Jedi Athletic Performance


Ask just about any elite athlete and they will likely tell you that their best performances emerge in a state of consciousness that is free from discursive activity. You know, it's that "self-talk" or "inner dialogue" that is often narrating the story of your life.

When athletes are executing and performing at their very best this symbolic functioning of the mind and its automated inner commentary are suspended. What is happening inside their mind is a simplicity that reaches beyond yet includes immense complexity from years of training and often decades of studying their sport.


All in a fraction of a second, clean precise execution unfolds almost effortlessly. 


This is not slipping back into an unconscious, pre-reflective and pre-symbolic way of functioning that psychologists find in early development. This is an increase in awareness, a more refined attunement with what is happening and a demonstration of greater skill in the face of competitive pressure. Peak performance is, in many ways, a function of a more evolved and integrated brain and nervous system.

The challenge of course is as the pressure increases with competition, the drive to make sense of what is happening becomes louder and louder. And by make sense, I mean tell yourself a story that holds you, situates you and coheres what's happening and how you fit in, or don't fit in. The bigger the competition, the more challenging the pressure to make sense of your experience. One of my clients was recently recounting his different experiences of getting in front of 70,000 fans. Sometimes they are devotionally cheering for his best performance. Other times, they are awaiting to celebrate any mistake he may make. At each stage the pressure mounts and so does the pressure to make sense of your place amidst the increasing level of competition.

How did I get here?
Am I really prepared to compete at this level?
What if I make mistakes?
How can I win?
Have I done everything I can to prepare?
Who am I if I lose?

These and many other questions are being answered by the stories we knowingly and unknowingly tell ourselves as we sit in locker rooms before taking the field and as the game begins.

While there are stories and narratives that are more adaptive and supportive of your growth as a competitor as well as stories that will stunt your athletic development dramatically, we aren't investigating this today. The narratives that make sense to you and create a skilled relationship with discipline, hard work and passion for the sport that most speaks to your heart outside of and leading up to competition are essential. But today, we are investigating when you step into your sport and execute at your very best when it matters most.

It's what Trevor Tierney and I have begun to talk about as being a LIOV Hero (more to follow on this front soon). This isn't just a random occurrence, although it may appear to be at first glance. There is a curriculum that can be mastered thus enabling you to elevate your play. One skill is what we are calling postrepresentational experience. It's a big fancy term, but it's pointing to something very simple. It is about quieting the mind's chatter so you get more contact with what is actually happening moment-to-moment. It is a skill and it is one that you likely need to polish if you want to be able to perform at your best under immense stress.

There is a part of you that is beyond your stories. It is beyond the mental chatter. It stretches outside of your mind's habit of symbolically representing everything in a story. Winning is a story. It is a map of what happened or a strategy of what you will do to hopefully gain a "W" in the win column. The story inside of you is different from the actual territory of victory and defeat within the heart of competition. The more connected you are to the actual territory of competition, the better you can perform.

Great athletes know the difference between being in the story and being immersed in the actual territory of the game. A captain may ask his team, "Are you ready?" with a fierceness in his eyes and a passion in his heart as he stands in the huddle with his team before the game.

Some cheer yes, because that is what the story in their mind tells them to do. These athletes are playing out a narrative. They may indeed be playing the same sport, but don't be mistaken, they are playing a different game than the jedi athletes who are fewer in number, yet possess greater capacities to perform.

These warriors may too cheer "yes," but underneath the passion is a silent presence that is palpable. There are no words for it. In an instant, just in a glance, the great competitor will recognize this readiness in a teammate. Inside of this momentary exchange is a recognition of each other. There's no words and there's no story about it. They are "plugged in" and already competing together on another level. When the pressure is high, this is where a deep trust resides.

As the inferior athlete is distracted and consumed by strategy, personal stories, desires to be perceived in preferred ways and for the story of the game to fit the narrative in their mind where, in the end, they win, something more profound is happening in the jedi athlete. This athlete is quietly attending to precisely what is happening within himself, his team, his coaches and, of course, the displays of his competition.

