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Mental Perfection: A Jungian-Based Analysis

of the Ideal Athletic Mind

By: Thomas Norminton

            Have you ever been to a sports event? What were you thinking about as you watched the professional athletes play their sport? I usually hear “How did he do that?” or “He makes it look so easy.” Afterwards, these sports fans usually try to integrate what they notice from the professionals into their own game. As a tennis player, I have told myself, after watching a great player like Roger Federer, that I need to be lighter on my feet. Those words, “Be lighter on your feet,” pass through my mind as I play. I am thus actively making a judgment on my game and commanding my body to perform accordingly. Problematically, any observer of an athlete cannot fully replicate the professional’s performance without knowing the precise mental processes responsible. Most assume that the process of thinking, or the search for the meaning behind something on a conscious level, will cause the body to move in the correct manner. Most associate sports primarily with a series of well-executed physical movements. In other words, most believe that the secret to sports lies in knowing how to move your body in the right way or the sole use of bodily kinesthetic intelligence (Gardner 206)1. Many top professionals and coaches, however, agree that the key factor at the highest levels is a solid mental game. Nick Saviano, a world-renowned tennis coach, argues that one’s “mental game is critical to [one’s] success as a player” (Saviano 130)2. Former baseball professional George Gmelch believes baseball, a sport very similar to tennis, to be 90% mental in the professional leagues (Gmelch 1)3. Williams concluded from his study of soccer players that inexperienced athletes can recall the “proper way” to perform better and faster than experienced athletes, who know how to perform without thinking. So the mechanics at the highest levels have nothing to do with the athlete’s agenda. Since athletes perform the physical aspects of the game on an unconscious level, the athlete is left to deal with his vulnerable conscious mental state (M. Williams 265)4. To deal with this vulnerable state in tennis, our perceptive, or irrational, mental functions, without interference from the judgmental, or rational, mental functions, should dominate the conscious mind for the athlete to achieve peak performance.

            To prove this, I will first elaborate on why our rational mental functions should not dominate our conscious mind. A decision made rationally is a decision based primarily on one’s thoughts and judgments of the object and not the intensity of his perception of the object (Jung 359)5. For example, I could anticipate the ball will spin rapidly because my opponent used a lot of forearm and wrist on his shot. Whether the ball really did spin is irrelevant to the rational functions. In another instance, I could judge that the ball is unreachable because I had never before reached a ball with such pace at such a distance away from me. Notice this decision has nothing to do with the present reality. Whether the ball was reachable or unreachable is irrelevant to the rational functions. When we think or feel we complicate the world around us by attaching artificial meanings or artificial values to it. In a sense, the conscious use of our rational functions distorts our world. Without human beings to think and feel, the world would have neither meaning nor value. It would simply exist as the world. In tennis, we want to return to the unaltered reality of the world.

            Thinking, a rational mental function, is a process in which one searches for the meaning behind something (Jung 481)6. “I wonder why he chose the color black” would be example of thinking, because the mind is trying to uncover the meaning behind the color choice. The irrational functions would simply register the color black without further investigation. In tennis, many players ask themselves, “Why did that shot go out?” By asking that question, they are trying to uncover the meaning behind missing the shot.

            In addition, I will also have to introduce the concept of the conscious and unconscious mind. We choose what to make conscious based on whether we intend to focus our attention on it or whether our genetics or environment instructs us to do so. When we walk in a busy city we pass hundreds of people without having awareness. We might register their shape or form for a split second but will instantly forget it (Csikszentmihalyi 30)7. The unconscious mind governs any process that is not conscious. When we read, we take in thousands of images of letters and, based on having uncovered the meaning of those symbols previously, effortlessly translate them into images. At the same time, our body undergoes thousands of intricate processes every second without our being aware. Moreover, the unconscious mind compensates for the conscious mind (Jung 337)8. In other words, if we think consciously we are repressing into the unconscious our irrational functions of perception and our rational function of feeling, which will be discussed later. Conversely, if we perceive consciously without judging our perceptions we repress our capacity to think and feel.

