Perception of Elite
If you fail the next rep you do not go to the Games. Do you think the reality of this situation would affect you? Do you think at Regionals you were performing like you do back at the Box? Maybe better or sometimes worse?
The gateway to learning more about elite performance, is opened by perception.
As a front line Commando Helicopter Force pilot and instructor, I can tell you that a tactical troop insert brings many of the same dilemmas, problems, feelings and emotions that you will have experienced on your journey.
Flying on the Front Line has multiple factors that cause concern. On Night Vision Goggles you have ¼ of the resolution of your eye and 1/3 the field of view, there is no real depth perception and any light creates a bloom so you cannot see anything at all. A dust landing as shown in the video below, reduces visibility to a couple of feet when you are trying to see the ground and everything around you so you don’t crash. At high altitudes and temperature, the engines are maxed out for performance and misjudging your approach even slightly will result in a crash or having to over-shoot. You cannot overshoot a tactical insert because you will have given the game away for the boys in the back, giving their target time to escape or set up an ambush – get on the first time! There may already be an ambush waiting and when you get into those last few feet surrounded by dust and darkness there is likely going to be someone trying to end your day with an assortment of fast moving projectiles that disagree with the human body. A simple handling error, moving the stick an inch one way or another at the wrong time can spell disaster. The ground can be uneven and cause you to rip a wheel off or roll over. You get the idea, every time there is a chance you could not go home. There is a chance that you could ruin the day for 15 or 20 other people in the back who have their entire trust in your ability. Pressure? Not really.
How do the men and women who do this day in and day out cope? That’s why I’m here. As an instructor with 18 years doing exactly that job and training others to do the same, I have learned some great lessons and made my own mistakes. I have learned a lot about performance in extreme conditions. As a Box owner, I also learned that the traits of performance I have practiced and teach, carry over into the sport of fitness. In fact, these lessons carry across to human performance in any domain. Why?
Perception is how we interpret the world and understand our place in it physically and emotionally.
I’m not talking about Situational Awareness (SA) here. This is also another subject for the future. What I mean is that all the data presented to us is collected by your brain and then converted into meaning. Think of this data coming in as simply gathering blocks. Your brain then converts the blocks into something of meaning.
Check out this image, what kind of bird would you say it is?
Maybe you think it’s a duck. As soon as I mention the word rabbit, you now see a rabbit. If I hadn’t conditioned you with the idea that it was a bird, you may have seen the rabbit first. You might even have seen the rabbit first anyway if for some reason, in your life, rabbits are more relevant than ducks. Either way you now find that if you look again, you flit between the two perceptions and cannot ignore the other. It’s even likely that my original mention of the bird now makes it harder to see the rabbit in place of the duck.
What we see is the realm of the mind, not the eye. This is why perception is the gateway to true performance. Seeing is believing. Or is believing seeing?
So what, why, how do we make use of this? Perception is the top down way our brains organise and interpret information and then put it into context. This contextis based on pre-determined ideas we hold from experience, the influence of others etc. Importantly, we can let our perspective determine how we view certain aspects of competition and our performance. If we have a pre-conceived idea that we are looking for a bird, like above, we see a bird. Similarly, if we have pre-conceived ideas and perceptions about how much the next Rowing WOD is going to suck. Then it is going to suck! Afterwards, if we tell ourselves and others that our Rowing WOD was disgusting, we continue to feed the notion and perception that training is really demanding, difficult and mentally gruelling.
The problem? Believing is also seeing. Soon you start to create a stress response before and during training. The effects of this will be covered in another article soon. But right now, it doesn’t take much to understand that being stressed out will inhibit our ability to perform. If we focus on a workout being tough, it’ll be tough. If you perceive a lot of pressure to perform at Regionals, your body will experience stress whether you can recognise it or not.
So how do we shift our perception, how do you keep your mind open to alternate views that match your ambition and can help deliver the true performance you are capable of?
Think of the data blocks coming in as gathering lego blocks. You have the ability to construct whatever you like with them and this is what you’ve been doing without conscious effort. Before embarking on the days training, take some time (just 5 minutes should do) to think about the opportunity you have to learn and grow in the session(s) your Coach has presented. You cannot change the rules of the game. They are beyond your control. Thrusters are thrusters, rowing is rowing. You cannot control the demands these activities will place on your body or how much you prefer one over the other. You only get to control how you perceive what is going to happen. Look at what needs to be done and build a blueprint, a pre-conceived idea, a perception of what you will gain by the end of the training. What will this rowing session add to your game? What is the opportunity you have to improve yourself most in this session? Doing this before the session will enable a whole new experience of the training itself.
You can apply this approach to every aspect of performance. Completing a workout at Regionals? Spend your 5 minutes building a blueprint of the challenge you can embrace. When I see a dusty landing site it would be easy to allow feelings of doubt creep in. But as a professional you cannot live there. I adjust my perception of what this means to me. I accept the challenge ahead as one I know I am capable of. I know there is pressure but I thrive on it. I know there is danger but it heightens my senses.
I have my blueprint and so I trust in my ability to not only complete the immensely complex task, but to have the ability to do even more: to also notice enemy positions; possible obstructions; escape paths in the event of an emergency; maintain an awareness of the other aircraft around me; leaving space at the landing site for the other aircraft; wind direction; information on the radio; aircraft performance; moving vehicles and people; likely areas for ambush; on and on.
This is where true performance lives. You are collecting all of your data, your lego bricks. What are you building with yours that is holding your performance back? What could you build?
In a future article I will outline a great tool to make this perception skill something you can switch on all the time. In the meantime, take that time out at the beginning of your training to build your blueprint in slow time. You’ll see the benefits straight away!