Now you may think I'm bring in some fantasy narrative into this blog as I reference a jedi from the Star Wars movies but make no mistake George Lucas, writer and director of Star Wars, filmed sections of the movie with Zen master Maezumi Roshi on the set helping him sculpt the character Yoda. Yoda and the jedi culture are in many ways modeled after this Zen master's perception of the world. While Star Wars is indeed a story, what the jedi represent and are pointing toward is not. Master the mind and amazing feats are possible.

The Zen master has gained a refined capacity for freeing his or her mind from the conventional limitations it often remains trapped within. The symbolic and representational functions of the mind is a cage of sorts. It traps you into a particular story. Dr. Daniel Siegel discusses these as "top down cortical enslavements" for this reason. Most human beings are slaves to the stories their mind rehearses. But the elite athlete is no slave to story. The more refined excellence stem from an open and direct perception of the game. Faster responsiveness occurs. Clear perception into next steps is apprehended instantaneously. Novel adaptations to competitive strengths, weakness and strategy emerge, often without effort. The list could go on.

Many athletes get accidental trips to this postrepresentational domain of performance, but few master this inner game. As such they roll the dice, hoping to achieve their best performance. The story of hope ultimately is no substitute for the well practiced and disciplined ability to drop stories and attend to life, sport and competition in a more direct way.

As an ongoing part of your training on and off the field, consider cultivating your ability to suspend and drop the inner dialogues, narratives and stories your mind is often automatically rehearsing. The greater this mental strength the more powerful your resilience will be in the face of high demands  in critical situations. And, above all... pay close attention to the teammates, coaches and other leaders in your life that display the jedi qualities described here.

Rob McNamara,
Author
Strength To Awaken & The Elegant Self

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The Wolverine, Psychosynthesis & Athletic Performance

Last night I was lecturing to my graduate students on Italian psychiatrist Roberto Assagioli and his system for personal development called Psychosynthesis. His system rests upon leveraging the power of creative imagination to cultivate, refine and establish a more integrated self. Instead of the self being taken over and controlled by "subpersonalities" this more integrated self can control, regulate and mediate how the various subpersonalities find expression, or not. 

After class last night I found myself swimming laps and doing some agility work in the pool when I was visited by a story I had watched years ago on NFL.com. The story was on NFL safety Brian Dawkins and how he prepared for his games. Dawkins played at the highest levels for 16 years while being selected to the pro bowl 9 times. He's considered one of the top safety's to have played the game of football. Needless to say, he's worthy of some our attention and study if you're interested in consistent high level performance. 

To cut to the chase, Dawkins undergoes a transformation of sorts as he takes the field. He transforms from his normal self into the Wolverine, modeled after the Marvel comic character, who embodies intensity, fortitude and an unbreakable spirit that, regardless of the situation, brings a warrior spirit to the game.  

He even goes to the lengths of having two lockers, one for his normal clothes and conventional persona and a second filled with action figurines, posters, images and other reminders of the characteristics of the Wolverine as he knows it. Above this second locker "Weapon X" is listed instead of his name "Dawkins."

The intersection between our Italian psychiatrist who's famous for challenging Freud's model of psychoanalysis and Brain Dawkins can be found in the creative imaginative faculty of the human being. Dawkins is not a likely future hall of fame athlete because he was playing with imagination and participating with a realm of fantasy. Instead I would venture to guess he was leveraging this powerful human faculty to connect and participate with an energy, consciousness and will that in many ways transcended his everyday self. 

Assagioli points to a process called Spiritual Psychosynthesis which is his advanced stage of adult development following the completion of Personal Psychosynthesis. Dawkins was knowingly or unknowingly participating with many of these features. First, Dawkins was making contact with the imagery, symbolism and energy that was in many ways beyond his every day personality. Competition often requires this of us. We cannot be inside our preferences, anxieties, fears and doubts if we are to compete at our highest levels. This contact creates a transformation of sorts. 

The transformation Dawkins appeared to participate with was not into a make-believe action hero as our less nuanced understanding of his actions and behavior might suggest. The Wolverine for Dawkins exhibited a few interesting characteristics. First, there was integrity. He would not swear. The Wolverine abided by high standards for his personal conduct. This illustrates greater control, and from my vantage point more integrative maturity. 

