I arrived at week two of Michael Inglis’s Mental Conditioning Program having already seen some promising changes in my running. The first class had made me self-aware of the thoughts I have that prevent me from improving my performance. I was curious as to whether I could sustain the improvements and to learn about other strategies that Inglis had in store for us.
The second session focused on thought fusion, which is when our thoughts ‘become us’. We learnt that thoughts are what our minds tell us and that sometimes they can be unhelpful. We were told that more often than not they are negatively skewed. We shouldn’t be hard on ourselves about this. It’s a survival thing. It’s what kept our ancestors alive when confronted with sabre tooth tigers. Inglis cautioned us that our thoughts are not absolute truths, nor are they orders we have to obey. Not all thoughts are important, either. We don’t need to attend to all of them.
In a sports performance context, we can buy into all sorts of thoughts. For example, the player who tells himself, “I don’t play well after six week breaks”; or the athlete who tells herself, “I don’t compete well in windy weather”. When we buy into these thoughts we limit ourselves. When we accept that thoughts are not facts, then it follows that thoughts can exist without us buying into them. This led us to our discussion about thought defusion; recognising that we are separate from our thoughts. Philosophically, it means seeing our self as our observer.
The self as the observer is a technique tennis champion Novak Djokovic uses to enhance his performance. He uses the observing self to notice what his mind is telling him and to choose what to pay attention to. In essence he appoints an inner coach; the one who’s voice is helpful. He redirects his focus away from critical and judgmental thoughts, from negative energy that detracts from peak performance. He is a master of his attention. Inglis is guiding us towards this level of mastery in ourselves.
The technique Inglis uses to begin this thought defusion process is mindfulness. We practice a mindful meditation by Russ Harris that guides us to become aware of our thoughts. Once we notice our thoughts we can concentrate on seeing them as something separate from ourselves and watch them move away. We try to hold our attention on one image while recognising and unhooking the thoughts that distract us from that image. We, like Djokovic, are trying to become the masters of our attention. Our goal is to become disciplined enough to hold our focus on what we choose to. I regularly practice mindfulness, but I found this particular meditation challenging and mentally exhausting; it is getting easier as I practice it throughout the week though.
I can see the benefits of having a ‘strong attentional muscle’ during performances. I relate it to my own past experiences on the sports field, where my attention has been pulled easily away from the task at hand. I have focused begrudgingly on a decision made by a referee. I have focused on a mistake I’ve have made earlier in the game, guilty that I’d let my teammates down. I have focused on blaming my teammates for their mistakes and the opposition’s unsportsmanlike behaviour. I have focused on the glory of a win within our grasp, only to see it slip away in the dying minutes of the game. In all of these scenarios I have allowed my thoughts to take control of me. I have been distracted from what really matters in the moment; the game. It is for moments like these that mindfulness can be beneficial.
Inglis tells that mindfulness can help improve our concentration and ability to stay in the moment. It gives athletes confidence that they can learn to perform optimally no matter what they feel or are thinking. It allows them to regulate their emotions so that they can perform without the interruption of anxiety, fear, anger, guilt or disappointment. As someone who practices mindfulness regularly for wellbeing I am intrigued to explore it in this new context of performance. In the past week I have noticed improvements in my attention. I even seem to be more productive at work, too. Having delved into thoughts, I’m now looking forward to learning about other internal processes that I can master in the pursuit of peak performance.
The Peak Performance: Mental Conditioning Program runs once a week on Wednesday evenings for six weeks and is held at The Mind Room in Collingwood.