Sunday, July 31, 2022

Conscious vs. Unconscious - Jim Napier


Consciousness is the state or quality of awareness, or, of being aware of an external object or something within oneself. Consciousness has been defined variously in terms of sentience, awareness, subjectivity, the ability to experience or feel, wakefulness, having a sense of selfhood or soul, the fact that there is something "that it is like" to "have" or "be" it, and the executive control system of the mind, or the state or quality of awareness, or, of being aware of an external object or of something within oneself. In contemporary philosophy, its definition is often hinted at via the logical possibility of its absence, the philosophical zombie, which is defined as a being whose behavior and function are identical to one's own yet there is "no-one-in-there" experiencing it.

I will attempt to untangle the above definition, at least as it pertains to the sport of Weightlifting. There are certain things a weightlifter does during the snatch or clean & jerk that requires conscious thought, the grip before liftoff, the starting position prior to liftoff, the foot placement also prior to liftoff, and the lifter's breathing.

Of course, even the before mentioned items can be trained to become almost unconscious, but upon approaching the bar, the lifter should think in terms of conscious decisions made in a particular order, which can make them conscious. This conscious or ritualistic behavior would also include yelling out, stomping the feet, slapping the thighs, and those gyrations some lifters go through that resemble those of a baseball player getting ready to swing the bar while the pitcher is also going through his ritualistic behaviors that occur before each pitch.

Certain ceremonial behaviors become more precise than the lifting of the barbell itself, but since the lifter is fully aware of those actions, we can safely say they are choreographed and ingrained as a conscious effort, i.e., they are aware of those actions while they go through them. 

In watching the top lifters in the world, they seem to exhibit very little ritualistic behavior before liftoff. Generally, they chalk up, station themselves at the back of the platform in front of the bar then walk forward toward the bar, place their feet under the bar, stand relaxed, eyes forward and then reach down and begin securing their grip. They spend little time and little effort on motions that have nothing to do with the job of lifting the barbell. Shuffling the feet, slapping the thighs, stomping the feet, kicking the bar, yelling out, fiddling with the belt and grip prior to liftoff are all unnecessary to the sport in general, but might be of some importance to the lifter, or something they have been doing for so long those actions become what is called idiosyncratic.

Idiosyncrasy: unusual feature(s) of a person, odd habit(s).

Unusual features or odd habits are the qualifiers that set us apart from each other, even though, for the most part, idiosyncrasies are additional actions. In athletics, those odd habits are not part of the technical skills needed to perform an event. These unusual features become so ingrained and ceremonial the athlete goes through them with uncanny precision and tuning, and at some point, they become part of the athlete's unconscious actions.

The great Greek lifter, Pyrros Dimas, had a very distinct trait of jerking his head back as he pulled under the weight and during the jerk. He also looked both ways after securing the lift overhead, although the latter was more on purpose and very much a conscious effort (habitual) or perhaps a combination of the conscious and unconscious. Throwing his head back was ingrained as an unconscious effort, and might be considered an odd habit, but mostly his interpretation of a particular technical skill.

When idiosyncratic actions change, before liftoff, i.e., taking longer than usual to ready themselves, this usually means they are overthinking the lift. Perhaps they have some doubt in their mind about whether they can make the lift. They might fumble around with the hook grip longer than usual or start thinking about how heavy the weight will feel at liftoff. Once the lifter breaks their ritual, then the unconscious is also broken and replaced by conscious action. 

The athlete could link extra-ritualistic behaviors to a lack of confidence, indecisiveness or perhaps some tepidness concerning the lift. It can occur anytime from the warmup platform to the main stage and even at certain times in training. These extended rituals, which fall outside those normal ingrained rituals, include: waiting longer than usual before approaching the bar, yelling out louder and more times than normal, stomping the feet louder, waving to the crowd for external motivation, spending more time over the bar before liftoff and fidgeting with the grip longer than usual, perhaps even an extra whiff of ammonia before taking to the platform. 

When a lifter leaves their normal ritualistic behaviors, they also leave their unconscious world, and the lift might become less proficient or even missed. More times than not the lifter loses a lift when the lifter's rituals are longer than their normal idiosyncratic behaviors. 

When more conscious thought processes are involved, it could lead to a less relaxed muscular system at liftoff and during the lift itself. Conscious efforts produce slower reaction times than unconscious efforts. It might be that the lifter should try and eliminate as much of those odd habits as they possibly can so the ritualistic process is honed down to the bare necessities for lifting the barbell, making the time between approaching the bar and the liftoff too short a time to disrupt those unconscious efforts. 

The faster the action, the more that action can become unconscious.

A pitcher makes a split-second decision when the batter hits the ball straight at the pitcher with such velocity there is no time to react other than on an unconscious level because there is not enough time to make a conscious decision about what action to take. It becomes an automatic response, but in reality, the pitcher has seen this scenario many times during his career, and he has been able to categorize what action to take to match the situation. 

In contrast, when a center fielder has what seems to be all day to catch a fly ball there is plenty of time to think about all sorts of things before the ball is caught and sometimes fumbled to the surprise of everyone. Again, conscious efforts are slower than unconscious efforts, which is why some seemingly impossible catches by the outfielders become miracle catches. 

What seem like impossible catches in football are said to be miracle catches. The unconscious mind is much better equipped to look for and find the best solution to a difficult task much faster than the conscious mind. The conscious mind might make a better decision, but it will come too late to affect the outcome one way or the other. So, when athletes say they wish they had done something different, they are talking about their conscious efforts and not the unconscious ones which are quite content with the decision made, and more times than not it's the correct one regardless of the outcome. 

A lot of  unconscious actions the lifter makes out of desire, fear or instinct, such as a missed lift in weightlifting that if not acted quickly upon the weight could land on the lifter and could cause significant bodily injury. This moment would not be the time to argue with the unconscious mind about what action to take to avert the disastor.

Any conscious thoughts right before or during a lift in progress will slow down the reaction time of the lifter and can cause a missed lift. Conscious thoughts are slower than unconscious actions because thinking about doing something and actually acting on it are two different things.

The reason athletes have to do a particular skill over and over again for thousands of repetitions is for that pattern to be well established in the CNS so the lifter can execute it with little or no thought whatsoever. Reps in weightlifting are not just so the lifter can adapt to heavier loads, but for the CNS to become familiar with those patterns so they can execute the lift as an unconscious effort.

The faster a beginning lifter can learn how to lift with precision, velocity and on an unconscious level and with non-decelerating motions the quicker they can begin to enjoy the rigors of training those skills and progressing toward full potential. 

Enjoy Your Lifting!      


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