How Thoughts Influence Performance: An Overview
by Tanya Davis
Unlike most other animals, humans have a high level of consciousness which imparts both positive and negative consequences on our performances in just about everything. Our brain, though genetically and structurally similar to other animals, can actually plan parties, hold grudges, categorize ourselves and others, dwell on current and past shortcomings, and even create or prevent success by the thoughts we entertain. We are self-aware and soft-wired to care. So what does this have to do with running? Everything. From the time you wake up in the morning you have already begun sculpting how well you’ll run that day. You have a basic physiological presentation shaped by months of nutrition, workouts and injuries (or lack thereof), exposure to volatile organic compounds (VOCs), sleep deficit, and stress accumulated to influence how rested and fresh you feel, and then you have your mind. Once you’re awake conscious thought is online and self-chatter ramps up.

Our psychological state is the byproduct of neurotransmitters, electricity, and hormones interacting with and integrating received information. A stimulus is detected and we have to make sense of it. We have both conscious and unconscious responses to stimuli that cause reactions which have deep roots in personal development and exposure. And even when we are unaware of biases, our brains have a definite preference that guides decisions and behavior. Culture and environment are largely responsible for many of our deeply held beliefs making it more challenging to be aware of what may sway us. Even the color of a room or encountering attractive people prove to adjust behavior in small ways that bypass conscious thought. What we think and how it makes us feel emerges not only from what we encounter but can be self-created. Anticipation, joy, bereavement, anger, thoughts and feelings manipulate both our psychological and physiological status. Just like women who feel profound mental disturbances inconsistent with their normal selves due to PMS, any dramatic change in hormones alters mental state. If we begin the day holding onto a bad dream or ruminate about a work assignment that hasn’t yet begun, those worrisome feelings begin a cascade of stress hormones. This stress response demands adrenal glands to kick into high gear and, if prolonged, will exhaust them. It will then have a direct effect on how much physical activity you can tolerate, as intense or long-duration exercise produces some of the same biochemicals and suppresses hormones that can regulate anxiety. If you are too nervous about a race and let self-doubt get to you, you may just have lost your race even before it begins.

Psycho-emotional disposition can also be stirred by memories, which are constantly being updated with new information and by reinforcing their storage by revisiting them. Frequently recalling events and acquired skills keeps the information alive and strengthens connections for their retention. As it turns out memory has a type of circuit where incoming information is processed and then stored but needs to be called upon in order for the neural pathways to firmly wed, otherwise they gradually lose the connection. While running, if you begin to ponder a past training or race experience where you suffered or did poorly, that thought can briefly send you back in time to that sensation. Without realizing it your running may resemble that prior performance, possibly causing you to run slower or with a higher rate of perceived exertion. Conversely, if you imagine yourself as an elite athlete with powerful legs and tenacity or conjure up a competition in your head with you as the leader, it can boost effort and buoy desire to keep going. Changing how you think about that memory or pushing it out altogether will quickly set you in the present again. Thinking about something that brings you joy and has positive meaning for you has been proven to decrease pain, therefore, when preparing for a run, how you define the anticipation or reward can impact how you perceive the effort.

In order to become better athletes it’s imperative that we introduce some types of stress into our training. To get stronger and faster, hill and speed workouts need to be completed a couple of times per week, and if done correctly, are pretty darn hard. During the most difficult portions of a workout or race, many athletes engage in a “formal” kind of self-talk. Internal dialogue anchors us to both identity and being able to make sense of the stimuli in our environment. Without such processing we cannot think of our future selves nor can we fully grasp history. Language stitches experiences together, categorizes memories and input, facilitates social dependency, and assists in motivation. Much of conscious thought is comprised of small conversations with ourselves or making quick notes about what we are doing or need to do. It turns out talking to yourself isn’t so crazy and is beneficial for runners who need to push though when the effort is high.

Self-talk assists athletes by disrupting the perception of pain and arduous work. It refocuses attention and translates sensation, in this case, physical exertion, into a rational context where planning and our ideal selves can be realized. Word expression decreases the intensity of other senses because it demands the use of the critical thinking areas of the brain rather than the more primitive, reactionary structures. Self-talk also acts as a phantom coach; when the activity gets hard the act of making motivational comments offers support. Sometimes the chatter is instructional and we describe each step we should take, consolidating instructions and concentrating on form. Repeating a mantra or sharpening focus on an idea enables one to make a decision to endure rather than succumbing to a sensation that feels as though you can’t or have none. Athletic self-talk can also produce a false-confidence necessary to become who we want to be. If we tell ourselves we are doing well and can do it, we align ourselves with that statement. Hearing self-directing statements clarifies and consolidates what we want to do. Instead of having a general understanding of how much farther you have to run, you can instruct yourself to reach a smaller, more specific goal which you can modify as you keep going. This can extend the ability to endure difficult exercise by reevaluating performance each time you’ve completed another section and by rewarding yourself for getting through that portion.

Many runners like listening to music while training. Music is processed in the brain with some of the same areas as language, evoking an emotional response and therefore can motivate physical activity just as talking to oneself can. If it is a song that pumps us up or makes us feel intensely we are more inclined to convert that energy into physical exertion and try harder.

Psychological memories or sensations are not just elicited via cognitive mechanisms, they can also be evoked by actions and physical perception, as well. When participants of a certain study on a phenomena termed the “embodiment of perception” were asked to hold a pencil in their teeth they reported feeling happier because their teeth grip broadened their mouth into a smile. The physical act seemed to be translated into cognitive contentment. Similarly, those who were asked to hold the pencil with their lips, causing their mouth to frown, felt less happy.

Apparently, body language can be nearly as persuasive as spoken word. Positioning your body into an erect, expansive stance prior to competition produces more testosterone, a naturally produced steroid hormone that influences competitive and aggressive behavior, which instills more confidence and ability in the runner. Just two minutes of pretending you are a powerful person can actually make you become more dominant. Perhaps this is just classic conditioning but it illustrates how sensitive our body is and how easily influenced we are by memories.

To have athletic success, be it competitive or increasing general fitness, we should recognize how much we can impact performance with our own ideas and concerns. The world is perceived as a 3D model, however, much of what we see is pieced together by our own expectations and past experiences. This not only means that we miss out on what’s really there but we can also believe thoughts we develop based on limited information. In a world where we are relatively safe from predators, much of our present danger rests in exorbitant stress and the choices we make because of them. The stress response has a definite function and appropriate application depending on the context; it is only when we experience chronic stress that major fatigue and immunological problems surface. It is important to remember that if we make a choice to focus on the positive, be mindful of our present experience, set reasonable goals, have compassion, place more weight in who we are becoming rather than achievement can we better balance our hormones and be more physically capable to perform how we would like to.

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