Rowden March 2019

Success at the highest levels doesn’t always demand raw effort. The effort-intensive approach can work well with some sports but not with others.

With some, relaxation, breathing and concentration techniques, together with being in tune with yourself can give better results. Worry less about power and more about smoothness of movement, but primarily identify what is happening as the opponent prepares action. This can be hard because it’s a job done mostly by the mind and not the body. You can’t react automatically unless you are aware of what response is needed. And this can take some years of experience, it doesn’t occur overnight. Many young top flight table tennis players for example make the point that older very experienced players nearly always identify changes in tactics and in the game much quicker than they do.
Consider for example the Kaizen principles at the heart of Japanese industry: a continuous steady incremental improvement ‘through cleverness, patience and diligence’. The starting point is unconscious incompetence when the athlete does not really understand what is going on. The next stage is conscious incompetence, when you can spot what is happening or going wrong, but can’t always solve the problem. Then comes conscious competence, when you do the right things and make the right decisions but only with some effort. Finally the stage we all aim for, that of unconscious competence, when everything we do flows without effort. An added bonus of this stage is that the brain switches from the energy-thirsty cerebral cortex to the much thriftier cerebellum.
Identification, assessing and understanding what is happening, maintaining the balance at all times and smooth movements in all your reactions as you effortlessly decide what you need to do, these are the things which really matter. For many athletes the greatest gains come not from extreme fitness but from intense focus and concentration. The ultimate aim is to get the subconscious, automated systems in the physical body to take over, in order to free the mind to clearly assess changing situations and scenarios. Of course in all of this attitude is also of paramount importance. To reach the heights takes a calmness, a serenity of the mind to rise above the physical exertion and to be able to deal with the changing challenges as they occur. If on the other hand the whole is in an extreme state of tension and stress, results will almost certainly be less than positive!

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