Secondly, and more importantly this warrior he transformed into game in and game out was also a figure who prayed to himself, his team and even prayed to the football as he crouched down on elbows and knees looking at a single football resting on the field. He even spoke in tongues all as a means of entering into and participating with the energy, consciousness and will of the Wolverine. Dawkins outside of the game of football is a devoted religious man off the field. Again, we see features of the wolverine appearing not to be merely a pretend character but instead a living integration or synthesis of dimensions of himself that are beyond his conventional self. By going beyond himself, he naturally included what was most important off the field. 

I find this interesting as perhaps this is what sport is about. Sport is most certainly about conflict, fierce competition and the drive to win. However, inside of these conventional aims we can find how sport can be used to grow and develop athletes. Perhaps sport is a powerful integral practice than can cultivate and refine the many facets of the self. In Dawkin's case perhaps sport elicited a synthesis of personhood and the enlivening dimensions of human experience that stretch beyond conventional personhood.  

Interested in watching this video on Dawkins? Check it out here.


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The New Performance Paradigm

Ok, let's level with each other for a moment.

Observable measurable statistics are absolutely essential. If a football athlete is aiming to join an NFL roster, his 40 yard dash time, vertical jump height and broad jump distance are essential metrics. If he cannot demonstrate an adequate physiological benchmark, he simply cannot play at the next level. It is as simple as that. Or, as we are about to see in the coming weeks with the NFL draft, shaving off or adding on 3 tenths of a second on a linebacker's 40 time can be the difference of gaining or losing tens of millions of dollars.

These measures are what I like to call the tangibles, because they are more easily measured, grasped and observed.


In strength training we can measure tangibles such as starting power, progressive acceleration and total power output. These all provide measures to performance metrics relevant for just about every sport on the planet. Our above NFL aspirant is wise to grow these metrics as efficiently as possible if he is serious about that contract and the opportunity to play at the highest levels.

But we cannot stop at the tangible metrics, there are also what I like to refer to as intangibles.

Intangibles are subjective and intersubjective capacities that are not separate from the tangible dimensions of performance. These subjective facets of training and performance are also measurable capacities that are just as essential to performance assessment.

What is the complexity the self-system is capable of managing? What is your mental fortitude for pain tolerance? What is our NFL hopeful's level of emotional resiliency under stress? How efficient can a person's conceptual framework integrate coaching cues? These all point to subjective, yet measurable, dimensions to performance. Just like starting power, these are essential measures of capacities required for high level performance.

Strength to Awaken integrates the split between tangible and intangible, between what is objectively measurable and what is subjectively measurable.

We need both because the highest levels of performance are integrative in nature. 


Myopically focus upon one, either one at the exclusion of the other, and you will never see your highest performance capacities, period.

While Strength to Awaken is high-grade rocket fuel for developing the all to commonly neglected intangibles, I want you to consider carefully who is training, developing and refining your intangibles? Who has the requisite experience and skill? Who demonstrates the "inner" mastery and who can guide you toward your "outer" mastery?

If you're interested in an example, see one of the top athletes on the planet rigorously working both the tangibles and intangibles: Trevor Tierney. Carefully study what he does and says.

These are essential questions if performance is something you really want to devote yourself to.

Become curious about how intangibles integrate into the full spectrum of tangible performance metrics. Be careful though, many people who love tangibles (at the exclusion of the many intangibles) are not even seeing the whole picture of the tangibles clearly and thus leaving out essential parts.

Whatever you leave out ultimately stunts performance, regardless of whether it is tangible or intangible. 


When considering growing aptitudes for performance the following manual guides you into how to consider the full territory of the human being and its capacities.

One of the ways I like to frame strength training as is it can become a training ground for this integrative approach to refining your tangible and intangible abilities to perform. Learn it in the gym and apply it in any area of your life.

Anything less than this integrative embrace of your full complexity is bound to conceptual limitations (itself an intangible that can be measured) that itself closes down your greater possibilities.

Get curious. Keep your mind nimble and open as you refine the tangible and intangible dimensions of yourself. And, get suspicious of yourself and how you are approaching performance and training. You are practicing something, rehearsing something whether you are aware of it or not. There are likely hidden limitations to your methodologies and approaches. Curiosity can lead you toward greater performance capacities.