            Athletes do not possess the capacity to consciously think quickly enough for thought to be beneficial to their game at a high level. Our conscious minds are limited by the amount of information they can process. At any given moment, the mind can “process at most 126 bits of information per second,” which is theoretically the amount of processing power it takes to fully understand three people talking at the same time. The simple act of eating requires about 15% of our consciousness, and we therefore cannot afford to do anything else that requires serious concentration while we eat (Csikszentmihalyi 29)9. In tennis, when returning a serve, “to anticipate how and where to move the feet and whether to take the racket back on the forehand or backhand side, the brain must calculate within a fraction of a second the moment the ball leaves the server’s racket approximately where it is going to land and where the racket will intercept it. Into this calculation must be computed the initial velocity of the ball, combined with an input for the progressive decrease in velocity and the effect of wind and of spin, to say nothing of the complicated trajectories involved” (Gallwey 33)10. That description omits the other complicated processes for muscle tension and movement. The conscious mind does not have the capacity to make all those calculations. In baseball, a batter must evaluate various characteristics of the ball, including spin, speed, and direction, and must recognize when to swing and when not to all in less than a second. Our conscious minds can take in the image of the ball as it moves but do not have the capacity to do that and determine the proper response all in a split second.

Performance anxiety, adverse to peak performance, is the result of conscious thought. When we fear an upcoming challenge like a difficult test, oral presentation, job interview, or athletic performance, we are consciously placing a judgment on ourselves that we may be incapable of performing at the level necessary. We additionally start considering the consequences of not performing well, like losing a job or a match, but that response to stress is a result of the feeling function, which will be discussed more thoroughly later. “A true case of performance anxiety is diagnosed if the fear of performing is seen as both excessive and unrealistic” (Hamilton 2)11. Thus, the athlete is judging the desired performance to be unattainable. Her thoughts are inferring with reality. She has not yet proven that she cannot perform at the desired level. When these unnecessary pejorative judgments evade our conscious mind, we will not have same 126-bit mental capacity. We might have only 60 left when we need 70 for optimal performance, and at the highest levels, as I stated before, athletes need to process more calculations at a faster rate. In tennis, when playing against a high-level player, one must deal with fast, heavy balls with enormous amounts of spin and variety of spin, and thus performance anxiety would harm the high-level players to a greater degree. Many people say that the professionals do not get nervous. That is not true. They do get nervous but are able to minimize their performance anxiety based on their experience. Nick Saviano agrees that “it’s okay to be nervous; just don’t be afraid” (Saviano 142)12. Fear implies a stronger value placed on the outcome of the performance, a conscious feeling in other words about the outcome.

While thinking consciously denies us the capacity to perform at high levels, the conscious use of the feeling rational function also impairs performance levels. With thinking, again, one seeks to find the meaning behind something. On the other hand, with feeling, one seeks to place a value on something (Jung 354)13. When we say we admire a painting we are placing a diminutive but positive value on that painting. When we say we love a person we are placing a much stronger value on that person. The stronger the value, the more emotionally attached that person is to the object. On the tennis court, when we tell ourselves to do something, we have consciously valued ourselves to be incapable of performing without instruction. Athletes sometimes think about how much a particular point means to them. Many times when they realize the value of the point, they end up losing the point because the feeling used up space in the conscious mind.

When the feeling function dominates the conscious mind, the player will usually display these feelings. A clear example of this display of feeling is when a player shouts “Comon!” in exhilaration after winning a point. From this demonstration, one can deduce that the point won was a crucial one judged by the magnitude of the shout and that the player is actively enjoying the value of earning the point. Players may also, on the other hand, display negative feelings after losing a crucial point. In both cases, the player is consciously using his capacity of feeling. Specifically, the feeling function has dominated the conscious mind because the positive or negative feelings have acquired enough energy to surpass the threshold of consciousness. Whether these displays are evidence that those feelings have hampered the player’s abilities depends on whether the player was aware of those feelings during the point. In almost all cases, however, the display of feelings implies the player’s awareness of those feelings during the point.

This conscious awareness of feelings distracts the player from the reality of the moment. “At times, our [emotion] leads us to duck opportunities we should embrace” (Gross 287)14. Emotions generate a false reality with values relevant only to the person, distorting what is, which could very well be interpreted by another in an inverted way. They, in other words, cause the world to be relative. Common in everyday life, one may view the president as brilliant while another may view him as incompetent. The president in reality isn’t either. He is simply a man with extreme values attached to him. One of emotion’s many definitions is “Emotion follows as effect on the bodily disturbance” (Irons 93)15. Since emotions are the result of the body when it is disturbed, one will waste precious energy paying attention to that disturbance (because it is his nature to do so) instead of paying attention to his surroundings. In addition to the value with which players attach to points, they may also attach certain values to their opponents. A player might, on the one hand, consider his opponent a great friend and feel guilty for calling a close ball out. And if that friend ever questions the player’s calls, both players feel an emotional devaluation, more powerful than if they were complete strangers. Those emotions distract the players from the ball (Saviano 141-142)16. At the same time, because the unconscious mind compensates for the conscious mind and feeling is a rational function, to feel consciously denies one conscious use of his irrational functions of perception. Athletes should therefore repress these feelings. The danger in repression, however, is the build up of feelings in the unconscious mind. These repressed feelings will build up to a point at which they begin to manifest themselves consciously in a childish way (Jung 350)17. To fix this, the player should not place such a high value to anything pertaining to the match. If so, feelings will not need to be repressed because they will not exist in such an overwhelming amount.

