It was early June in Buffalo, New York during the 1500m heats at the 1998 NCAA Division 1 Outdoor Track and Field Championships. As I ran I heard my 800m split time – 2:10 – only 2 seconds slower than my best 800m race time that season but I didn’t care. I just went with it and was feeling great. Then we were through the bell lap, around the bend and with 300m to go, usually too early to start kicking I couldn’t hold back any longer. My legs were begging to unleash another gear and I started a long kick towards the finish. The entire closely matched pack seemed to surge towards the finish together and it was a photo finish between five of us. It was the most effortless 4 minutes and 18 seconds I had ever run.
I recently finished a popular and well-known book in my to-read list called Blink by Malcom Gladwell. His well researched stories site examples of “thin slicing”, snap judgments, listening with your heart, and following your intuition in contrast to deliberate, fully thought out decision making. It got me thinking about how peak performance in sport is related to the ability to just trust what was termed in the book as our, “adaptive unconscious.” On race day, the work is done, the pre-race thinking and strategizing should be mostly decided. It is time to trust all the hard work, the training, the “studying” you’ve done and trust your experience to take you through each moment. When we can tune into that zone where we let our adaptive unconscious guide us, we make decisions before we’re even conscious of why we’re doing them.
So when is it important to really think about what you’re doing in sport? And when is it important to just go, keep things as simple as a blink, just trust your feeling?
I was observing the short track speed skaters in Calgary the other day as they were focused on praticing starts, which are particularly important for the 500m distance they race. They had instant video feedback on top of coach and teammate suggestions for how to tweak things. It was a practice they could break down their body position and try different things. A time to really THINK about what they were doing. Of course, come race day, it will not be the time to be adjusting race start position, it will be the time to just “put it all together” and GO when the gun goes off.
Achieving peak performance more consistently in sport is much like becoming an expert on yourself and your sport. To know yourself and your sport well enough to be able to make decisions in a blink during performance means doing much of the thinking beforehand. Thinking beforehand means preparing yourself mentally and physically for race-like conditions in training, methodically experimenting with technique, equipment set up, and pacing while training. At a race it means getting to know the venue, having a plan A, B, C etc for race day, being prepared for ANYTHING and ANYONE! Unfortunately, potential great performances sometimes get interrupted by unexpected scenarios or conditions that cause over thinking and overanalyzing, instead of just quickly refocusing, and maybe even resetting the goal for the day with the most positive focus possible.
Focusing on a few key, simple things on race day can get you in the zone to get your best effort in, AND be over the finish line in what CAN feel like a blink! When I think back to my 1500m race at the very end of my track running career for the University of Washington Huskies described above, it was after 12 years of running and racing on the track. Peak performances like that didn’t happen every day but with enough practice and experience – I’m guessing I’d run at least 100 1500m races to date at that point – it was the perfect opportunity against optimal competition to run a personal best. With the right preparation I was able to focus on many of the ingredients that characterize a peak performance -confidence, optimally relaxed and calm yet focused and alert, positive, looking forward to the competitive challenge, ready to trust my instincts in the moment, and perhaps most importantly – ready to have some FUN!!