Rob McNamara
Author
The Elegant Self & Strength To Awaken
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The Role of Meditation in Sport

I remember going into the green turf room just down the hallway from my locker room before my lacrosse games in college at Susquehanna University. I would disappear from the locker room for 5 or 10 minutes to find my posture of stillness. These brief sessions are amongst the most important meditation practices I did throughout my time in college. They were always, without question, the most enlivening meditations. Meditating before a highly competitive game that you pour hours of practice into every day is a different beast altogether than the meditations I would do outside of athletics. Even today, as I write about this experience, I can feel the subtle threads of anxiety coursing throughout my body, my mind trying to figure out a way to cope with the stress of competition and leadership and the vibrations of aliveness that would build throughout my meditation.

To be honest, I was trying to calm myself down. I was sitting in an attempt to be less attached to the outcome of the game. I was sitting to be more accepting of my performance, good or bad. I was in my meditation posture to be more present to the game so that I could perform better. But underneath I really wanted to get rid of this intense vibration of aliveness that felt like immense anxiety.

Did it work?

Yes and No.

Without fail, the longer I did my meditation before a game the more anxious I became. I couldn't distract myself from the energies coursing throughout my body and mind. While I calmly breathed and the experiential intensity grew I started noticing that my body and mind had an intelligence all to it's own for conducting this energy fluidly throughout myself. The more "conductive" I became, the more powerful of presence I had to lead my team on the field. Meditation appeared to galvanize more strength and energy within me. This undoubtably made me a better competitor.

What was failing in my mind was I wanted meditation to make me more comfortable before games. This never worked, ever. While I didn't know it at the time, meditation was powerfully sculpting my nervous system. I was becoming more "vertically integrated" as Daniel Siegel eloquently describes it.

Intense anxiety for athletes often results in a fragmentation in their nervous systems which compromises performance... always. The mind usually starts to spin out into various scenarios following a few basic fantasies. The first involves disaster scenarios the second involves fantasies of everything turning out positive and for the best while one of the most fearful fantasies formulates a story that the game doesn't "really" matter. The first two are an imaginary world that is disconnected from the actual territory of what's happening in the larger reality around the athlete, while the last option is a fantasy fueled with a blunt lie to themselves to buffer just how much the game (and their life) does mean to them. For athletes caught within their own private fantasies they are "sitting ducks" to a competition who's nervous systems are sculpted to attend to the specificity and nuance of what is actually going.

For me, my anxiety was increasing but my mind was getting closer into contact with what was going on in my body. While I didn't realize it at the time, this was growing my nervous system in essential ways.

To cover just one point, meditation practice strengthened my anterior cingulate cortex, or ACC as it's often called. By growing my brain's connectivity to the ACC I was able to have greater influence and control over my attention. I was becoming more in control of what's called my "executive attention," not my less complex and impulsive facets of my brain.

For you young athletes, the one's who are traversing the territory out of adolescence and into young adulthood take this into consideration: Your ACC is often called the Chief Operating Officer of your brain. You started to grow a tenuous connection to your ACC between the ages of 3 and 7. But this integration will not be complete well into your adulthood.

Accelerate your ability to aim and sustain attention with your intention. 

The better you get at this, the more mature your brain becomes, regardless of your age. The more mature your brain, the greater your capacities become for performing on the field and in life.

This translates into you focusing on the right cues under pressure and in the face of distractions. It means you can process emotions quicker and not get suck in the stories that surround challenging emotions. During games the ACC supervises what is happening with your attention. For example, if you start focusing on outcomes during a play, the ACC can stop this daydream and sharpen your attention onto the specific cues your mind needs to be tracking to be successful. Furthermore, in the face of adversity, which good competition always provides, you can stay focused on you, your behavior and your strategies instead of uncritically watching your opponents.

So, meditate. As I often call it, practice managing your attention. Do it rigorously. Do it regularly. What you are capable of achieving depends largely on your ability to manage attention.