            Also, to minimize the manifestation of emotions in the conscious mind, athletes should seek moderation in their emotions. If one faces a challenge too difficult for his skill-level, then he will experience anxiety, and on the other hand if one faces a challenge too easy for his skill-level, then he will experience boredom. (Csikszentmihalyi 74)18. These responses are in turn symbols of poor performance. Our emotions should therefore remain neutral for optimal performance. The esoteric baseball phrase “stay on an even keel” encourages this emotional moderation (Gmelch 6)19. When we experience higher levels of anxiety our bodies’ processes become less natural and more consciously controlled (Murphy 116)20. Thus, too much anxiety leads the athlete to a more thought-controlled conscious mind, which is not ideal. To speak more generally of the body’s energy distribution, peak performance requires a particular intensity level (not too high and not too low). Williams concludes that the performance-arousal graph looks like an inverted-U, whose maximum depends on whether the player is an extrovert or introvert. Optimal performance for an introvert requires less arousal than optimal performance for an extrovert (J. Williams 272)21. Nevertheless, for a player to reach optimal performance he must find the right amount of emotional arousal (enough so that he cares about the outcome of his performance and not too much so that he does not stress out about it) and keep it in the back of his head.

            Emotions like confidence may cause an athlete to play at his optimal level but would do so only fortuitously. Confidence can lead a player to try to play above himself. This is demonstrated in tennis when a players tries to hit shots at a pace which for him is inconsistent. In that case, his confidence has blinded him to the reality of his game. At the same time, negativity can lead a player to play below himself. Many tennis players feel incapable of hitting the same shots that they hit in practice. If negativity helps a player reach his optimal level, then the player must have been trying to play at a level above his optimal level. Bollettieri and Maher teach to “be realistic in what you attempt to do” (Bollettieri and Maher 163)22. When I play tennis having been sick for the past few days I usually reason, when I make a mistake, that I was simply sick and I should not worry about it. While I am making a judgment by giving a reason for my mistakes, I am remaining emotionally uninvolved. I did not need to place a value on the mistake because the sickness was likely to have caused me to play differently. Most of the time when I am sick, in fact, I actually play closer to my optimal performance. Although my physical shape impairs my playing abilities, my mental game grows sharper. Be more of an observer of your game and make changes as a result of your real observations and not as a result of your positive or negative emotions. If your opponent moves you around and you find yourself tiring quickly, then after the match consider training your endurance. If your opponent hits a few unbelievable shots that you were not capable of reaching, do not become upset. It does not necessarily mean you are slow. In most cases, your opponent is overhitting and getting lucky on a few shots (Saviano 63)23. Those few lucky shots tend to affect many players emotionally, causing them to chastise themselves for being slow, unfocused, and many other negative qualities. Conversely, if you play a few brilliant points, it does not necessarily mean that you are playing well. You might be trying to play at a level that is above your level and might soon start to be inconsistent, causing a deluge of negativity due to your sudden, unexplained misses.

Because our rational mental functions should not dominate our conscious mind, our irrational mental functions should. While a rational decision is based on one’s judgment of the object, an irrational decision is based on one’s intensity of his perception of the object (Jung 370)24. For example, I start moving as I hear the sound of the ball striking my opponent’s racket. My conscious mind only takes in the information—that the ball was struck. My unconscious mind reads the information and makes the decision to move. In another instance, I notice the ball bounce and begin my swing. My conscious mind only takes in the information—that the ball bounced. My unconscious mind then reads the information and makes the decision to begin the swing. Notice that in both cases my conscious mind does not search for the meaning behind the information nor does it attach a value to the information; it simply takes in the information and reacts based on the intensity of what it perceives. In the background, the unconscious mind controls the way our body reacts. When we accidentally place one of our fingers on a stove we instantly pull it away. We did not consciously move our finger. The whole process occurred on an unconscious level. As a result, the reaction was instantaneous. If our reactions were always instantaneous, we would obviously be much better athletes.

