Ever had someone tell you to stop thinking so hard when you’re trying to execute a physical skill? Ever had a feeling inside that if you could just let your mind go, your body would probably do what it needs to do? Pay close attention to that feeling the next time it happens; there is much to be learned in this terrain, and we would all be better athletes with a greater likelihood of peak performances if we could learn how to quiet our minds when the going gets tough. Easier said than done, right?
There are moments in our lives as athletes and learners when we need to be very conscious and deliberate, calling upon our higher-level verbal skills to mediate the development of new motor patterns. However, there comes a time when it is best to let go of this kind of conscious attention to motor skill execution, and when we don’t—when we think too hard—our performance suffers.
Typically when we learn new motor skills, we rely on the type of processing that is mediated verbally. This is known as explicit learning, which results in declarative knowledge. For example, when learning how to kick a soccer ball, a novice athlete might respond well to all sorts of verbal cuing from a coach—“make contact with the ball on the top of your foot, keep your hips facing in the direction you want to kick, be sure to follow through towards your target.” Once we become experienced with a motor pattern or skill, however, our knowledge is considered to be procedural and requires little conscious attention mediated by language. It has become automated and happens smoothly, with little conscious, verbal control. If you have ever been taught to run using a specific running method, it is easy to understand the different kind of conscious attention you use when you are learning the new method, as opposed to the kind of automatic processing that happens once you have integrated the new motor patterning and technique into your being. Once you are in this phase of learning, your knowledge of the skill/motor pattern is considered to be implicit or procedural. Your movements are no longer regulated by conscious, verbal processing, and they become smoother and more effortless. (See Masters, 1992 for a good explanation of the different types of learning).
It turns out that when we try to apply declarative knowledge and conscious, verbally mediated attention to the execution of motor skills that have already become automated, we actually do ourselves a disservice. There is a pool of research demonstrating that when experienced athletes apply conscious, explicit strategies to learned motor-skills, their performance suffers. This is less true for novice, unskilled learners, who typically benefit from this kind of internal, conscious attention. The idea is that novices need it in order to perform well, but once there is some level of competency and a motor skill has been automated to a large extent, a “reinvestment” in conscious processing actually hinders the efficiency of movement (Masters and Maxwell, 2008).
In 1992, Masters introduced the theory of conscious processing via a study showing that when people were taught a motor skill using explicit techniques (with clear and specific instructions on how to putt a golf ball), they tended to over-rely on such explicit learning when tested under stress. In contrast, when implicit learning was involved (practicing how to putt a golf ball with little verbal mediation), subjects were protected against an anxiety-induced regression to explicit knowledge. Furthermore, explicit learners performed more poorly under pressure than implicit learners, suggesting that declarative knowledge interrupts automatic motor patterns when one experiences performance anxiety (Masters, 1992).
Along these same lines, in situations when athletes experience a heightened level of anxiety, as typically exists in competitive situations or when performance matters for other reasons, there is a tendency to revert to conscious processing. This is true even when athletes are experienced and would fare better by relying on procedural, automatic, and smooth processing to guide motor mechanics. (Hardy, Mullen and Jones 1996; Masters 1992, Masters and Maxwell, 2008; Mullen and Hardy 2000, Pijpers, Oudejans, and Bakker, 2005; Flegal and Anderson, 2008).
The implications of this conscious processing hypothesis for experienced athletes can be summarized in this way: we need to find a way to fight the urge towards regression to language-mediated, conscious control of automated motor skills. In other words, we need to have faith in our training and our muscle memory, to let go of our declarative/explicit learning processes, to stay focused on the larger picture of the task at hand (E.g., making the lift instead of all of the bits and pieces involved in our body that will make that happen), and to let our body do its thing. We need to become comfortable with anxiety and know that it can lead to an optimal state of arousal for performance, as long as we don’t let it derail our automatic processes. We need to have at our beck and call a reservoir of positive self-talk that helps us when we feel nervous and unsure—talk that brings us back to a feeling of confidence in our skills and abilities. The details of such strategies are for another article (coming soon). My goal here is to get you thinking about how to avoid over-thinking when you are trying to peak your physical performance or simply perform learned motor skills on demand.
Implications for coaching are also intriguing. There seem to be a number of ways a coach can teach new skills that may help prevent athletes from succumbing to competition anxiety. For example, coaches should encourage external focus by helping athletes to think about the effects on the environment of their movements as opposed to how their bodies are moving (Wulf, Hob, and Prinz, 1998). They should discourage athletes from verbalizing the steps of their successful motor patterns, instead having the athlete use imagery for mental pictures, as well as sensory reflection on how the movement felt. Additionally, coaches can teach skills under practice conditions that invoke self-consciousness (Beilock and Carr, 2001) and self-awareness (Lewis and Linder, 1997); both have been found to protect against the over-investment in thinking when stressed. The idea is that training and learning under conditions that mimic the anxiety of competition adapts the athlete to the pressure, making him/her less likely to rely on the reinvestment of conscious processing (Pijpers, Oudejans, and Bakker, 2005). Competition experience can be mimicked using such techniques as performing for an audience, participating in mock competitions with other athletes, and having people video the athlete during training sessions.
I realize there’s a bunch of fancy terms and research references in this one. If you’re intrigued by this topic, you now have plenty of studies to sift through on your own. The big takeaway in my mind is that if you want to optimize your performance when you’re nervous, it’s high time you acquire tools that will prevent you from thinking too hard about motor skills you’ve been doing successfully for some time. Finding ways to deal with your performance anxiety is half the battle (again, stay tuned for more details on this topic). The other half of the battle relates to how much you allow yourself to be in your body, resisting, in the heat of the moment, the temptation of conscious thinking and verbal processing. It will serve you well to practice this art. When you perform a movement—be it a snatch or a golf putt or a tennis swing—reflect on how it feels in your body and how the barbell or the club or the ball moved in space, rather than putting into words what your body just did. Let the movement happen, and focus on the effects of your automatic execution. The rest will take care of itself when you’re under pressure. Don’t let your mind’s thinking get in the way of what your body knows how to do!
Beilock, S.L., Carr, T.H. (2001). On the fragility of skilled performance: What governs choking under pressure? Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 130, 701-725.
Flegal, K.E. & Anderson, M.C. (2008). Overthinking skilled motor performance: Or why those who teach can’t do. Psychonomic Bulletin & Review. 15 (5), 927-932.
Hardy, L., Mullen, R., Jones, G. (1996). Knowledge and conscious control of motor actions under stress. British Journal of Psychology. 87, 621-636.
Lewis, B.P. & Linder, D.E. (1997). Thinking about choking? Attentional processes and paradoxical performance. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 23, 937-944.
Masters, R. S. W. (1992). Knowledge, knerves and know-how: The role of explicit versus implicit knowledge in the breakdown of a complex motor skill under pressure. British Journal of Psychology. 83:3, 343–358.
Masters R. and Maxwell, J. (2008). The theory of reinvestment. International Review of Sport and Exercise Psychology. 0, 1-24.
Mullen, R. & Hardy, L. (2000). State anxiety and motor performance: Testing the conscious processing hypothesis. Journal of Sports Sciences, 18, 111-120.
Pijpers, J.R., Oudejans, R.D., & Bakker, F.C. (2005). Anxiety-induced changes in movement behavior during the exection of a complex whole-body task. The Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology. 58A (3), 421-445.
Wulf, G., Hob, M. & Prinz, W. (1998). Instructions for motor learning: Differential effects of internal versus external focus of attention. Journal of Motor Behavior, 30, 169-179.