3 Ways Acting Like a Baby Can Improve Your Athletic Performance
This, on the surface, seems like a title incompatible with my article about a centenarian setting records. But let’s remember the basic credo: healthy living looks similar across nearly all ages and stages of life. While following the advice of the centenarian can be wise, so too can adopting the habits of a demographic with far less life experience.
Following a few simple but deeply-ingrained neonatal qualities – that is, acting like a baby – may help bring us closer to living our own best potential. Here’s how:
- Remain passionately in the moment. Notice how attentive a baby is while looking at something. This level of focus has a face: eyes wide open, gaze fixed, breathing steady, curiosity spilling out of her ears. Over time, it becomes more difficult to do things with that level of engagement and total absorption in the moment, however there is value in re-learning the art of paying attention. When we choose to shift the focus of our attention onto the content of the task, whether that be a class, practice, or workout, that task appears more simply doable, the challenge more easily surmountable. As former NY Giants head coach Tom Coughlin philosophized to his team last season, “Be where your feet are.” That is, “if you’re going to be in the gym, be in the gym. Be where your feet are. Stay in the moment. Take care of one moment at a time. While you’re here, you deal with your football, deal with your job. It’s all the same type of theme.” Our best potential won’t be lived without really “being” wherever you are.
- Practice purposefully. Babies practice skills with purpose. They never just go through the motions – there is intention behind even the simplest acts. When a baby walks, for instance, her purpose is to explore her surroundings, to learn her territory, or maybe simply to get better at walking. Her energies are devoted to walking. While we no longer have to bring full attention and purpose to our gait, many of our daily activities that require purposefulness – like sports practice, phone conversations with a relative, or a dinner date with a partner – are approached purposelessly. It’s tempting to go through the motions with a “let me just get this over with” attitude, as that approach demands less attention and therefore more cognitive ease. Most of us attend practice not to learn or improve, but because we have to. Consider the ultimate difference in performance if you were to enter your next sports training with the purpose of improving a clearly defined, specific part of your game versus not having a focus or purpose at all.
- Accept imperfection. Let’s reflect on walking once more, and how frequently a baby falters, falls, and fails while learning to walk. It is beautiful to watch the absence of self-esteem, which prevent them from getting upset for very long. Sure, tears may flow, but only ephemerally. They will always pick themselves up and try once more. It’s hard to imagine our high current level of walking competence had we given up after our first failed attempt. Athletic excellence requires getting rid of the immediate (and perhaps seemingly reflexive) display of anger after a mistake – after all, mistakes are guaranteed, especially when shooting for the stars. It’s the amateur athlete who generally tends to view mistakes as detrimental, problematic, and anxiety-provoking. The elite athletes truly seem to latch onto a missed point or a poor shot as an opportunity to learn something, and to grow a little bit. This fact isn’t only designated for motivational posters; professionals really do use failure as a stepping stone to success.
Recent research tells us that the brain has a store of “memory errors.” The brain takes errors that were made and, when we do that task again, like hitting a forehand, it remembers past errors when performing the forehand correctly. This means that athletes improve on motor tasks not only by memorizing how to perform it correctly, but also through the experience of making mistakes. Without our conscious awareness, the brain recognizes previous errors, learns something from it, and assists the body in performing the task correctly upon revisiting it. Errors, evidently, are needed for learning.
Equipped with this knowledge, athletes begin to do something game-changing: they begin to embrace challenges. They actively seek out challenging, arduous tasks – like difficult fitness regimens, tough training stations, intimidating opponents – as a means of growth and learning. They know that challenges force us to stretch, to reach, to put forth more effort, and to display determination, all of which ultimately leads to improved performance.
The act of paying attention, being purposeful in our actions, and reacting differently to imperfection is an art form, one that improves with practice, and one that allows us to maximize whatever task is presently at hand. To move forward, look backward, and act like a baby.
By Greg Chertok, M.Ed., CC-AASP