Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Pushing Fast Forward on the Moment

After Lolo Jones collected herself from the Beijing Olympic track, just minutes after collapsing to her knees and replaying the heartbreaking trip-up that cost her the gold medal in the 100m hurdle final, she told NBC this:

"I felt the gold around me...but if you can't finish the race, you don't deserve to be the champion."

Her honesty shows her character. The fleeting thought demonstrates her demise.

What happened? She was in the lead, her face exemplifying the intensity and focus that made her one of the favorites. Just the day before, she sent a message of her own that she was out to win and certainly could. But when she fired over (and into) the ninth hurdle, a look of agony, disbelief, and astonishment came over her as she attempted to make up for the ever precious second of lost ground. She was beaten. And her mind did it. It got the best of her because she already "felt the gold" around her.

More specifically, Jones’ mind jumped out in front of her. Up until that point in the race, she was on autopilot. Her body was doing what it was trained to do – sprint and leap. She was in the "no-think" phase. Yet, by her post-race comments, it can be interpreted that she, albeit only for a split second, fast forwarded to a another image. She envisioned the outcome, the medal draped around her neck.

The predictive imagery may have cost her the win (it even prevented her from medaling at all). As soon as she thought of another scene, one that entailed a different set of movements, she became distracted. Her mind-body connection that was operating so smoothly became slightly disrupted. She was moving so fast, that what appeared to be the most inconsequential of reactions, actually infiltrated her momentary action. The thought, the image, ruined her rhythm and cost her the race.

Some may say she choked. Contrary to that cliché, though, it had nothing to do with sudden athletic asphyxiation. She was taken away and plagued with a prophecy that made her jump to the future. It wasn’t choking in the sense of holding back or freezing in pressure performance, often characterized by over-thinking. And it wasn’t panic either, where one ceases to think at all. (See Malcolm Gladwell’s analysis of choke versus panic). It was more about a subtle, yet abrupt cognitive reorganization of psycho-physiological capacities.

There was not a decrement in performance caused by the inability to cope with the conditions. Rather, there was a transfer of attention -- a shift from the unconscious (instinctual motor program from years of training) to the conscious (fast forward to a different scene) and then back, in less than a second, to the previously non-analytical unconscious. The flow of performance was in disarray, however minimal. Lolo’s motor program became confused and her foot hit the hurdle.

Gladwell explained the differences in modes to ESPN:

The basic idea is that all of us have two different ways of "knowing" how to perform a physical task. The first is conscious knowledge. If I ask you how to use a can opener, you can tell me. The second is unconscious knowledge, which is the knowledge that we have that we can't really describe.

For example, if you gave me a picture of blank keyboard and asked me to write in appropriate letters in the right places, I'd have to think really hard before I could do that accurately. My conscious knowledge of a keyboard is pretty weak. But right now I'm typing at perhaps 40 words per minute, and I'm having absolutely no trouble finding the right letter on the keyboard without thinking at all.

That's my unconscious knowledge system at work, and in that mode I'm a great typist. These two systems are quite separate. And on tasks that we are good at -- like typing, in my case, or throwing a baseball in, say, Derek Jeter's case -- our unconscious systems are way better than our conscious system...All those airballs by the Kings in Game 7 with the Lakers were the shots of players who suddenly start to think about where each letter was instead of just instinctively typing. That was Knoblauch's problem too, and the more he worried about his throwing the harder it was to get back into unconscious mode.

Some of the most popular “chokers” have been ranked: Bill Buckner, Chris Webber, and Jean Van de Velde each made the list. Actually, Buckner may have not choked, but lost focus, much like the fast forwarding of Jones. Webber seemed to have panicked; he experienced an exodus of any rational thought whatsoever. Van de Velde…well, by definition, he choked. He became tight. He over-analyzed. He fell apart.

Maybe Michael Phelps can attribute his record setting Games to his amazing ability to focus on the present. He merely makes no mental errors, and, most importantly, has no fast forwards. He stays in the moment.

Alicia Sacramone? Perhaps it was as comprehensible as a technical mishap. Or did she envision a hopeful moment in the not-to-distant future that caused her to shift attention and enter conscious mode -- a place where one is more likely to resort to a heightened awareness of action and surroundings that impedes trained movements?

Even Lolo, one of the most talented, most humble, and most dedicated athletes, is not immune to mistakes. After trying to deal with the unforeseen, she later stated, “Sometimes you just lose your mind.”

Unfortunately for her, it was too late to catch up to it.


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