For the vast majority of athletes, training focuses solely on the physical. Every training plan uses the same basic principles to prepare an athlete’s body for competition: stress-rest, progressive resistance, specificity, symmetry, contraction control, and ceiling. This is nothing new; these tried-and-true concepts apply to weekend warriors and Olympians alike.
But, competition is so much more than just the physical. The successful athlete works to train his or her mind and spirit for the rigors of sport, as well as the body. Without cognitive precision, emotional resilience, and spiritual awareness, the athlete is merely a meat machine — a conglomeration of muscle fibers, bones and cartilage, chemicals, and fluids. It is the power of our mental faculties that motivate us, propel us, drive us to succeed.
The discipline of sports psychology is entirely devoted to the study of the cognitive and emotional aspects of sport. Sports psychologists teach us that the performance of our physical bodies is directly tied to our mental state. If you feel tired, you will run slowly. If you think you cannot climb the mountain, you will not reach the summit. If you believe you cannot swim across the pool, you will not be able to do it. Fear, anxiety, anger, doubt, sadness — these emotions and states of mind are the hidden limiting factors all athletes carry within themselves. Like a physical trainer, the sports psychologist provides athletes with strategies and tactics for overcoming their current cognitive and emotional limitations.
But there is one attribute found in every athlete that is not developed through physical or mental training — it is the human faculty of intuition.
Defined in the Oxford English Dictionary as “the ability to acquire knowledge without the use of inference and/or use of reason” it is one of the most mysterious and obscure human traits. Intuition has many names: guess, insight, precognition, instinct. Intuition tells you that the phone is going to ring (and it does). Intuition stops you from walking into a dark alley at night. Intuition warns you to back away from a door seconds before someone forcefully opens it. Intuition says it’s time to rest even when your ego says go, go go! It is unquantifiable, mysterious, and uncontrollable. It is a string of code written into our human firmware that cannot be isolated or corrupted. It is the Next Level.
Despite the indiscernible nature of intuition, we can become more intuitive. If you cannot strengthen intuition through training like strengthening a muscle, then how is this done? The answer is not to attempt build your intuition but, rather, increase your sensitivity to the subtle cues your intuition gives you. Success in becoming a more intuitive athlete relies on your ability step beyond what you see, hear, smell, taste, and touch.
Reality check. At this point you are probably thinking: “what kind of bullsh*t psycho-babble, touchy-feely, New Age mumbo-jumbo is this? I’m not a Jedi Knight.”
Well, admittedly, this is a subject that is on the spectral fringe of sport, but the idea of being a more intuitive athlete has its roots in the practice of observation. In law enforcement, officers are trained to observe. A common exercise is for a cadet to be escorted into a room full of people with a hood on his or her head. The hood is removed and the cadet is given five seconds to observe what is going on in the room. After five seconds the hood is replaced and then cadet is escorted out the room. In an empty room, the hood is removed and the cadet is asked to describe everything he or she observed in the other room. Only after the fourth or fifth observation session will the cadet accurately describe some of what is happening in the people-filled room. In most cases, much of the action is missed entirely.
Exercise: Try this same exercise with a photograph you have never seen before. Take the photo, look at it for five seconds, and then turn it over. On a piece of paper write down everything you observed. Look at the photo again, comparing your written notes to what is in the photo. What did you correctly observe? What did you incorrectly observe? What did you miss? This exercise works improve conscious observation or cognitive awareness — what we observe and recognize that we observe; what we know we know.
Thanks to recent advances in neuroscience, we now know that our brains absorb so much more information than we can consciously process and interpret. In a single second, the five senses send terrabytes of information to our brains for processing. Think of how much information is transmitted from our eyes, nose, ears, mouth, and hands to our brains during a five second period of time as you walk through a crowded room. Some neuroscientists estimate that the amount of information acquired by our brains through our senses versus the amount of information cognitively processed and interpreted is a ratio of 10:1! That is a huge discrepancy and it elicits the question: “What do we do with all that unprocessed sensory information?”
The amount of sensory information processed and stored in your brain is immense. If only 10% of the sensory information processed in your brain is cognitively interpreted and accessed (i.e. That guy is wearing a red hat. I smell hot dogs! My feet hurt. It’s cold outside. The music is really loud!); then 90% remains processed but unaccessible. All that sensory data just hanging around in your brain is the fuel of intuition. Every once in awhile, some of that unaccessible sensory data becomes accessible, is interpreted, and given to us in the form of a sudden feeling, a flash of insight, a moment of clarity, an instant of recognition. It is in these moments where our inner voice whispers a warning, an image flashes in our mind’s eye, or our skin crawls or we shiver uncontrollably that we must acknowledge the message and and respond to it. This is hard to do. From a very young age, we are taught to respond only to what we perceive. So, if you cannot see it, hear it, smell it, taste it, or feel it, it does not exist. This is the challenge of becoming better attuned to your intuition.
