by Dr. Randy Borum
Article first published in Black Belt Magazine, September, 2008
In our quest to achieve, at some time we have nearly all hit a sticking point. We will often find that once we attain a certain level of performance in speed, power, strength, or timing that it becomes nearly impossible for us to do better. It is important that we learn how to get ourselves “un-stuck” so that we can take our learning and our performance to the next level.
The human organism, of course, has certain true biomechanical and physiological limits, but most of us are nowhere near those boundaries when we hit our personal barriers. The nudge needed to push us through is more likely to be mental. For the recreational martial artist, just getting “over the hump” often provides the needed momentum and confidence to make larger improvements. For the elite martial artist, even very small increments of improvement can mean the difference between winning and losing.
Getting “stuck” is a type of performance failure. We keep reaching for a certain a goal or objective, but we repeatedly fall short. Under these circumstances, a very common response is to “keep trying” (doing more of the same) and - as we become increasingly frustrated – conclude either that it can’t be done, that we can’t do it, or that it is not worth the effort necessary to succeed. A quote commonly attributed to Albert Einstein shows the futility of such an approach: Insanity, says the quote, is doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result.
Maybe this means that a key to getting unstuck is to do something different, not just trying harder. One way to do something different is to re-focus our effort onto the mental aspects of our performance. Our first task is to make the goal possible in our minds. That may seem overly simplistic, but it is vitally important. Athletic history is full of examples where mental barriers constrained a particular sport for years.
One of the most famous illustrations of the power of the possible is the elusive four-minute mile barrier in track. For years, the best runners in the world could never quite make it. Over and over they tried, many coming within a second or two, but always falling short. Finally, in 1954 Roger Bannister hit the four-minute mile. Once that happened, several other four-minute milers soon followed – more than fifteen of them emerging in the first three years after Bannister’s success.
It doesn’t take a sport psychologist to understand that our beliefs and our “mental models” of the world profoundly affect our performance and behavior. Making a task possible in your mind, is necessary to making it do-able in practice.
Here is a situation where your mental imagery skills can really come in handy. By creating vivid, “first person” experiences in your head, you can actually build a history of personal success into your mental model. In previous “Psyched!” columns we have discussed the process and applications of mental imagery, but in case you missed it, here are basics of how you can use it to get un-stuck.
First, you need to take some time to learn how to create vivid images in your head. Vivid means that they should be at least as realistic as if you were actually doing the task. It usually helps to use all your senses, and then to think about the fine points of each one. For example, consider the pictures you see when you are mentally creating a scene - then think about the color, sharpness, and brightness. Include the sounds, smells, and tactile sensations. And don’t forget the internal sensations too – how your muscles feel, your breathing, tension, thoughts/self-talk – all of that is part of creating a mental experience.
When you get through the basics of vivid mental imagery, you can make a plan to apply it to your situation. You may find it helpful to set a goal for yourself that is just slightly beyond your sticking point – in speed, endurance, repetition or whatever is limiting your performance. Then, create vivid mental images – in real time – of you successfully performing to your new goal level. Be sure to give yourself the advantage of thinking positively and feeling confident in your mental image before you begin. You should begin with a confident expectation that you will succeed.
You should mentally rehearse these scenarios repeatedly, until it all seems to flow naturally. As soon as you begin imaging, the vividness comes immediately and you are automatically feeling confident of the outcome. When you get to that point, put it to the test. Plan to get un-stuck in an environment that closely mirrors the one from your mental images. Re-connect with the feeling of confidence that comes from having already done it before, and allow yourself to perform at you new level.
Once you get past the sticking point, you may find that subsequent improvements begin to flow again. If not, you can go back to your imagery to work yourself through the next barrier. Remember to acknowledge your successes to yourself. Delight in what you have accomplished, and continue to re-define and expand what it possible for you to do.