When athlete's find themselves in a high stress, high pressure situation they often find racing and critical thoughts become a distraction that hinders their performance. This is often coupled with that feeling of butterflies in the stomach! Immediate and decisive action requires a quick response so when too many thoughts arise it becomes a barrier to success. So how do you ensure that fast and accurate thoughts and decisions are made in the heat of the moment?
Call it intuition, instinct or a gut feeling, you have an inner brain that is much more instinctual than we know. As you probably know, you have a nervous system that works in two ways at different speeds. The first is a slow (relatively) process that involves sensations and feelings coming from all over the body going up to the brain for it to then sort out, make a decision and then send that decision back out to the body. The second is must faster where signals only need to go as far as the spinal column before a signal gets sent back to take action (think touching a hot plate).
Resent research has sown that your gut contains a vast web of over 100 million neurons of its own, more than the spinal column and the peripheral nervous system and is commonly known as the second brain! This brain informs our mind about our feelings in the internal world and is involved and effects our emotions. Those feelings of butterflies in the stomach is just the gut signalling as part of our physiological stress response. This can effect our mood and emotional health on a larger scale but also be a crucial factor when in a competitive arena.
Intuition is not based upon linear, logical thinking but is a subconscious process similar to viewing the situation from a bird’s eye view instead of a path allowing you to have an overall impression rather than the finite detail. It is a momentary gut feeling instead of a logical choice. If you think about it too long you are likely to talk yourself out of it since it lacks logic but in the moment it seems to make perfect sense. Athlete’s committed to high performance embrace the concept of deliberate practice, to continue improving your current skill set along with stretching your range of skills, but to take your performance to the next level with consistency you have to have improve your mental (and gut) game.
There are ways of doing this which most know of, such as hours and hours of practice so that each play or event in competition is known and your situational awareness grows. Muscle memory will also play a part in making your actions smooth and regular without having to bother your prefrontal cortex every time. However, there is another way to improve this aspect without the 10,000 hours of practice.
It used to be common in sports improvement to look at the areas you were going wrong to try and fix them. By analysing performance and even going through video footage of mistakes to try to correct errors, but this didn't lead to greater performance; if anything it led to worse. It wasn't until sports psychologists began analysing the data did they realise that the aspect you focus on the more you get more of. Combining visualisation techniques and solution focused approaches led to a sudden increase in outcome and trained your intuition on so many more situations and responses than possible in practice or in game.
Golf champion Sam Snead, who won the most PGA Tour events stated, “It is only human nature to want to practice what you can already do well, since it’s a hell of a lot less work and a hell of a lot more fun.”
Ways intuition improves sports performance include:
Fast response situations
High pressure situations without a clear choice
No prior experience available
To improvise in tough situations
Using techniques such as solution focused hypnotherapy to really train the mind as much as the body will provide such a greater improvement in performance than practice alone. So much so that there are now specialists in the field, using the technique themselves and on others. I myself use this technique and have seen a dramatic difference. So much so that I created The Athlete's Mind to bring this knowledge and learning to athlete's in every field and at every level. Find out more here.
So the next time your gut speaks to you, listen and wonder if you have trained it enough to be a force for good quick, decisive responses.