Have you ever had someone say to you, “You’re thinking too much!” ?
Or, perhaps, “Quite thinking about it and just do it.” ?
One one hand, it makes sense. We kind-a-know what this means, that over-thinking is some ambiguous negative thing that we must avoid. On the other hand, these phrases do not make sense, because it is technically impossible. No one ever stops thinking, we just change what we think about.
So let me help by offering some more tangible definitions we can work with:
THINKING = directing your conscious attention somewhere.
If we accept that definition, what exactly is over-thinking then?
OVER-THINKING = focusing your conscious attention in an unproductive direction (and keeping it there) or trying to focus it on too many directions at once.
The goal behind our TI training – our mental training, specifically – is to learn how and where to direct our attention to maintain the highest level of efficient performance and the highest level of enjoyment. The two go hand-in-hand.
When our attention – that agent of thinking – is directed upon the features of the swim that achieve and maintain our desired level of performance, then we should keep it there. It would be foolish to turn it away. When the focus of attention no longer supports our performance we should change where we direct attention. In reality, there is no stop-thinking, there is only change-thinking. There is no thinking-too-much, there is only thinking-in-the-wrong-direction.
In TI we learn all the areas of skill in swimming that need to be attended to, and we learn in what order and in what priority – just as an aircraft pilot would learn how to keep an aircraft flying safely and smoothly to reach the desired destination in all sorts of meteorological conditions. Some areas needs less attention, some need more. Some are harder to master and to maintain than others. At different times in the flight/swim we tune in to different areas. TI teaches us how to pilot our vessel with high efficiency (energy-management) and high enjoyment (mind-management).
We might define over-thinking as the state of keeping attention in a direction that is no longer producing positive results – working on the wrong problem at this moment, when focusing on another one would allow better progress. It is when the thinking is out of order, or off priority with the needs of the moment.
Another way to define over-thinking is when the swimmer is focused in the right direction but using the wrong type of thinking. Let me explain…
THINKING WITHIN THE BODY
We’ve got a brain that houses all the controls of the body and a conscious mind that resides within it, able to pay attention to only very small portion of what the entire brain manages all the time 24/7/365. The mind is important though, because, when used skillfully, it can shape the capabilities of the brain – and for a land-mammal swimmer we need the brain reshaped to work more like an aquatic one.
Swimming well is a neurological skill, meaning that swimming ability is far more dependent on your brain’s ability to control movement patterns with precision than on your muscle strength and metabolism of energy. The brain’s job is to control information and energy. Neurological development in an aquatic environment is what makes a fast swimmer smooth and efficient. A neurologically-under-developed swimmer may be fast – for it is possible to muscle his way to the podium up to a point in his career – but he is not smooth and he is not efficient with energy – and this will cut his potential far short in the water (unlike land-based sports). There is a world of difference – and even at elite levels we will see both kinds, while the ranks below are dominated by fast-and-inefficient swimmers, so much so that so many are mistakenly regarded as efficient stroke models when they are, in fact, not.
Excellent swimming is learned through the body – and when I say that, I mean through the nervous system. We might label this body-intelligence, body-thinking, body-learning. The mind needs to be used to facilitate this learning, but it won’t do well to take it over and replace it. Swimming is predominantly learned through body-learning, not through intellectual assessment and decision. We cannot reason ourselves into being a better swimmer. We cannot treat the body like a machine that we act upon from the outside to make it do what we want and expect the results to be smooth and efficient. What we get in that case is a robotic, mechanical looking swimmer – stiff, jerky, awkward, slow. As swimmers we need to realize that what happens inside the body is far more important than what we see happening on the outside. The outside of the swimmer is a product of what has occurred on the inside… or lack of what has occurred there.
For me, it seems like my conscious, intellectual mind actually runs behind the body-learning process trying to catch up, trying to understand what the body already understands physiologically. My mind It is much more of a student than a director of the process. Once my mind comes to this intellectual understanding of what worked I am in better position to recognize what made it possible, to protect it, and to facilitate its repetition on demand.
When I have a swimmer who is struggling with ‘thinking-too-much’ I often suspect it is because he is trying to intellectually think his way to the solution of the problem rather than feel his way to the solution. It can sound a little mystical, but I actually mean this in the most physiological way. [And it is the supreme discipline for a coach to keep teaching her swimmers through their body rather than through their mind (i.e. talking too much rather than directing activities that reveal it directly to the nervous system). In the case of me writing to you like this, I am appealing to your mind in the hopes that it will encourage the relationship you have with your own body-learning.]
When something is wrong with the thinking sometimes the swimmer’s attention needs to be redirected onto a different skill or problem. Sometimes it’s not the point of focus that needs to change, but the way he is using the brain to examine and solve.
There are those who are, to an unbalanced extreme, quite intellectual about life, work and their athletic endeavors, so much so that it is quite foreign for them to communicate and think with their bodies. While there are those who are so practiced and attuned to their bodies that a intellectual approach would seem quite primitive and inept at helping them learn a new movement art. The difference between an engineer’s brain and a dancer’s, perhaps – both represent types of concentrated thinking. They don’t have to exclude each other – each represent important mental skills and each have their place in our improvement process. What I am suggesting is that some over-thinkers need to set aside the engineer and become the dancer for a while.
