We all have a general idea of what our maximum effort level looks like in our heads and we vaguely know how that should feel. We get used to that look and feel as being our 100% effort and continue working at that rate thinking it’s our best effort. However, it is quite possible that you have never reached your 100% effort level as I have written before on an earlier blog entry as there are many factors that may hamper you such as, not enough quality sleep, or a poor diet, high work stress. They can all affect your mood and energy level and thus, reducing your performance. For the purpose of this article, we shall assume these extrinsic values don’t change and just focus on the intrinsic mental aspect of achieving a higher level of intensity.
I’ve always been an intense person when competing in a sporting event or during training. It has just come very natural to me at a very early age and I have carried that with me ever since. But not everyone has trained at such intensity before and sometimes what it takes to reach that higher level is as simple as just being exposed to it. Witnessing someone work themselves to the brink of vomiting can be quite inspirational in some twisted context. This is especially true when you are part of a team sport. As the dragon boat festival is nearing upon us, it is fitting that I bring up my experience of paddling on a competitive dragon boat team.
In a dragon boat, there are 20 paddlers, 10 on the left and 10 on the right side of the boat. You paddle right next to your partner and the paddler in front and behind you are in very close proximity. So much so, that if you are just a tad bit out of sync with them, you will smash your paddle with theirs.
The dynamics in a dragon boat are so profuse that one person’s action can affect the rest of the boat as it trickles down row by row.
One such incident is during the final stretch of a 500m sprint race, when we were neck-and-neck with another elite team. In the last 100m of the race, when most teams experience the most amount of pain and fatigue, we found in some dark corner in the bottom depths of our stomach the will to endure the suffering. As a team, we raised our level of intensity and sprinted to the finish line beating out the other team by a mere 3 milliseconds. Those 3 milliseconds allowed us to qualify to the World Championships in Malaysia.
When the stakes are that high and everyone is in it to win it – how do you draw out that last ounce of strength?
What really happened during those last 100m in the race was that my partner next to me surprised me. Instead of fading away to the all-too-familiar decline of muscular exhaustion, she stepped it up a notch and got even more aggressive and forceful in her paddling. I immediately picked up on her turning it ON, and it inspired me to match her level of intensity by getting really angry – not at any particular thing or person, but evoking aggression through anger and channelling that burst of energy into paddling. This emotional charge cascaded down the ranks and in a matter of seconds, the entire boat had picked up another gear and was charging down the finish line with such desperate ferocity that to this day the feeling is still fresh in my memory.
This is one aspect how group classes can be so effective. They mimic that team bonding experience where one’s intensity level can elevate your own. There is something about seeing your fellow man/woman push and fight through the pain that elicits a similar response within you. It probably stems from our evolutionary biology when our survival depended on fending off a rival tribe attempting to rape and pillage your own village and you have to band together to fight for your lives – literally speaking!
Once you have trained in a really high intensity session, you now have been exposed to how that looks and how the body feels. You can conjure that up again through the use of your mind. Pro athletes frequently use this mental exercise and almost all elite athletes at the top of their game do this – and that is visualization.
Visualization is just a mental rehearsal of whatever it is you’re trying to accomplish. You imagine the entire experience as you would like to perform and you do that as vividly as possible so you capture as much information and detail in your visualization as possible. This mental exercise reinforces your behaviour when it comes time to doing it and is critical for athletes in high performance situations.
So the next time you want to elevate your game or training, seek out others who you can imitate from and start to mentally prepare yourself by practicing some visualization.
The more you practice visualization, the easier it will be do perform it and the more consistent your performance will be.
Stay tuned for next week’s blog post; continuing on our series on Mental Toughness – Fear Management!