Human minds perform two different types of irrational functions. The sensation function perceives the world as it is in the present. It is a detail-oriented function, responding to whatever catches the eye in that moment (Jung 462)25. While the sensation function notices what is, the intuition functions notices what can be. In other words, it is a more contextual-oriented function that takes in the big picture and sees all the different patterns and future possibilities implicit in the present (Jung 366)26. Someone whose intuitive function is more prominent than his sensation function despises stable conditions, wanting the freedom to explore the world’s infinite possibilities (Jung 368)27.

Ideally, the sensation function dominates the conscious mind. When the sensation function is dominant, awareness is maximized. No other function perceives the world in the moment better than the sensation function. Many sources agree that proper attention is alertness (Murphy 116)28. In others words, we should be consciously alert to our surroundings before anything else. How can we be alert? Most would agree you have to notice what’s going on around you. Moreover, because you are making an effort to perceive your surroundings, it must be conscious. Another source contends that “peak performance depends on focusing the senses instead of shutting them down” or making them unconscious (Lorch-Bacci 1)29. Thus, she implies we should consciously use our senses, consequently “shutting down” our thoughts and leaving them to the unconscious. A tennis player does not have to worry about where his racket “should be, but…should realize the importance of being aware of where the racket head is at all times” (Gallwey 25)30. He defends that we should sense where our racket head is through the information given to our brains from our hands. Saviano encourages players to “stay in the present” (Saviano 137)31. Rational functions do not deal with the present. Just as in the example with my judging a ball to be unreachable based on prior experience. In that case, I was not in the present and never found out whether I could have gotten to that ball. Gallwey agrees that we should “increase our awareness of what actually is” rather than what we think it is (Gallwey 25)32.

At the same time, this focus on the present does not necessarily mean we should shut down the intuition function. Although it primarily works on an unconscious level, intuition can at times manifest itself on a conscious level. Jung explains that the intuitive function “is represented in consciousness by an attitude of expectancy, by vision and penetration” (Jung 366)33. Tennis players should expect the ball to come back, no matter what shot they hit. Never judge a ball to be out of your reach and not run for it. “Run for every ball” (Saviano 99)34. Thus, intuition along with sensation should express itself in one’s conscious mind.

When our conscious minds fail to make the necessary amount of judgments needed to perform at a high level, our unconscious minds, with an unimaginably larger capacity, can fulfill that requirement. Without any conscious effort, our hearts pump blood throughout our bodies, our lungs take in oxygen, convert it into carbon dioxide, and breathe it out, and our numerous organs, glands, and muscles all work together to produce a perfectly functional human body (Gallwey 33)35. The fact is great athletes, having trained for so many years already know what to do. Because their conscious minds do not think about how to perform, the images of how to perform are inaccessible to them. Those images are stored in the unconscious (M. Williams 266)36. As a result, it appears effortless and as though they do not think. Their thoughts exist but exist on an unconscious level, allowing them to think, out of necessity, at a much faster rate.

            As I have said before, our unconscious minds compensate for our conscious minds. Each function, rational and irrational, battles for supremacy. First I will explain how both of the rational functions conflict with each other. Thinking and feeling do not coincide. When someone searches the meaning behind a relationship, for example, he does so emotionally unattached. Perhaps, the relationship succeeds because both share an interest of watching the same television program. Eventually, however, once the emotionally attachment has formed the meaning behind the relationship is irrelevant and at times irritating to discuss. Many people, when asked why they love their parents, respond simply, “because they’re my parents, and I love them.” When further interrogated on the specific reasons behind the love many subjects grow uncomfortable, sensing a devaluation of their love, for which many prefer not to investigate. The conflict is most evident when a parent tries to persuade her daughter to stop seeing her boyfriend, who has no education and no job. The emotional attachment is the only factor that keeps the couple together. Thus, the reasoning of why the relationship should end works directly against the emotional attachment that keeps them together. In the same sense, sensation and intuition constantly struggle for dominance. While sensation seeks to examine the reality of a situation and trust experience, intuition wishes to go beyond what is seen to examine what can come about. Some people will, when coming across a man who had been in a car accident, look back on prior experience or what they’ve seen people do in similar situations and call an ambulance. Others will look past experience, notice the significant traffic coming from the hospital, reasoning the ambulance will simply take too long, and drive the man to the hospital themselves. The former, sensation types, trust what is, and the latter, intuitive types, consider what should be based on what is.

