Memory plays a significant role in athletic performance. In order to appreciate the meaning of this powerful statement, we need to first garner a basic understanding of memory.
There are essentially two ways in which we retain information and that is through short-term and long-term memory. Upon receiving information, the brain then determines how we use and store that information. Our short-term memory retains information for about 20-30 seconds. An example is recalling a phone number given to you right before you dial it. However, with repetition a short-term memory can become a long-term memory. The long-term memory is the brain’s system for storing, managing and retrieving information.
Saying that, let’s concentrate on the management and retrieval of information from our long-term memory because this is where our memory train gets derailed, especially when it comes to sports performance. We store all sorts of information in our long-term memory from the mechanics needed in a specific sport, tactical processes and personal experiences of past performances.
Without getting too deep, our brain sorts and organizes these long-term memories into either explicit or implicit memories. Explicit memory can best be described as a memory that we consciously recall such as a great past performance or certain plays within our sport. Implicit memory, on the other hand, is both unintentional and unconscious. Implicit memories may be as simple as the mechanics used to shoot, dribble or hit, but they also can be a bit more complex in their nature.
Again, implicit memories are unintentional and unconscious, meaning we’re not asking them to come forward and yet without provocation, we find ourselves worrying about past poor performances or the future of our next game. In fact, unconsciously, the brain naturally and automatically saves negative experiences immediately upon their occurrence. Positive memories, on the other hand, require a sustained 13 seconds for the event to be saved into our long-term memories. Count 1001, 1002, 1003, 1004 up to 13 and you begin to realize that the brain is set up to unintentionally save more negative memories than positive ones.
Why does this happen? Scientists believe this to be an evolutionary trait developed to help us survive in a time when there were many more threats in the environment. In fact, the brain, when managing and retrieving information as a means of survival, automatically focuses its attention on the past and potential future threats to help us stay alert and ensure our survival. In other words, the brain unintentionally and unconsciously focuses on negative memories to protect and help us.
Now let’s apply this information to sports performance. You are nearing game time. Are you feeling pre-game butterflies or nerves? This is normal. We often perceive the upcoming game and the thought of winning or losing as a potential threat. The thought of losing something implies a threat to our system. We don’t like losing anything. Your brain wants to protect you and help you survive this perceived threat. You unconsciously put your thoughts on high alert and naturally begin to think of the possible ways you could lose the game. You then recall the ways you have lost games in the past.
As you unintentionally worry about your performance, your stress levels rise. As your stress levels rise unintentionally, your brain then has two things to worry about, both your potential for losing the upcoming game and your increased heart rate, shallow breathing and lack of concentration (fight, flight and panic). Now your brain has no choice but to focus all remaining attention to getting back to homeostasis or in clearer terms, getting your train back on the tracks.
What do you think happens when your brain goes into this mode of fight, flight or panic? As you might imagine, all available resources are redirected to reducing stress levels. When all available resources are redirected to reduce stress levels, game-time attention, too, is redirected to reducing your stress. You are not focused on the game.
These brain-based performance interruptions can occur before and during the game. Our performance suffers and mistakes happen. You feel stressed and lose focus on the game, at least until you are able to get out of your own head. During a game, if you can become immersed in the game, meaning you are not worrying about winning or losing, and you are not worrying about past mistakes, you can salvage a respectable and decent performance.
This, though, is not what I imagine when I think about my best performances. During my best performances, my mind is quiet. I accept the upcoming game as a challenge. Winning or losing is not really relevant. Instead, I embrace the rhythm of the game, stay present and use my energy to fuel a great performance. Visualization can teach you to consciously and intentionally set the stage for great performances. You can train yourself, through visualization, to counteract the brain’s natural inclination to worry and lose focus.