Amateurs Disassociate; Professionals Monitor
Back in 2015, we read an interesting study focused on the psychology of distance running. Specifically, researchers wanted to investigate what people think about while running with the hope that a better understanding of the mental processes associated with endurance athletics could improve training protocols or race-day performance.
While previous inquiries into this topic have utilized subjects’ ex-post descriptions of their state of mind, the team of scientists from this study equipped a group of ten runners actively training for an upcoming race with recording equipment so they could chronicle their thoughts in real time. The somewhat amusing conclusion from the collected recordings is that long-distance runners tend to spend most of their time thinking about how miserable long-distance running is. From a New York Magazine article describing the study, which was published in the International Journal of Sport and Exercise Psychology:
“..their thoughts focused on the here and now, things like their pace or their surroundings. But they also spent a lot of time thinking about how much everything hurt: ‘My hips are a little tight. I’m stiff, my feet, my ankles, just killing me this morning.’ ‘Hill, you’re a b*tch … it’s long and hot — God damn it, mother eff-er.’ ‘That sucked, but it’s going to be an awesome run on the way back.’”
While the prospect of spending four-ish hours concentrating on how much one’s feet hurt may be enough to dissuade those considering signing up for a marathon, the other interesting takeaway from the study was that this collection of semi-serious runners had tapped into a mental strategy long utilized by high-level endurance athletes of all types, namely the importance of staying present. From another New York Magazine article:
“…the elite athlete — the elite endurance athlete — the way they approach things like this is very, very different from the person who’s trying to finish a marathon in four hours to, you know, get a medal and go home…The elite endurance athletes are able to push themselves and get right at the physiological red line. The elite athlete uses his suffering to monitor how he feels. The non-elites tend to disassociate, to try to distract themselves. But the elite athletes tend to consciously focus on how they’re doing: what their legs are doing, how much the muscles in their legs are burning, how fast they’re running. So all these physiological signals that the average person would consider uncomfortable or painful, the elite athlete uses these to monitor himself.“
We found this fascinating not only because we have used many strategies for staying present in our own athletic pursuits (with varying degrees of success), but also because we think this type of mental model can also apply in a business setting. When work piles up and the stress level is high, we believe that the best way to keep performing at a high level is to focus on completing the present task at hand and not obsessing over all that is to come. If, as the saying goes, achieving business success is a marathon and not a sprint, then perhaps emulating elite distance runners is an equally good strategy for the board room and the racecourse.