As an aging athlete on hiatus while my body heals from injury, I am taking some time to reinvent how I engage in sport when I reemerge. Reevaluating running ambitions, I have to take new limitations into account and redefine priorities during my time on the sidelines. I like to win, but I can no longer win in the competitions where I used to distinguish myself, so upon my return my aim is to compete at venues that allow me to win with endurance and wisdom instead of speed. In competitive sport, that means running longer – over multiple days.
So I need a strategy. Time to make a new plan. I still have a full bag of tricks to pull from, but most of my tricks don't work anymore. Some of the mental tools that worked when I was a kid can still be useful in keeping me in the game – those that depend upon strength of will, perseverance, and intention.
Someone I have always held in high regard was Muhammad Ali. In the later years of his fighting career, realizing that the speed, strength, and resilience of his youth was fading, Ali adjusted his training and outlook to accommodate his limitations to be able to continue to dominate younger, stronger, faster boxers. As we age, we increasingly have to rely upon our mental finesse, so Ali framed a new strategy in his mind that enabled him to continue to be a champion long after he should have retired.
Ali spent much of his training time in later years learning how to take punches. He studied how to shift his head back just a hair a microsecond before a punch was landed, enabling his body to deflect a blow to minimize impact. HE WAS NOT TRAINING HIS BODY TO WIN. HE WAS TRAINING HIS MIND NOT TO LOSE, especially at the point in the match when deep fatigue sets in around the twelfth round when most boxers cave. The most important part of his training was not in the ring during practice sessions, but in his armchair. Mohamed Ali was fighting the fight during training and winning in his head.
As a master of intention, Ali developed a set of mental skills that would enhance his performance in the ring. Before a fight, he used every self-motivational technique out there: affirmation, visualization, mental rehearsal, self-confirmation, and perhaps the most famous epigram of personal worth ever uttered, “I am the greatest.” He publicly broadcast his intentions in a barrage of clever rhyming couplets and quatrains, seemingly innocuous, but in reality they were powerfully disguised specific intentions reinforcing his intention to win. He repeated these rhymes like a mantra so often to the press and to his opponent that he came to accept them as fact.
When you are good, you have every right to proclaim you are the greatest. It is a place Ali will always hold in my mind. Beside his public displays of his intent, Ali would rehearse over and over every moment of the coming fight in his head; he would rehearse the fatigue in his legs, the sweat pouring off his body onto the mat, the pain he would feel in his kidneys, the bruises and swelling of his face, the flash of the photographers, the exultant screaming of the crowd, and perhaps most importantly, the moment the referee would lift his arm in victory. In every moment for months before a fight, Muhammad Ali sent an intention to his body to win; his body responded by following orders.
The photo above was one of the last taken of the Champ. With his dukes up, he could still “float like a butterfly, sting like a bee” right to the end. And that's how I want to be.
More than ever, I must use my mind to accomplish physical feats. I am fond of a quote by Canadian ultrarunner Ray Zahab that 90% of incredible physical accomplishment is mental, and that the other 10%... is mental, as well. As my body ages, it will be mental preparation rather than more physical training that extends my running career.
As a kid, without really knowing much about what I was doing, I would get real focused and concentrate on an important outcome I wished to accomplish in sport, before finally executing my intention with a steller effort. I won a lot of races by mentally going through the motions before a performance. Certain memories of even fifty years ago still stand out in my mind as to how I accomplished some great things back in the day. Those mental skills from my bag of tricks are some of the tools I have to work with in my come back.
Looking at how far sport has come over my lifetime, focused intention is now deemed essential to alter and improve performance in virtually every sport. Techniques involved in mental rehearsal have been exhaustively studied and honed by a full spectrum of athletes. Champion athletes are now able to forecast and rehearse every aspect of an endeavor in advance, practicing the steps necessary to take to overcome any conceivable challenge or setback during the competition.
The most successful athletes break down their performances into the smallest parts to work on improving specific aspects of their performance. Coping strategies are developed in advance to deal with difficulties and challenge so as to remain in control in the face of adversity. The best athletes see only a flawless performance and block out any images representing doubt. Successful people, whether athletes or not, become adept at shifting internal dialogue or changing the movie running in their heads, quickly editing to imagine success.
Winning today has become increasingly dependent upon how well athletes can mentally rehearse with vivid, highly detailed internal images and run-throughs. The more experienced athletes are, the better they are at imagining the feel of their bodies, or the kinesthetic sensations experienced when engaged in sport.
It is interesting to explore the mechanism by which mental rehearsal influences future performance. Electromyographic equipment gives us a snapshot of the brain's instructions to the body. What has been discovered is that the thought of an action creates the same pattern of neurotransmission as the action itself. In other words, the electrical impulses between the brain and the muscles are the same whether a person is doing a sporting activity or just mentally rehearsing doing that same activity. Thoughts produce the same mental instructions as actions.
Electrical activity produced by the brain is identical whether we are thinking about doing something or actually doing it. One school of thought says that mental rehearsals train the brain to facilitate the movement used during the actual performance. The nerves that signal the muscles are stimulated by thought, producing chemicals that remain there for time. Future stimulation along the same pathways is made easier by the residual effects of the earlier connections. We get better at physical tasks because our signaling from intention to action has already been forged. Future performances improve because the brain already knows the route and has a well worn path to follow. The mind can create that pathway as well as repeated physical practice.
As an old guy I cannot go out there every day and grind. There is this new thing in my life called fatigue that forces me to take naps during the time I used to be out there making tracks. The nice thing about practicing in my head, doing mental training, is that this old body doesn't get physically worn out. Now I can cut my physical training back to a reasonable thirty to forty miles per week, but keep up my overall mileage up by doing another fifty or sixty miles in my head, figuratively speaking. I like the sound of “old champions never die” and that “old guys can keep it up longer”. Now if I can get those two jingles to rhyme, watch out; expect me to continue to “float like a butterfly, sting like a bee” right to the end.