Starting from Now: Honesty in performance training

spotlight on a figure dressed in red
Photo by Rebecca Orlov | Epic Playdate on Unsplash

I’ve known for some time that since the pandemic began, my mind has been struggling. I’ve seen physical gains for 18 months, and that’s great. But it doesn’t hide the impact on my mental performance. Even where I’ve made some improvements, in memory for example, that has simply been a result of the low starting base.

This month has seen the 25th staging of the Mind Sports Olympiad. I very nearly didn’t take part, and even once I’d entered I nearly pulled out of the events I was signed up for — creative thinking and speed reading — on the day.

What was the point? I figured. I know my performance has tanked. I’ve done no meaningful practice. My mind has been a fog of depression, anxiety, and that sense of dissociation from the world that makes engagement with serious mind sport training utterly impossible. It’s OK, I’ve told myself all along. I’ve got a high base in these things, and a really low base physically, so just use this time to catch your body up.

And that’s true — the mental health advocate in me knows that at times like this it’s essential not to push to do something that simply isn’t possible — that’s how really bad spirals start.

But in the end I did take part — and for a very simple reason. Knowledge. I believed it was an essential part of my training over the coming year, as I prepare for the One Day challenge, to know exactly where I start from. I have never forgotten reading, more than 20 years ago, how Arnold Schwarzenegger knew his weakest body part was his calves, so he cut the bottoms off his trousers so he couldn’t hide from that weakness.

That has never left me. Its message to me was simple. When it comes to training to maximise performance, honesty is essential. If you have a weakness it’s easy to tuck it out of sight. It’s also easy to think of a past strength as something that doesn’t need taking care of because “you’ve got that covered.”

I have been unable to train my mind the way I would have liked for the past year and a bit. But it would be easy for that to become the kind of drifting forgetfulness that says, “OK, I could do something now, but I don’t really need to, let’s keep focusing on my endurance instead.”

To avoid that, I knew it was important to know where I am right now, and not to hide the truth from myself.

And so I took part in events at which I’ve been undefeated since 2016. And instead of saying, “I’ll give this year a miss” and keeping that unbeaten record, I got my ass kicked. In creative thinking I finished equal 3rd in a field of 42 (it will be nice to have a medal from this anniversary games), and in speed reading I was back in the middle of the pack, 9th of 18.

And I have a huge amount of knowledge as a result about exactly where I stand — and in particular what my current weak points are, where I’ve lost ground, where I can start working, even just a little bit, as and when my mind affords me a little time to work on it.

Without that knowledge, I’d end up doing one of two things — continuing to drift on the one hand, thinking there was’t a problem, thinking I could keep putting training off even when I was up to it once more. On the other hand I could have thought I knew what I needed to work on, and gone back to what I thought were tried and tested ways of training — and not addressed the real issues.

Over the next week, I have a lot to reflect on to make sure I get the most from this knowledge. I know my eye muscles have atrophied. I know there are ergonomic issues with screen reading. I know my comprehension still struggles on detail rather than plot and that the answer lies in some variant of memory palaces. But with reflection I can turn that into some seriously focused training goals.

None of this would be possible without having taken part, without having my ass kicked. And there’s a really vital lesson there. You are where you are at any moment in time. You can’t change that. But the only way to set the trajectory in the right direction is to shine the brightest light you possibly can on that current position and then reflect hard and honestly on how you got there and how you can get from there to where you want to be.

CEO & founder of Rogue Interrobang, University of Oxford spinout using creativity to solve wicked problems. 2016, 17 & 19 Creative Thinking World Champion.