Sunday, November 15, 2015

Mind Over Muscle: Part 1

Sports psychology has always been an interest of mine both as an athlete and coach. I just finished reading what I think will be an important new book How Bad Do You Want It? by Matt Fitzgerald on the new Psychobiological Model of sports performance.

While I always like finding out new things, I enjoy even more finding out that the hunches, intuitions and best guesses I have developed over the years have actually been borne out by research. Matt's approach, rather than another "how to" book, is written as a series of powerful stories illustrating the methods, mechanisms, mind games and coping strategies elite athletes use to get the most out of themselves. I found myself frequently nodding in recognition and agreement. So at the risk of clumsily treading on Amy's actual area of expertise, I thought I would write a few blog entries on what I have learned and had validated from reading Matt's book.

There is an old saying ( I have no idea how old) that goes, "It's all mind over matter. If you don't mind, it don't matter." This turns out to be a fairly apt description of a basic truth of the Psychobiological Model. Fatigue, it turns out, is not simply the brain subconsciously interpreting objective biochemical signals from the body and relaying that information to our conscious awareness. It turns out that fatigue is more a result of the athlete's perception of effort during a particular task and how that athlete feels about that perception. 

During a marathon, for example, for most athletes the perceived effort to maintain a particular pace increases linearly as the race proceeds. A sub 5 minute pace at the 10k mark generally feels easier than the same pace at the 20k mark. This is not simply a matter of the legs getting tired, it is also a matter of how hard the brain has to work to keep the legs going at that tempo. Marathons can end with a sprint between two or more closely matched athletes (sprinting for the win after 26.2 miles of what is, by any measure, very fast running!) The result may very well be a matter of one athlete simply wanting the win more badly than the other; mental fitness (what we used to call "desire") trumping physical fitness.

This perception of effort is a funny thing. Samuele Marcora, PhD has done experiments that show how much how our perceptions of effort and subsequent performances are not entirely physically driven. Subjects that had to execute a series of tough mental exercises before running a 5k perceived the physical task as more difficult and their results suffered more than a group that did not have to perform the mental tasks first. Being tired mentally had an impact on physical performance. I tell all my athletes that all activity, mental and physical, registers in the body. Studying for an exam, taking the exam, partying too much, trouble with the significant other, all can have an impact on the perception of effort, how tired one feels and how well one performs. 

So what can you do? Well the answer is quite a bit. I will write more about that going forward. The following will be the main theme, paraphrased, from How Bad Do You Want It:  Muscles can only perform as well as the mind can cope. It is the job of the muscles to do the work, it is job of the mind to cope. Sports, then, are games of "mind over muscle".