Becoming more sensitized to your intuition is all about becoming a better observer. Observation is a critical aspect of athletic performance and it applies to what is happening around you as well as inside you. To strengthen your powers of observation and become more attuned to your intuition, try incorporating these suggested behaviors and exercises into your physical training routines:
During your training sessions, count your breaths. When you are eating, count the number of times you chew your food. During a run, count the number of strides you take. When vacuuming the bedroom, count the number of times you push the vacuum cleaner away from your body. When you swim, count the number of strokes you take. Do this for 30-60 seconds. During this time, remain constant in your pace or speed. Focus on the counting. After each counting session, observe how your activity or workout changes. If you observe no change, count again. You will be amazed at the results! Do not count aloud. Do not let the counting interfere with your activity or workout. Do not count backwards.
Behavior: Establish a 360 degree ‘awareness space’
When training and competing, it is important to be aware of who and what is around you. If you are cycling in a group, it is critical that you know the position of the riders around you, how much space separates you from the other riders, and how those other riders are behaving (slowing, accelerating, weaving, turning). If you are running on a trail, it is imperative that you stay alert for obstacles, mountain bikers approaching at high speed from in front or behind, and sudden terrain changes. Build a 360-degree circle of awareness around you by turning your head, keeping your eyes moving, and utilizing your senses to create a mental picture of you moving through your environment. Work to constantly update the image with new data — other runners passing, a big tree to your left, a sharp drop off to your right, horse poo in the trail ahead — and adjust your position accordingly. Do not fix your eyes on one spot. Do not turn your head quickly or keep it locked in one position.
Exercise: Close your eyes and listen
At an appropriate (and safe!) moment in your training, turn off your iPod, put down your smart phone, stop your Garmin, and settle your body, close your eyes, and listen. Do this for 30-60 seconds. Search for the smallest, softest sounds you can discern from the background noise and identify them. A bird chirping. Leaves rustling in the wind. An airplane flying high overhead. Your stomach rumbling. Focus on one of those softer sounds until the time period ends or you are no longer able to hear the sound. As you get better at isolating sounds, shift your focus from one sound to another, identifying each one. Do not turn your head while listening. Do not chew gum while listening. Do not move around while listening.
Behavior: Watch your competition
If you want to get to know someone, watch them. When training with others or during races, position yourself so you have a good view of your competition. Look at their stride when they run. Do they pronate? Are their running mechanics fluid or choppy? Is their head up or down? Watch their position on the bike. Is there alot of movement in their upper body? Can they hold their line or do they drift or weave? Is their transition from out-of-the-saddle to seated smooth or clumsy? Check out their swim. Can they do flip turns? Are their strokes even and smooth? On what side do they breathe? Gather and store all this information and make note of it. Also, watch how they interact with people. Are they gregarious and friendly or are they aloof and distant? Keep notecards on your competitor. Write down what you observe and when you observe it. Use this information to enhance your training and develop racing strategies. Do not let others know you are observing them (creepy!). Do not provide your competition with numerous opportunities to observe you. Do not keep important, safety-related observations from your friends and competitors (“I noticed that the sole of your left trail running shoe is starting to separate from the upper. Just thought you might like to know…”).
Behavior: Remove distractions
The key to becoming a better observer is to remove sensory distractions while engaging in observation. We are natural multi-taskers. However, as we attempt to do more things at once, the accuracy and completeness with which we do those things drastically decreases. So, would you rather perform five tasks poorly or do one task perfectly? Observation requires concentration. So, when engaging in obersation make sure to take out the earphones, turn off the smart phone, close the tablet, power down the Garmin. You will be amazed at how much more effective an observer you are when you can devote all your energy and attention to observing. Do not compromise your training experience by removing beneficial distractions like music and telementry for long periods of time. Do not attempt to perform both exercises and behaviors simultaneously. Do not attempt to balance two elephants on your nose with a pencil (just making sure you’re reading this and haven’t zoned out yet…).
Using the exercises and adopting the behaviors described here, you will become a more intuitive athlete. Understanding the nature of intuition and being more attuned to the subtle instructions and inights your intuition provides will help you maximize your training, prevent injuries and accidents, improve your performance in competitions, and more fully appreciate the complexity and beauty of the world around you. Welcome to the Next Level!
About The Author
Aaron Hanson (a.k.a The Cap’n) is manager of the Southern California Colavita Regional Amateur Team. A 25-year veteran of the sport and lifestyle of cycling, Aaron has raced both road and mountain bikes, advocated for bicycle transportation funding and facilities at the city, county, state, and federal levels, planned and facilitated numerous bicycle events, and helped several municipalities and counties create viable bikeway master plans.
Aaron has been honored by IMBA, CORBA, Clif Bar, the City of Los Angeles, the County of Ventura, the City of Simi Valley, the United States House of Representatives, and the United States Senate for his bicycle advocacy work. He has even won a bike race or two.
Aaron can be contacted via e-mail at: firstname.lastname@example.org
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