A Case Of Dying In The Middle Of A Race
Joan S. Ingalls, Ed. D.
Would it surprise you to learn that a very hard training, seemingly
competitive 32 year-old athlete didn't care about winning? Paul, a sculler,
who is cross-country skiing as part of his winter training, wondered whether
some kind of mental technique could change one's physiology - could you increase
the density of mitochondria by visualization? But very quickly, he changed the
subject, "I don't have the will to win. I have no need to win. I have the
will to train, but during a race if it gets too painful, I wonder why I am doing
this. I stop pushing myself so hard; I relax a bit knowing that I can't win and
won't even do my best." Sound familiar? I'll admit it. I've asked
myself, "Why am I doing this?" in the middle of every race I've rowed. Paul continued, "It doesn't happen during long races where I can pace
myself, so I think maybe the problem is that with the pressure
of a sprint, I go out too hard. Do you think I should just have a race strategy? When
I was younger I always had a race strategy that kept me going."
I asked Paul, "What do you think about what you just said - the problem of losing your will to push yourself?" Paul was a quite hopeful. He had been thinking
about the problem of not pacing himself in a sprint for quite awhile. At
this point, however, he was mostly "tricking" himself into thinking it
wasn't a problem by just focusing what he did like - figuring out the most
efficient and reliable way to become more fit. But at
the end of every race, he was disappointed. He could have made more of an
effort. He had lost the
chance to test himself and the effectiveness of his training program.
Paul loved the "science" of planning a week's workout. As he talked
about how he planned his workouts, an idea came to me about why he liked planning
and training so much. First, it has to be related to a good feeling that he
gets - that's just common sense; we like to do things that make us feel good.
But how does he get the good feeling? I work with the concept of synesthesia.
Synesthesia is the transformation of information from one sensory modality
to another. The most common synesthesia is visual/kinesthetic. That is, we
humans readily transform information from the visual to kinesthetic sensory
systems. I guessed that Paul was making a
mental image (visual) to get the good feeling (kinesthetic) that he
associates with hard workouts.
To test my hypothesis, I asked Paul, "Do you make an image of yourself - your future state,
how you will look at the end of the week in that fit state that you will be
in if you stick to your workout plan? At the same time, make another image of
what you look like now - your present state? And then make an image of the two coming
together so that the image of the present state merges with that of the future
state?" As I spoke, I held my hands apart in a horizontal plane, palms
facing each other. I gradually moved them together along a horizontal plane,
as if to indicate the passage of time, to form a wedge shape at which point I
pressed them together. "As you see the two images merge, you get that good
feeling that motivates you to train and lets you enjoy the science of training?" Paul thought for a moment, his eyes moved up
to the right, "Yes,
I do do that." I have the habit of noticing eye movements, because
I did my
doctoral dissertation on eye movements. At the very least, eye movements are thought to contra-laterally stimulate the hemispheres of the brain:
eye movements to the right
stimulate the left hemisphere, and eye movements to the left stimulate the
right hemisphere. In addition, some people think that an upward movement
stimulates the visual cortex - the part of the brain that processes visual images.
Paul's up-right eye movement indicated that he was stimulating the part
of his brain where his remembered (left hemisphere) images (visual cortex) are
stored. According to this theory, his eye movement indicated that he was probably going through the steps I outlined and determining
whether they were familiar.
"So when you say that you like to train hard, do you
know to say that because that good feeling comes up when you think about
training and planning a workout?"
"Yes, as a matter of fact," Paul quickly
Having established that, Paul is now focused on a good feeling
and how it can determine
his actions and choices. This good feeling can be a resource for him as he confronts an
unpleasant (for him) aspect of his life experiences - namely dying in the
middle of a race. I ask, "OK. What do you suppose you get
out of dying half way through a race?" He answered quickly, "Well, I don't have to take responsibility for the result. I have an excuse if I
don't do well." "Yes, and that's important because it protects
your ego. We all need ways to protect our egos. And it's important not to change
how you've been doing that until you find another way that's better.
I say 'better' because there is no sense in finding another way if it isn't more
satisfying than the way you already have. If you change it too fast, you might
actually have a worse way." I want Paul to go slowly with any change. It is important for him to honor his choice to die in
the middle of a race in order to protect his ego even if it isn't all together
satisfying, because, after all, it was his choice, and he must have had a good
reason for it at one time. I asked Paul to really wonder whether he could honor
and appreciate his choice to do that. "I really can't, because it has caused
me a lot of frustration," he replied.
Now, here is where a trance, yes, hypnosis, is useful because in a
trance a person can do a whole lot of things that his conscious mind
otherwise censors. To induce a trance, I begin, "Well,
the part of your self that made that choice, is not
going to cooperate with you now in finding a 'better' way anymore than you
would cooperate with somebody who didn't appreciate your efforts." In a trance, Paul responds differently. He is able to
see that the protection of his ego was something to be grateful for, and
therefore there was hope that he would get the cooperation of this part of
his personality that was protecting his ego. We could speculate that it
would be willing to find some other better way to protect his ego so that he
could keep up his effort in the middle of a race. Just before he left, I asked Paul to visualize his next race. He took
a couple of minutes to do that. He said that it went well; he paced himself through the
race and did his best. A great result, but, I wasn't quite sure just how grateful
he was to that part of himself that protected his ego. Without that
gratitude, according to my assumptions, he wouldn't get the cooperation of
that part. So, I couldn't
say what would happen in his next race - whether he would take
responsibility for an all out effort and the risk of losing, even rowing
badly. Perhaps, he needs more time to think about it...
Patrick: A Case of Pre-Race Injury
A Coach's Psychology of Rowing