Intellectually understanding the physics and physiology, and even the psychology behind what we are doing is extremely helpful – these are rather indispensable to our highest performance. However, these understandings do not actually make a person swim well. They support the trust and patience in the learning process and help us decide better how to solve problems. The actual solving of the swimming problem is something that occurs in the nervous system – from the brain down to its furthest branches in every nerve ending in every muscle and tissue and on the surface of the skin.
The brain fills the entire body, not just the skull. The brain manages information and energy – it directs energy to the teams of muscles that need to work together fluently: when/where/how much. Muscles pushed around from the ‘outside’ – as an operator would run the controls of a machine – will move but they won’t be respectful of how energy is being used to do it. When they are moved around from the ‘inside’ – with body-thinking – they will move with respect to how energy is being used. This is what I mean by body-learning, or body-thinking. To learn to swim well, to swim smoothly and efficiently, in the most literal sense of the words, you must learn-within-your-body how to swim. Your smoothest, fastest, easiest swimming will be mastered and commanded predominantly by parts of the brain other than your intellectual mind.
Even at peak ability we never stop thinking about our swimming. What we actually do is automate the swimming skills into various parts of the subconscious brain. This is where we can swim at peak performance on ‘auto-pilot’ so to speak (as Michael Phelps testified to doing in one of his WR Olympic performances – as recorded in the book The Power Of Habit). But even in this case of an ideal swimming state, we are still carefully directing attention and keeping a close eye on the control panel of our swimming vessel, though not necessarily grabbing the controls consciously. We build this auto-pilot system for an awesome stroke in literally thousands of hours of mindful practice. Once it is there, and we get into a swim we’ve been training for, we can divert a portion of attention to higher thoughts (if we like) and still perform as planned. This is possible because, behind the scenes, a massive portion of the brain has been trained to carefully monitor and control that carefully crafted stroke. It never stops, it never diverts its subconscious attention – a vast portion of the brain is thinking only about this. The moment a warning light is triggered by those subconscious parts of the brain our conscious attention drops the higher thoughts and immediately returns to address the warning – like the captain of a plane sits at the controls of a plane on auto-pilot ready to respond to any irregularity (at least, this is what I hope the captain of my flight is doing!).
It all comes back to using more of the brain to sense what is happening in the body and learn to control it as needed, then build patterns that turn into habits – automated responses for success. If you cannot easily feel what your body is doing, then your training needs to include tasks that help you learn how to deliberately access more areas of your brain and deepen your sensitivity to body-information. The messages from the body are there, being sent all the time, like the air is filled with radio waves just waiting for you to turn on your radio receiver to listen to them. The problem is not likely with your body as if it doesn’t know how to communicate, but with a mind has not learned to detect these signals and respond to them. You have not learned yet all the areas you can direct your attention to that will make a more powerful impact on your swimming ability. There is still so much more for you and me – and Michael Phelps even – to learn and master.
READ AND RESPOND TO THE MESSAGES
I’ve written about this before – pain is a messenger. We have to pay attention to the messages from the body, and learn to interpret and respond in a productive way. Pain is just one segment of sensation that our nervous system delivers to the brain (the part of the brain in the skull, that is). There are other kinds of nerve cells in the skin that detect pressure and temperature too. There are nerve endings in the muscles and in so many other tissues and organs. The feedback from all these work together to give us a rich and nuanced blend of information about the finest details of our body and the environment our body is interacting with. That information is sent so that we can do something with it. In terms of swimming, we use that information to find ways to move forward easier – to move forward faster with less energy demand… which is exactly what the human brain genetically craves to do, though, as land-mammals, we’re not instinctively gifted to do it in water.
In relation to this idea, the key to removing suffering from long or high intensity swims is to maintain focus in positive and productive areas – not turn it off. Turning it off from critical points (or never learning to focus it there) is exactly what sets up the conditions for suffering (those forms of suffering that we impose upon ourselves, at least). This is coming from a 25+ year swimmer with an extraordinary tolerance for pain, and a body that continually got injured because of it. That tolerance for pain is not something to brag about – ignoring pain and other critical body-information is ignorance in the most literal sense of the word. I am much wiser now, but paid a high price to get some. If only I had known this at 14 years old. But now I can at least offer guidance to those of you who are seeking to remove suffering in your highest performance swimming.
ATTENTION IS A MUSCLE
Remember: attention – the ability to focus – is like a muscle in this regard: it needs to be trained, it needs to be strengthened. When under-developed it fatigues far more easily than muscles do, which leads to muscles fatiguing far earlier than they need to. If you train the muscles before you train the brain, you’ll be approaching this whole thing backwards. Many of our shortcomings in the water have far more to do with neurological fatigue than with metabolic or muscular fatigue. (Come swim with us in TI and we’ll will show you how to test this.)
Along with strong attention, we need intelligent attention. We need to know where to focus, in what order of priority. These thinking skills keep attention on points that are positive and productive, that maintain physical and health and performance as well as mental. They are skills that support survival under life-threatening conditions as well as support peak performance under race conditions. They are the skills that produce smooth, fast, easy, lower-energy-demanding, injury-free swimming that we really enjoy practicing.
So, let’s not over-think, just keep the right kind of thinking going in the right direction.