Giving mental consent to excellence breaks barriers

The Olympic motto – “Faster, Higher, Stronger” – is about exceeding limits. An experience in competitive swimming when I was in school gave me a glimpse of what researchers are finding in their studies – that giving mental consent has a huge impact on athletic performance. In my case, the difference was almost unimaginable.

These days I only swim recreationally, but I continue to learn how thought and mental consent are connected to ability and performance and also how spirituality through a regular practice of prayer enhances this, making it practical in daily life.

In a 9/19/2011 New York Times article¹ entitled, “A Little Deception Helps Push Athletes to the Limit”, Gina Kolata writes, “Athletes themselves have long insisted that mental factors are paramount.” She then shares the results of an intriguing study² in which trained cyclists go faster than ever before.

Dr. Kevin Thompson, Head of Sport and Exercise Science at Northumbrian University in England, and his assistant Mark Stone had the cyclists ride stationary bicycles for 4,000 meters – about 2.5 miles. As they cycled they watched a video display of themselves next to an avatar – or computer-generated rider – that they were told was moving at the pace of their own best time. But the avatars were actually going faster. The cyclists were able to match the performance of their simulated competitor. The faster speed was achieved once thought gave its consent – albeit, in this case, by deception. They were doing what they thought they were capable of.

This can happen for anyone – not just elite or Olympic athletes – as I found out on my middle school swim team when I trimmed over 30 seconds off my best time in the 400 Yards Freestyle. The difference? Similar to the experiment with the cyclists, I simply decided to keep pace with my competitor when I saw that the two of us were in the lead. At the beginning of the last lap I took a big breath and sprinted to the finish without taking another breath. I touched the end of the pool just barely ahead of my competitor and won. My own limits fell away that day – big time – when I just consented to keeping pace.

Through my spiritual practices I am learning that an unlimited divine power is the ultimate source of our ability to move and when I recognize and mentally consent to this it gives me greater strength, endurance and freedom in my daily life. If athletes are finding that mental consent enables them to exceed limits and excel what does this say for other areas of our life – consenting to freedom from fatigue, substance abuse, or illness – for example?

What limitation will you exceed today?


¹ Article: A Little Deception Helps Push Athletes to the Limit by Gina Kolata published in The New York Times September 19, 2011
² Study: Effects of Deception on Exercise Performance: Implications for Determinants of Fatigue in Humans; STONE, MARK ROBERT; THOMAS, KEVIN; WILKINSON, MICHAEL; JONES, ANDREW M.; GIBSON, ALAN ST CLAIR; THOMPSON, KEVIN G. Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise. 44(3):534-541, March 2012. doi: 10.1249/MSS.0b013e318232cf77
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