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

View Comments

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.


View Comments