Animal Brain

Good comment on my last post! Thank you for sharing some thoughts with me on the topic…

My problem is this. Despite the fact that I’ve gotten rid of the need to prove something for myself or others, that natural competitive instinct comes out when there’s somebody close by. When I notice somebody close to me, it takes a LOT of mental energy to fight the urge to swim faster, i.e. to compete. This makes it difficult to concentrate on the focus point in question. This problem varies in magnitude depending on who it is next to me (“no way I’m going to swim slower than a beginner!!”).

Any experience of this, or ideas how to tackle?

My response:

Oh, I experience that all the time! I might better describe it by saying I’ve practiced recognizing it, then deliberately foresaking that pressure if it does not suit my training purposes. But I still experience it coming against me quite often.

The question to ask in those moments is “WHY do I feel this right now? And how will it benefit my objectives for the day if I break from what I am doing in order to obey that urge?”

There is no doubt there may be some social consequence to ignoring that urge. And it doesn’t help that TI has been seen as ‘beautiful but slow’. Our refusal to be distracted and show our ‘swimming fight’ on demand is mockingly taken as proof we can’t compete. It’s the whole animal brain  (referring to the part of the brain in which this competitive instinct behavior is activated) of humans that urges us to prove ourselves against one another and it’s not hard to trigger it in one another either. That’s why we have sports, and nationalism, and racism and all sorts of ways to try to prove our kind is better than their kind.

The pressure is felt in different degrees by people according to a lot of biological and social factors. But we all feel it.

The impulse (triggered by an opponent or competitor or judge) to compete or show my stuff is an instinct of sorts, both biological and social. It is a ‘force’ if you will, and we can decide how to channel that force, or ignore its effect and let it move us around wherever it will. So the first step is recognizing the pressure to compete as a force and then deciding where you want to channel that pressure/force/energy  coming at you (and from within you) – toward YOUR goal, or let it carry you away toward some random or opponent’s goal.

Forgive me if I am too philosophical or neurological about it, but this is truly the way I deal with it.

I have set objectives and choose to drive myself toward these and consciously resist those pressures/forces that try to distract me away from those. But I have to think carefully about the cost involved with resisting or cooperating with those pressures. It’s often better, in the long run, to keep on our own thoughtful training course, but there are times when it is better to cooperate with or at least appease the swim community we are in.

As a coach with a business I realize I need to know and speak the language of the different kinds of people I intend to help and I have to be willing to step into their world and work with them there and even practice my thing in their way so we can relate and I can gain credibility according to their measuring stick. This helps those who know nothing of my training world be more open to learning about it. So I can go and compete and have a good time of it and have some decent standing in their eyes. But I still know where my favorite realm is and I go back there and stay there as much as I can. The difference for me (and perhaps for you now also) is that I have experienced BOTH training realms. I can compare and have chosen which one I prefer, while generally those who mock me or TI have not, and can only speak from ignorance of this other realm.

But WHY do they mock? That is another good question. What do they feel so threatened by in my practice and coaching that they would trouble themselves to discourage me from practicing the way I want to??? (and we should be careful of judging in the reverse direction).

They mock what they do not understand for sure, because if they had experienced what I experience they may not prefer it but they would certainly respect it. I speak both for my swimming and for my coaching.

As a swimmer it may be more of an issue of whether the swimmer community (those in the pool) will respect your differences of attitude or not and how will that community reward or punish you if you don’t play along with their expectations of you. It does hurt when the others cannot or will not see things from your perspective and therefore do not value it. It is a form of rejection for sure. But are those who do the rejecting really aware of what they feel threatened by in you?  To fight back often only triggers their animal brain further and prevent their cortex from being open to learning from you.

Silence and a smile is often the better long term response.

Maybe we only image that others really care what we are doing in the lane next to them? But if we notice them and have judgments in mind, that is usually a reminder that they too might have some about us. So the concern is not unreasonable.

But here’s another twist, a more practical one. If anyone does in fact want to race seriously then he had had better learn to NOT let the pressure of the opponents (or the person in the next lane) drive him to do anything that does not serve his own calculated interests in winning. If an opponent can control what you focus on then they can control you. If they can trigger your animal instincts to take over then your thoughtful part of the brain is going to shut down and you are swept up in a reactionary swim. It’s classic for new athletes to feel the collective energy and surge of the starting gun and be swept up into a starting sprint that kills them before a quarter of the race is done. Even in the best athletes the perception of energy, time and speed are distorted in those initial moments of the race and to gain wisdom we have to train for mental and emotional self-control, to calibrate our thinking and judgment according.

So, what is that time in the pool dedicated to? Are we keeping that focus? Are we practicing self-control and intentionally channeling these forces (as much as we can) toward our personal goals?

I use these questions and they work for me.

If you’ve set an intelligent plan for training that you believe in and have got important things to accomplish that day, you had better stay focused on what YOU need to do, not what the person in the lane next to you wants you to do (nor what those animal-brain competitive instincts are trying to distract you with at the moment).

The well-planned, focused, patient and persistent swimmer will steadily progress while those driven by whatever whims and urges of the moment will make a lot of waves, burn a lot of calories but really not move very far in their swimming abilities.

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