In the winter of 1996, John was training for the Olympic trials. He was a full-time student in his first year in law school. The previous spring, at the end of four outstanding years rowing as an undergraduate, his coach had encouraged him to try sculling. A firm believer in the mental side of rowing, the coach suggested that John schedule regular appointments with me.
"What do you like about rowing?" I asked John. With this question, I am assessing John’s motivation. Will he talk about the felt pleasure of rowing the feeling of his muscles working, the feeling of the movement of the blades through the water, and the glide of the boat? Without this immediate feedback of pleasurable sensations, I believe that he lacks an important source of motivation. Will he emphasize the satisfaction of winning or social aspects of the sport and how his identity is wrapped up in it or how rowing keeps him in shape? These sources of motivation are important, but I believe that they will not sustain him through the long road he has ahead which includes the physical pain of training. Whatever his answer, I will want to help him enhance his kinesthetic sense - the felt pleasure of rowing. As this sense improves, John's motivation will improve, and he will give more attention to skill acquisition, because practice becomes a reward in itself, not just an investment in a distant race day.
In his answer to my question, John emphasized winning, beating others, and the avoidance of the humiliation of a loss. It was only through discipline and mental toughness that had he become a contender for an Olympic seat and he was on the brink of burnout. He said, "I am angry at myself because I’m not doing circuits hard enough."
John is not talking about the kinesthetic feeling of muscle movement, but an lousy emotional feeling resulting from a judgment that he makes about his performance: "I do them [circuits], but I don’t feel good about it... When I run, I get cramps and my knees hurt. I have to convince myself to go harder. It’s boring and I get sick to my stomach.... I wish I knew what was the right amount to push myself when running stairs.... I want to work out every morning, but I have a hard time waking up. I have to convince myself that this is something I want to do, something I want to be good at."
In his efforts at self-discipline, he has lost his ability to accurately monitor his performance. He feels the pain in his knees which he tries to block out, but in doing so probably reduces his sensitivity in assessing his feeling of effort, his anaerobic threshold, and his ability to properly pace himself for a maximum training benefit.
Although John’s psyche is fertile ground for a lengthy psychoanalysis, I choose to teach him Performance Monitoring (PM), because that process focuses on the relationship between bodily felt sensations - kinesthetic feelings - and training effect. PM will enable John to regulate and slowly increase his effort, and effectively carry out his training schedule. PM helps to take the boredom out of long aerobic work, an essential feature of winter training for rowers.
I said to John, "On the one hand, based on your report that your knees hurt, you have cramps and feel nauseated when you run, you are obviously in touch with the feelings in your body. On the other hand, I wonder what you are doing mentally to push yourself harder?"
The non-sequitur induces mild confusion which creates an opportunity for creative thinking. The phrases "on the one hand" and "on the other hand" reflect John’s conflict: he wants to win, but he hates training.
John thought for a minute, "I see myself rowing in a race and dying at 500 meters. I know I’m not in shape."
John’s reply seems to indicate that he did become confused. Surely, on some level he must know that his response is not a logical response to my inquiry. The image of dying at 500 meters is not an effective one with which to motivate himself. However, it may just be an honest answer about what he in fact does. He has said that he motivates himself by the avoiding of the humiliation of a loss. Perhaps this image is part of that strategy.
Performance Monitoring can be practiced from two perspectives: associated and dissociated. Both can help John push himself harder to increase his workload. In the associated state while training, John focuses on his body's response to the work. In the dissociated state, John is thinking about anything but his body. Part of what he thinks about, he has said is a future or past race in which he failed to perform well. I want to help John alternate between the two PM states - find a balance between them. Perhaps, we can also learn more about the "negative" content of his dissociated state and find out how to help him with that.
Here is a PM exercise you can try now... In your mind, mentally go out for a long run, and begin to scan your body from head to toe feeling your muscles working. If you feel a tense spot, relax it... if you feel a place that could be contributing more to your effort, let it contribute or if you could use it to correct your form, do just that... Pay attention to your breathing... Experiment with breathing deeper, inhaling through your mouth and then your nose until you find the best strategy and if you are getting bored with that you can day dream — go to a dissociated state... let your mind wonder to a problem in your studies, or a problem in a relationship, or a pleasant experience with a friend, or perhaps a race, and come back again in a nice comfortable way when your are ready to again feel you muscles working and making various adjustments to your effort... keep the run easy. You might find this shifting back and forth distracting at first, however as it becomes a habit, you will learn something. You may notice that this is something that you do anyway — that this exercise just slightly alters the content.
As I guided John through this "visualization" he closed his eyes and when I finished, he opened them, "That was interesting. I do something like that, but I usually stay more with the pain. This time, I followed what you were saying, and I didn’t feel so much pain. I was able to find a more comfortable way to breathe, and an easy stride that started feeling much more relaxed; like I could go on forever with much less effort."
In the weeks following this session, John practiced alternating between associated and dissociated states while he was running and doing long erg pieces. He used the associated state to correct his form, and he used the dissociated state to escape when he was bored. This alternating, itself, kept his mind active and warded off boredom. As he paid attention to his body, he naturally became aware of the enjoyment of the feeling of his muscles moving. He developed mental strategies to modulate his effort so that he maintained the workout schedule that he and his coach had developed. As he trained better, he gained confidence that he had things under control, and was doing his best to be prepared for the trials and he ultimately did make the Olympic team.