If you're interested in joining attention management to strength training, consider killing two birds with one stone and do them simultaneously. Strength to Awaken is the most nuanced and sophisticated approach to integrating attention management into the discipline of strength training.

Rob McNamara
Author of The Elegant Self & Strength To Awaken






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The Weakness of Conventional Goals

To begin, there's nothing inherently wrong with your conventional goals to get stronger, leaner, faster, more powerful and so on. Conventional goals are needed, helpful and in many cases necessary ... AND they are inadequate and insufficient for most people. Conventional goals fail us more often than any of us would like to admit.

Furthermore, if you are interested in your greater abilities as a human being, conventional goals almost always fail to yield post-conventional capacities. Occasionally I see conventional goals creating a training or "practice" environment for eliciting post-conventional capabilities; however, these are what I call a form of "accidental progress." These certainly happen but they are rare (my suggestion is not to wait around for a miracle).


So, conventional goals are good in many ways. The more specific, measurable, attainable, realistic and defined in clear timelines the better, or so the researchers tell us again and again. However, they continue to be ineffective for most of us and they are largely impotent at eliciting integrated adaptations to the complex demands of your life.

We will briefly unpack inefficiency but we will save post-conventional integrated adaptations for another blog. I will que you into some important tips for how you can move forward.

1. First, conventional goals tend to be focused on outcomes. 


That means they happen in the future. Keeping your eye on the future is fine, but if this is the posture of your mind during your training it will take you ten times as long to get to where you want to go. Sometimes much longer. Depending on the specificity of the goal you may never get to your desired destination. There is no short supply of drives for future change that yield negligible results.

2. Conventional goals often obscure the path to getting to your future destination. 


The more your attention goes toward getting to your future destination the less you pay attention to what you're doing right now and how you're doing it. Having a future aim and direction is important; however, these outcome goals only find their pragmatic strength when held in a larger context that focuses your mind upon the specific actions most essential to getting there. This brings into focus how you are engaging in the required activities. Getting the right steps is essential. What you do is paramount, but how you execute and engage the "whats" often differentiates those who achieve more and those who fail to. So once you have your outcome and you know the necessary steps to get there, focusing on the outcome more will often hold you back.

I often use the analogy of a tire making contact with the road to explain this. The broader or wider the tire, the more contact you have with the road. In contrast, skinny narrow tires slip easily because they have very little surface area in contact with the road. Future oriented goals are like narrow tires aimed at getting down the road but they don't do a great job of bringing your attention into the immediacy of activity.

3. Conventional goals require lots of motivation and energy. 


Perhaps you have too much energy and motivation, in which case have at it. But most people lack these often seemingly scarce resources. It takes quite a bit of self-generated mental, emotional and physical energy to get you from today to your goal that may be 6 weeks away or worse yet, 3 or 6 months out. How do you sustain it? This is inevitably what we all end up asking ourselves unless we fear our survival depends upon attaining our goal. Get big enough goals with enough fear and anxiety around failure and sure you'll be "motivated," however we now have a nice recipe for adrenal fatigue, burn out and a life that is stamped with the "you're miserable" stamp across your forehead.

So what's an alternative? 


My recommendation is goals that take aim at the immediacy of your life. Elite athletes call these "process goals" as these are the cues they must focus upon, moment-to-moment, if they are to be successful, in some cases safe. For example, a downhill skier thinking about future goals at 80 miles an hour down a mountain often results in an 80 mile an hour barrel roll down the mountain, hitting snow fencing at 60 mph, a knee surgery and 18 months of rehab.

While this becomes plainly obvious in elite competitions, it is fairly easy to "check out" mentally during strength training and start thinking about your goals - or worse yet, something entirely unrelated. Your mind and body split, and in this separation goes any chance at progressing with greater efficiency. Just like the elite athlete, if you are interested in your higher capabilities it can be found in the integration of body and mind. This means your mind is focused upon the specific cues you need to execute on right here and now.

My book Strength to Awaken gives you what is perhaps the most nuanced set of post-conventional process goals found in any training manual, so if you're interested in diving deeper, don't hesitate. This book can save you decades of wasted effort. For now, I want to challenge you to differentiate between your outcome goals and your process goals.

