our instincts anyway? Is it really possible to actually TRAIN to trust them?
Deep inside us all, the innate ability exists to “trust our instincts”. We were born with it. Given the fact that it exists, it is also possible to train and groom the “skill” of trusting our instincts. To become a natural athlete that can instinctively perform at the best of our abilities without obvious thought or effort, we must do two things.
We may be genetically built to accommodate the skills necessary for certain sports but we are not born with athletic instincts. Athletic skills are acquired. Only after much actual repetition and extensive visualization do such skills become instinctive and happen automatically as muscle memory.
When our mind is calm, undistracted by outside thoughts and focused only on the task at hand, trusting our instincts and our best performance happens automatically. In that moment nothing else in the world exists except the next move we need to make. We aren’t aware of physical pain and don’t feel fear or emotional anxiety. The only thing in our world is this basket, this pass, this stroke, this move, or the freefall formation we are doing right then. When we stop “trying to think” how we do a move, and just do it, we are allowing our instincts to take over.
For the purposes of this conversation please accept these two definitions:
Athletic instinct / muscle memory - The amount of a move, or a skill, that you have trained to the point that it happens automatically without the need for additional conscious thought. (Putting one foot in front of the other when you are walking.)
Trusting your instincts – Trusting your body to do the amount of the move, or skill, it knows by muscle memory on its own, without conscious input from you. (You don’t think about how to walk, you just walk.)
In Formation Skydiving we can most efficiently train our individual flying skills in a Wind Tunnel, incredible machines that are freefall simulators. In the same way a golfer spends a great deal of time slowly and smoothly working out the body mechanics of a perfect swing, in a wind tunnel skydivers can practice the exact physical input necessary for aggressive, precise moves.
With enough practice we eventually learn the technical skill. It’s not perfect but we understand how it is done. We do it slowly because it requires us to think through every part of the move in order to coordinate all the participating body parts so that they work together as one. At this time the skill is not yet trained to the point of muscle memory. We are capable of performing the move, but to do it correctly our bodies require many reminders from us in the process. Consequently, when we follow our instincts they will naturally tell us to slow down and think through each part of the move one step at a time.
With enough repetition and visualization our body begins to develop some degree of muscle memory. The muscle memory allows us to think less because our body knows more. The more of a move our body knows as muscle memory the fewer reminders it needs from us during the move. If we relax and trust our instincts we will naturally allow our body to do what it knows how to do, while only giving our body the additional information it needs. The ultimate extension of this is when we have executed and visualized it so many times, that the entire move happens with minimal thought or none at all. We recognize the need to make a specific move and it happens automatically, instinctively. There is no need for a single thought so we don’t give it one. We just do it.
It is a long road from the time when we must think through each part of the exact physical input necessary to do a particular skill, until the time when that perfect move happens automatically, with little or no thought at all. This raises the question: If during this learning process the amount of conscious reminders we need changes, then how do we know how much we need to think about at any given moment? We don’t want to be mentally lazy and not think enough. But we also don’t want to “try too hard” by thinking too much. Every athlete knows how crippling thinking too much or over-analyzing can be. Over-analyzing is the opposite of trusting your instincts.
Over-analyzing is the opposite of trusting your instincts.
Don’t think too little. Don’t think too much. We know what NOT to do, but we don’t know what TO DO. If we don’t know the answer to learning how to trust our instincts who does? Our bodies do. If our minds are calm, focused and distraction free, it happens easily. Here is how it works.
There is an internal conversation going on between your mind and your body. You cannot “try” to make this conversation happen any more than you can “try” to make your body do what it already knows how to do. This internal conversation will happen instinctively if you let it. When we stop trying to tell our bodies what to do, and allow them to do what we have trained them to do, they will come through for us.
When we stop trying to tell our bodies what to do, and allow them to do what we have trained them to do, they will come through for us.
When we are over-analyzing, or to put it simply, just “thinking too much”, we are not trusting our bodies to do what we have trained them to do. Let’s say again that our body understands 40% of a certain skill and will do that much automatically. All it needs from us in terms of conscious reminders is the other 60%.
If we are wrapped up in external concerns and distractions, our instincts are not able to take over. We don’t trust that our bodies will do what we’ve trained them to. In addition to the 60% it needs, we also try to force on it the 40% it already knows. Instead of operating at 100%, we have overloaded it with 140%. This is more than a natural internal conversation. It becomes noisy and distracting as opposed to calming and focused. Our instincts are blocked by too much thought, worry and analysis.
This overload can have very negative consequences. When we think too much, we end up poorly executing skills that we were previously doing well. We analyze our performance in a desperate attempt to figure out what we’re doing wrong. Being the dedicated athletes we are, we start trying even harder to fix the problem. But the actual problem was trying too hard and thinking too much in the first place. In trying so hard, we have obviously decided that everything we are aiming to achieve must be very difficult. The more difficult we think it is, the harder we try. The harder we try, the worse we do.
The most unfortunate part of this is that this “analysis paralysis” only happens to people that truly care and are giving a 110% effort to make it happen. It is usually the caring so much that causes you to go down this path in the first place. To become a natural athlete you must have the confidence to try by not trying. To care by not caring.
To become a natural athlete you must have the confidence to try by not trying. To care by not caring.
Consistently performing at our best is easy. We have to work hard in training our skills to a high level. We have to visualize extensively and do many repetitions in order for those skills to become instincts. We have to be disciplined in training ourselves to trust our instincts. But once we have done the hard work, we just relax, trust our instincts and let it happen. Our instincts will always lead us to our best performance, no matter what level our “best” is at the moment.
If you want to have this relaxed confidence when you arrive at the competition, you must practice it in training. You will prove to yourself that it works and you will be calm and confident the day of the meet. You will know without any doubt that as long as you calm your mind, rid yourself of all distractions and focus on the task at hand, your absolute best performance will emerge on its own.
This may sound as if I am describing some mystical experience that brings to mind “feel the force, Luke”. And that is exactly what I’m saying.
Previous Article (1): Becoming a Natural Athlete
Next Article (3): Flying on the Line
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