How can we correct ourselves if we are not allowed to think on a conscious level? How can we even recognize a mistake in the first place without thinking? After a player makes a mistake, coaches will often, if they are good coaches, explain why the player made the mistake. They may instruct you to “keep good upper-body posture” or use more hip rotation. Saviano in Maximum Tennis proceeds to articulate the proper way to prepare for a shot (Saviano 74, 79-81)37. On a low level of tennis in which the ball travels at a slow pace, a player could struggle with verbal or written description in his conscious mind while playing and still maintain his level of play. The only reason he is able to do this is that his conscious mind can still process the information he needs to play at his level. When the player reaches a certain level, however, the conscious mind is forced to process information at an impossible rate and thus fails to process all the information the player needs to play at that higher level. Therefore, while playing, we cannot correct ourselves because that would imply that we are consciously thinking. The corrections should be thought about when the player is inactive. When the player starts play again, however, the thoughts should disappear.

            How can we improve our game without conscious thought? While it is impossible to improve without some conscious thought, conscious thought can be minimized through the art of visualization. A picture is worth a thousand words. A picture is worth so many words that our conscious minds cannot process everything that’s going on in a picture all at once. When our conscious minds reach this threshold of information they shut down, allowing our unconscious minds to evaluate the picture and make the necessary corrections on a preferred unconscious level. Psychologists call this process subliminal learning. During the 1950s companies started using subliminal advertising. In one case, Coca-Cola flashed messages during movies like “drink Coca-Cola.” The messages appeared and disappeared so quickly that only our unconscious minds could intake the information (Higbee 44)38. Another theory of visualization called psychoneuromuscular theory states that “similar impulses occur in the brain and muscles when athletes imagine the movements without actually performing them” (J. Williams 317)39. Visualized movements can therefore “produce low-level innervation in our muscles similar to that produced by the actual physical execution of the event. Another theory of visualization called symbolic learning theory contends that imagery transforms an athlete’s movements into a series of symbols, which can thus familiarize the movements when the athlete actually performs them (J. Williams 317)40. Bioinformational theory suggests that a mental image consists of a set of “stimulus characteristics,” which when accessed later during actual movement can be automatically transformed into “response characteristics,” describing exactly what to do in every circumstance (J. Williams 317-318)41. All three theories lead to the same conclusion—when we visualize we engrave the correct movements into our heads, so that when we stop visualizing and the information becomes unconscious, it is memorized and can be accessed by the unconscious during play.

            Isn’t it good to change negative thoughts to positive thoughts? Jean Williams advocates the transition between the thought, “There’s no sense in practicing. I have no natural talent.” to “I’ve seen good players who had to work hard to be successful. I can get better if I practice correctly” (J. Williams 366)42. Both statements make “rational” evaluations and thus distort reality. Problematically, she is endorsing the transition between conscious thought to a different form of conscious thought. Of course, this way of thinking is not harmful when off the court, but when on the court will encompass the player’s mind during play through the form of unconscious manifestations and therefore take up space in the conscious mind. When a player begins to evaluate his game consciously he loses the ability to think on an unconscious level and thus loses the ability to make the necessary calculations at a fast rate while playing. These thoughts should not come about on the court in the first place.

            A tennis professional and good friend of mine Noah Newman articulated to me the development of a tennis player—when you start playing tennis you learn how complicated the game is, all the intricate muscle movements involved in playing well, and try to master those complicated movements, but when you reach a certain point in your development your goal becomes simplifying the game as much as you can. At that new stage, the tennis player must realize he has all the necessary muscular knowledge to play tennis at a high level. The game is complicated, as are all sports, and an athlete cannot consciously think about all the various muscle contradictions and expansions he needs to perform at any second. The problem is more evident when someone first tries to perform the seemingly simple action of patting one’s head while rubbing one’s stomach at the same time. We’re using almost all of our conscious mind’s capacity to do two visually simple actions. Therefore, as I have shown before, let your unconscious take care of it. It manages to take care of the millions of different processes that keep your body going, so having a few more won’t overwhelm its capacity. But at the same time, to allow our unconscious minds to think we must perform the opposite function—to perceive, to take in information for our unconscious minds to analyze. So, to put it simply for those at that crucial stage of development, just be aware. Although you might have to tell yourself to be aware by evaluating at first, eventually this state of mind should come about naturally. Be aware of the ball and your racket (Gallwey 25)43. That’s it. Everything else will fall into place.


Works Cited

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