Outcome goals are established, preferably with an expert, outside of the gym, before your training begins. Process goals are clarified again and again moment-to-moment in your training. Know what you're going to do before you even start. Then, once you begin focus your mind exclusively upon the quality of engagement you have with your training.

Mind and body come together and then the fun begins.

Enjoy
~Rob McNamara

PS: If you're looking for some process goals that might evolve your training, sign up for my free 12 training tips - you'll learn some within these short tips. You can find it in the sidebar at the top of my home page.
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When you Should and Shouldn't Train for Size


Size, it's a major focus point in the field of strength training. Unfortunately size is not properly understood so I am going to chime in on a few things.

1. You need more muscle mass. 


If you haven't followed my blog on why - you need to read it here. Muscle mass generally makes you smaller until you have gotten your body fat down to fairly low levels. So for most people, training to gain more muscle mass means you'll trade very dense muscle tissue for very dispersed adipose tissue (this is especially the case when you refine your nutrition to support muscle growth and fat loss). Get bigger muscles & you get smaller. This is the kind of size that's good for most people.

2. Athletes, slow down! 


If you happen to be a aspiring athlete who wants to get bigger and stronger... slow down!


I remember coming back my senior year in college and telling my lacrosse coach that I had gained 10 pounds of muscle. He was sitting in his office studying game tapes and here was his two year captain rolling in telling him that I gained 10 pounds of muscle since last season. What do you think his response was?

He got angry.

He knew all too well what this typically means. To him, I was telling him something along these lines, "Hey coach, I trained really hard and got slower for you... but I look good on the beach."

What was my response?

I said, "Coach, I gained 10 pounds of muscle and...I got faster. I am faster than last season."

That's when he got excited.

Gaining muscle in the conventional sense typically slows you down. Training methodologies that are designed to just build muscular size (these have become the most popular and wide spread) are not the exercises that likely you should be doing. You want to build muscular power, joint integrity and your ability for something I was talking about yesterday with a young athlete - progressive acceleration.

If you gain muscle, make sure you're doing it in a way that builds more starting power, better joint integrity and higher measures of progressive acceleration. If you're doing this your coach will be happy with what happens come competition. Athletes, whenever possible consult with seasoned experience working with athletes at the highest levels of your discipline. Learn what they are doing and employ these methodologies strategically.

In most cases you will find out that you want to avoid size like the plague, unless size is also making you neurologically more powerful, explosive, dynamic, flexible and more insulated from possible injury. If size is slowing you down, chances are you're training yourself out of being competitive.

3. The real size everyone needs.

Here is what 99% of the discourse on size is missing. While you may or may not want more physical size, you should be training to inhabit more of your psychological size. That's right you want your sense of self to be bigger, broader, more inclusive and integrative.

You need a bigger self.

Training can grow your sense of self such that you are larger than culture. This means that you are bigger than social conventions. Social norms don't drive you, your larger intelligence directs you. The self that's smaller than culture is directed by culture. The self that's larger is the one doing the directing that stems from a larger integrity. This self is big, but to be perfectly honest it's not big enough.

If you're interested in training to become larger my book Strength To Awaken is perhaps the most nuanced discourse on the subject matter. I show you how to cultivate a self that is bigger than polarities. A self that is larger than the dualities of pain and pleasure is a massively large self that is capable of an elegance that smaller, less integrative selves can not even dream of.

The next time you dive into your training I recommend focusing on what size of self you are training. Are you "exercising" your self that is smaller than your socially constructed habits or are you training the self that is larger than your habituation? Are you playing inside the conditioning of pain and pleasure or are you playing in a self that is outside of this conditioned box?

And for those of you who are worried about having a big self, or a "big ego" as it might be referred to... relax. We are not talking about inflating the ego's sense of self importance to monumental proportions. We are instead talking about growing your ego functions to massively powerful and refined levels such that you can regulate social pressures, personal habits that may hold you back as well as unresolvable polarities. These become facets that you participate with, manage and regulate instead of being managed and regulated by them.

Expand your sense of self, train to grow a larger more capable self and you will likely be served in every other facet of life.

Big Love
~Rob
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