Sunday, July 28, 2013

Not Just Pumping Iron, Part Twenty-Two

More on the Internal Dialogue, and
Psychological Levels of Training

Louder Than Words: 
The New Science of How the Mind Makes Meaning
by Benjamin K. Bergen

Imagine only the correct and desired action. Never rehearse what you do not want to do. If you rehearse what you do not want to do or see happen, often and strongly enough, that will surely be yours.

More specifically, it is how you do your successful performance that is to be rehearsed. This means careful attention to every detail of the desired performance. The same neurological pathways are excited by imagery as by the actual performance. Earlier, when I was discussing Edmund Jacobson's work with "progressive relaxation" I spoke of the effect of relaxation thoughts on the muscles themselves. The reverse is also true. In his research, Jacobson demonstrated that when one images an activity there are "micro-movements" in the muscles that are involved in that activity. These muscular micro-movements show that one is practicing the performance by exciting the neurological pathways that will be involved in the overt performance, even when one appears relaxed and motionless to the observer.

By repeatedly practicing the desired performance through imagery, one is "overlearning" the action. Overlearning means practice beyond the point at which one has learned to do something correctly one time. A performance which is overlearned is less likely to be forgotten. It becomes so familiar that even under pressure it is well remembered and will tend to come to one automatically. How much one needs to practice imagery for optimal effect depends on many individual and situational factors. So, it is best to experiment with it oneself and find through one's own experience what works best. Just to give you some orientation for starting your own experimentation, there is some consensus among sports psychologists that five to 10 minutes of imagery, twice a day is optimal for most athletes. What is best for you may vary from this guideline.

In actual practice, sometimes visual imagery and kinesthetic imagery can be combined. One may wish to visualize himself in impeccable performance while at the same time creating strong kinesthetic feeling of that performance. My suggestion, however, is that you perfect the techniques of visual imagery and kinesthetic imagery first. Otherwise, the two techniques may interfere with each other, splitting your attention and thereby reducing the vividness of your images. Less vivid images would, of course, diminish the impact of the methods.

An interesting adjunct to the basic methods of visual and kinesthetic imagery which I have presented is the use of a metaphorical image. A powerlifter working on perfecting his form in the deadlift might "see" or "feel" himself as a huge, powerful bull pulling a heavy boulder. On Olympic lifter might liken his jerk to a space shuttle rocket taking off, "seeing" himself as that rocket or "feeling" like that rocket. A bodybuilder wanting a smoother, more fluid transition from one pose to another might pick a slowly flowing river as his metaphor. The useful metaphors are endless. Again, only one's lack of creativity limits this. The idea is to pick a metaphor for what one wants to learn or polish or accomplish. Then, through one's visual and kinesthetic imagery, explore the metaphor, experience it, be it. By doing so, one can activate unconscious knowledge, bring into awareness potential experiences which enhance one's intentional performance. Let yourself go with this technique. Use your intuition in finding metaphors, and live them out in visual and kinesthetic imagery. In doing so you will inevitably tap into archetypal images, bringing that power into your activity.

It is now well accepted by sports psychologists that mental imagery is a powerful tool for improving athletic performance. Much careful research backs up this acceptance. And, a large number of successful athletes report the importance of mental imagery in their training programs. Note that for the lifter, mental imagery is not a substitute for actual lifting. It is a way of helping overlearn the coordination and timing of actual movements, of activating muscles at will, and of infusing one's actual performance with a spark of inspiration. In addition, mental imagery can be put to good use when one is unable to lift because of injury or environmental circumstances.

Mental imagery certainly has an important place in one's training. I want to put it in perspective in terms of the psychological levels at which one can train. I will do this by means of a model of psychological levels of training which I have developed.

The first level of training involves only thinking and talking. So, this is an abstract level of training. It is a left-brain activity, one in which verbal symbols are used. The Thinking level involves such activities as planning one's training program and workout, thinking about what exercises, what sequences, what weights, what number of sets, and what number of repetitions to use, and with what frequency to do this. So this level is concerned with what to do; it is the level of planning. In addition, this level involves the use of the techniques presented earlier in this section for quieting mental chatter, quieting the internal critic and using self-talk as a positive force. So, all the methods of quieting negative talk, be it distracting chatter or demoralizing criticism, and of bringing forth encouragement and support through positive self-talk belong to this first level of training. It involves the abstract -- the use of words or the quieting of words. At this level of training there is no activation of the skeletal muscles, except, of course, the muscles involved in speech. There is no activating neuro-muscular involvement of the "lifting muscles."

The second level of training is the Fantasy level. This involves the use of imagery, visual imagery and kinesthetic imagery. Therefore, this level, just as the Thinking level before it, is an abstract level. But, unlike the Thinking level, it involves neuro-muscular activation, albeit in the form of muscular micro-movements. The use of fantasy is, as we have seen, for the purpose of rehearsal.

With the third level, Enacted Fantasy, we move into the realm of concrete activity. Not only is there neuro-muscular activation, but the actual physical actions are taken. The muscular movements are now macro-movements, but with very light resistance. A light weight is used, the actual movements are enacted, but with the fantasy of the actual event. For example, when I was competing in Olympic lifting I would sometimes enact fantasies of contests. I would imagine I was stepping onto the lifting platform as I took an actual step or two. I would see the crowd, the judges, and the loaded bar in my mind's eye. Then I would address an actual empty bar, or on occasion a broomstick, in the way I addressed the actual bar in competition. (In a succeeding chapter I will discuss the "addressing of the bar.") I would then perform a press, or snatch, or clean & jerk with the empty bar or broomstick. As I did so I would "feel" the strain of the lift, "see" the head judge make his thumbs-up gesture, "hear" the announcer excitedly shout "The lift is good!" and "hear" the crowd cheer. Sometimes, when a workout is dragging, I enact a mini-fantasy, imagining that whatever exercise I am about to do is a record attempt in an important contest. Try that the next time you need a boost to get through a tough set.

The fourth level of training is Literal Activity. Here, again, we are in the realm of concrete activity with muscular macro-movements, but heavy resistance. This is the actual, literal, practice of lifting.

In explaining these four levels, I have used lifting as the content. Clearly, though, one can look at posing through these levels. There is the planning of a posing routine (Thinking), deciding what poses in what sequence for what period of time to what music, if any. Then, there is the Fantasy work of "seeing" the routine and "feeling" the routine through visual and kinesthetic imagery, respectively. Next comes the enactment of this fantasy, the pretending to be on the posing dais and "hearing" the applause as one enacts parts of the routine and at various tempos. Finally comes the Literal Activity, the actual posing, done just as in a contest with one's coach or friends offering their critiques.

If the first level of training, Thinking, focuses on what to do, as discussed above, the second, third, and fourth levels, Fantasy, Enacted Fantasy, and Literal Activity, focus on how to to it. In moving through the four levels we progress from the abstract to the concrete, from no neuro-muscular involvement through muscular micro-movements to muscular macro-movements of light and then heavy resistance. There is a logic in this progression. I submit that optimal are obtained only when the lifter gives adequate attention to all four levels. By doing so, the lifter honors his holistic nature, involving mind (both as left- and right-brain manifestation) and body planes of being.

Centering, Charging,
Grounding, Discharging. 

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