Un-Tapped Potential: Your unconscious as a resource for performance

‘Can you read my mind?’ some uncomfortable folks ask, with fear and curiosity, when they know I am a psychologist.  Erm, no, psychology is less about magic and more about science.  But I do understand where this comes from – the perhaps more mysterious sounding parts of psychology’s history and work.  The little bit frightening concepts of the unconscious and the unknown bits of ourselves that lie within somewhere.

We have psychoanalysis to thank for the concept of an unconscious as well as our modern privilege to be able to even consider that there might be a psychological aspect to our everyday experiences.  However, what sticks with most people in wider society as its legacy are the more threatening ideas associated with the unconscious – that within us all there are desires, motivations and drives that we are unaware of, potentially have no control over and that these determine our identities, personalities, lives.   Historically speaking, behavioural and cognitive psychology, with their focus on what can be seen and known consciously, were a sort of backlash against the ideas of psychoanalysis.  And this is hardly surprising, not because psychoanalytic theories have less to offer, but because it is a very human desire to feel in control and to dismiss that which we do not understand as nonsense.

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In performance psychology, cognitive approaches take a drivers seats in much of the work with athletes. This makes sense considering that choice, will and decisions are all cognitive processes that athletes learn to direct in some way over their careers.  But is there any role for considering the unconscious in work with athletes?  Aside from the widely feared ideas of it being just the screwed up part of our minds where little boys fancy their mothers and little girls are looking to marry their daddies, it is also where we hold limits on ourselves.  More importantly, it also can be a part of us where no limits exist and our problem solving resources are there to be tapped into, like a gold mine.  I didn’t understand this until I read Sidney Rosen’s book about Milton Erickson[1], credited with being a master of hypnotic suggestion through story telling.  A selection of these stories are presented in the book as simple tales, supposedly designed to calm and distract the conscious mind and enable the listener to solve a problem by tapping into resources in the unconscious.  It is the idea that the unconscious is a resource that really stuck with me.

And so much so for athletes and performers!  Having access to this resource, an internal world where possibly habitual limitations exist, but can also be broken and made irrelevant.  Yes, there are the impulses in the unconscious that seem superfluous to athletic performance goals, but it is also the place where our deepest desires arise from; the place where we dare to dream.

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Day to day life and experience teaches us about limits on our actions, our dreams and our desires.  We become aware that not everything is acceptable, that our bodies have limits, that people may laugh at us, that failure is not meaningless and may have implications that reach beyond our self esteem or simple feelings of regret.  But if we can find a space away from these ‘what if’s’ and the memories of limits and failures, we are free to believe in possibility.  Rosen offers a story about an athlete trying to break a world record.  It seemed an impossible task; an almost superhuman feat.  Through hypnosis, Erickson suggested the athlete think only about being one second faster than before, or even half a second faster.  Then one more.  Then another.  And this is what the athlete did in competition until he broke the world record.  Erikson’s suggestions refocused away from the impossible task and appealed to doing just a little more, and a little more – until the goal was reached.

Reading this story brought to my mind the phenomenon we often see in training, where subsequent performers seem to be more able to meet or beat the previous ones in the same challenging task.  In the not distant past, a group of women and myself were unable to muscle up in the rings.  We worked and worked in our ways, but it seemed impossible.  Then, one day, a woman in our group got one.  She filmed it, we all watched and within weeks we all had one in the bag.  Did we suddenly get stronger?  Probably not.  Did seeing watching the video help us to learn the right movement? Maybe, but we’d all been watching muscle up videos for months.  What I think it did was open up possibility.  Our belief that it was impossible had become an unhelpful rule.  Once it was broken, we were free to imagine the impossible being possible.

Does all this mean that you should run out an be hypnotised?  Should we break every rule?  Maybe just to take the basic idea that we are all endowed with capabilities beyond our current awareness.  That focus on micro-step after micro-step will eventually get you beyond your current limits.  And above all else, dare to dream.

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[1] Rosen, S. (1982). My Voice will Go With You: the teaching tales of Milton H. Erickson.  WW Norton and Company: New York.

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