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 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 New Program that Changes Lives

Ok, here's the deal. I've been searching long and hard for this program and I finally found it... 

Pause a moment and take note of your experience right now. 

What are you focused on? 
How do you feel in your body? 
What are you anticipating? 

Isn't amazing what 24 words can do to us? 6 in the title of this blog and 18 in my first sentence. Chances are you just experienced what I call "The Lie of Novelty."

Novelty is an interesting and seductive property. The very presence of novelty shapes your mind into a point. Your attention becomes more focused. As a result you become more present. Distractions fall away and suddenly the novelty that has captured you and drawn you in.

Generally speaking these are all good things. Greater presence and focus while becoming less distracted are all qualities many of us would gladly sign up for. However, the frightening problem is this: 

Too often you are not in 
the drivers seat of this process.  

When this happens novelty governs attention. If you haven't noticed, whatever governs your attention governs you. As such, novelty often steals your autonomy, grabs you by the seat of your pants and takes you wherever it wants to. I don't know about you, but this is a problem. 

Take a look at the kind of innovation within the American auto industry over the past 30 years. Minus a few innovations, a "new" automobile often involved changing the shape of the lights, maybe adding some subtle changes to the shape of the car and adding a few options. I recall being asked if I wanted power windows as an upgrade when my father and I got my first car in the 1990's. 

I'm no auto expert, but I raise this industry as an example of the power of novelty as it's a multi-billion dollar industry resting upon very little innovation. Make it shiny, add a few superficial changes and essentially sell the same car the public is already driving. Sadly, it worked for way too long. 

Inside of the focus that novelty often creates there is a second problem. Your focus is not passive, it is active. What hides inside of this activity is a common feature: projection. Novelty seduces your projections out of you. When this happens you don't simply take in what is novel, you project your desires and aspirations all over it. When this happens critical thinking and analysis are a secondary issue. An emotional decision has been made and you must now get this new thing. Justifying it in your mind is an after thought, you've already been sold. 

This shows up in a shinny "new" car that likely functionally cannot do anything "novel" that your existing one does already. Regardless, novelty often means more happiness and getting what you really desire, or so the story goes. It shows up in relationships when someone "catches your attention." As you are no longer managing your attention, this stranger is now unknowingly or knowingly in control of you. You've never met them before yet suddenly you are seeing the possibility of some desire being fulfilled. You're in the "what ifs" land. And this of course shows up in your training. You likely are not seeing the results you desire, but that "new" program... maybe I can get it there. 

Tour the fitness / health magazine rack and you will see novelty leaping out at you. Go to the library and find the 1993 or 2003 magazine cover from the same month as the one at the grocery store today and I would guess you will find the same messages repeated. Yet somehow it feels "new," as we look at the covers yet 10 or 20 years ago it was the same messages. 

What's going on? 

I'll add this: commerce often times rests upon novelty. This is actually how it should be. You get something for the novel emergence and innovation it brings to your life. The problem is that we have figured out how to wrap the same thing as if it was genuinely novel. In this climate, we find ourselves being driven by appearances. 

The solution, in part, resides in the cultivation of your brain, nervous system and subjectivity such that you remain in the drivers seat of your attention. You must grow your capacity to manage your mind and attention. When you do this the once seductive charm of novelty loses it's ability to govern and enslave you. 

When you take control of your ability to focus and attend, you take control of your happiness. You begin to find it right here, in this training routine, in this relationship here and in this car you are already in possession of. You can cease to be like a dog chasing its own tail and you can appreciate your life and derive greater pleasure, productivity and proficiency from penetrating into the life that already has you. 

Perhaps this "new" way of attending to your focus and attention may indeed change your life ;-) 

Enjoy, 
~Rob McNamara 

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Movement & the Development of Your Brain

New York Times writer Gretchen Reynolds writes, "It's widely accepted among scientists that regular exercise transforms the brain, improving the ability to remember and think." Reynolds goes further pointing to a promising body of research supporting the idea that exercise stimulates the creation of new brain cells, a process called neurogenesis. The National Academy of Sciences published a new study showing how testosterone increases in the brain after training could be fueling neurogenesis and brain plasticity.

It turns out your brain likely produces a significant amount of the hormone dihydrotestosterone or DHT (as you might have guessed by the name, a derivative of testosterone). Researchers found that the hippocampus - critical for memory formation and spacial navigation - in particular was bathed in this hormone after training and that new neuron growth likely resulted from DHT's uptake in the brain. Reynolds summarizes this stating, "In essence, exercise prompts the production of more DHT. And more DHT helps to create more new brain cells."

Turning our attention to brain-derived neuro-tropic factor or BDNF we find yet another body of research supporting brain development and training. BDNF is a protein that promotes tissue growth and health throughout your body, including that brain of yours taking in these words. Training increases your levels of BDNF. It is vital in the learning, memory and higher thinking regions of the brain (not to mention it is well established as an important part of the regulation of body weight, in particular fat oxidation in muscle tissue, and energy homeostasis). Of all the chemicals that help stimulate and control neurogenesis, BDNF is perhaps one of the most active. Harvard's clinical professor of psychiatry Dr. John Ratey calls it the "Miracle-Gro" of the brain.

So, if you happen to be interested in enriching your neurons with the right "nutrients" to fire more quickly, grow faster and develop stronger connections then get into your training, NOW!

Furthermore, I can't think of a more rich neurological climate to pick up meditative or contemplative exercises with the power to yield multifaceted transformations throughout your life. Get training and while you're at it you might as well make strength training your new spiritual practice as Strength To Awaken illustrates.

 Enjoy,
~Rob McNamara


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Can Strength Training improve your emotional intelligence?


Strength training may be strengthening your body-mind's capacity for interoception just as much as, perhaps more than, it is strengthening your muscles, connective tissue, and your neurological capacity to innervate muscle fibers through your motor units.

So while strength training is often focused upon conventional measures of strength, power and endurance I propose that strength training may also be effective at strengthening your ability to identify, assess and control emotions.

Interoception, or the perception of the inside of the body, is a central foundation in strength training. The process of feeling down into your body (or part of your body) creates a more "vertically" integrated nervous system. The prefrontal cortex
- the seat of your conscious awareness and decision making center of the brain - connects through the insula down into the body to receive all sorts of information such as heart and breathing rates, tension and fatigue in the muscles, pressure upon the skeletal system, pH levels in the digestive system amongst many others.

Strength training vertically integrates the nervous system which is very similar  to the neurological wiring needed for self-awareness and social attunement. So while you may be focusing on lifting more weight, the interoceptive process required to do so may be fine tuning your neurological capacity for a larger emotional intelligence.

It's likely that through the process of staying calm, open and relaxed in the face of high levels of pain and intensity during your training that some important neurological changes may be under way.

The assessment of when to be reactive and to be receptive that happens in the brainstem might be undergoing some sort of change making you a more receptive human being even under immense stress. As your posterior insula registers your bodily states during your training a more robust connection to your anterior insula (the part that is invariably activated when you are aware of your bodily states) may be developed as you consciously focus on the direct and immediate sensations of training.

This in turn may introduce stronger connections between the anterior insula and your prefrontal cortex. Spindle cells are responsible for precisely this and research supports that as spindle cell density increases, so does the experience of self-awareness.

Strength training, it's usually focused upon waist lines and muscle tissue, but perhaps as we outgrow these limiting orientations we will discover how strength training brings greater plasticity to the nervous system and shapes a more integrative human being.

Enjoy,
~Rob
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