The scene is the 1993 Wimbledon women’s single final. Novotna is leading Steffi Graff 4-1. But just before the threshold of her first Wimbledon title, Novotna hesitates, her form loses conviction and her serve becomes insufficient. Stifled and disconnected, Novotna suddenly resigns to letting the grand slam slip from her grasp!… So what happened? You might have found yourself in a similar, but more forgiving, situation… Practicing your pairs or attack combinations only to find the knowledge escaping you. Interestingly according to Russell Poldrack (neuroscientist at the University of California) and Matthew Syed (Olympic contender and Author of “Bounce”) it has nothing to do with nerves or fear, but is all about the relationship between two parts of the brain.
Neural imaging shows that beginners will use the explicit pre-frontal cortex (responsible for conscious concentration) while a seniors will use the implicit basal ganglia (Responsible for touch, feel and muscle memory).
Seniors are highly capable because they are able to integrate complex combinations into one fluent whole, or unit. This intrinsic mental understanding is practically impossible for a beginner to apply because the technique, footwork or form is too incomprehensible. Beginners need to apply their focus on a step-by-step process, proving that practice makes perfect!
If we go back to Wimbledon in 1993, in this particular case Novotna switched from using the experienced implicit part of the brain to the explicit; reverting back to a beginner in an instant. As psychologist Sian Beilock, (University of Chicago) explains, ‘Once a motor skill is de-chunked, each unit must be activated and run separately significantly slowing athletic performance’.
It’s important to release the shackles and develop that mental freedom that becomes the building blocks of any sport. Experienced athletes instinctively know the combination, automate it, and naturally store it as one function after hours and hours of perfecting their craft!
Anyone can relate to a loss of focus in the sporting world! Remember, don’t get frustrated. Next time you’re in the Dojo be sure to relax, start slow and feel your form gradually flow! Martial arts really is a state of mind!