The Primitive Genius

by Casey Barrett

Thinking behind the blocks and paralysis by analysis…

It can be hard to sleep on nights like this. A day away from the World Championships, many of the greatest swimmers on earth are tossing in their Barcelona beds right about now. They’re visualizing races and willing the happy thoughts. They’re hyper aware of every twitch and itch of their toned bodies. They’re nervous. Whether they admit it or not.

Fair enough. Big meets mean big pressure, and for a sport with so few opportunities to perform on the few stages that really matter, these are times that can crack a lot of psyches. Thousands upon thousands of hours, distilled into a few seconds or minutes of competition. What are they thinking as they stand behind those blocks, moments away from their moments of truth? Well, hopefully nothing.

In a growing field perhaps best termed the Science of Excellence, the minds and bodies of elite athletes are becoming better understood by the day. Sports Illustrated senior writer David Epstein has just published the latest entry — The Sports Gene: Inside the Science of Extraordinary Athletic Performance. SI published an excerpt in their latest issue. While the piece never addresses swimming, it’s impossible not to apply his findings to our sport. Consider these lines:

“As an individual practices a skill… the mental processes involved in executing the skill move from the higher-conscious areas of the brain in the frontal lobe back to the more primitive areas that control automated processes, or skills that you can execute “without thinking.” In sports, brain automation is hyper specific to a practiced skill…” 

Translation: After a certain massive amount of time spent training, hitting a 100 mph fastball or swimming 50 meters in 21 seconds becomes as thought-free as driving down the highway. That’s not to say that every driver can also practice themselves into being world class competitors if only they spent as much time doing the skill as they do driving. It means that for the very best, those ultra talented souls we watch competing for gold medals, thinking is the enemy.

Easier said than done. Any coach can mutter to his athlete: don’t think, just go out there and race, trust your training… We’ve all heard some variation of that at some point in our competitive careers. The last thing Coach Gregg Troy used to say to me before I walked off to the Ready Room at big meets was: “Who’s your worst enemy?” The answer, of course, was myself. The implication being that if only I’d get out of my own way and stop thinking so damn much, then the race would take care of itself. Sometimes I’d listen and absorb that simple question and let my mind go blank. Other times the question would blow through my spinning brain, and I’d march off to the Ready Room obsessing over splits and stroke counts and goal times. Guess which races were a disaster?

I’m guessing Coach Troy never has to say that to Ryan Lochte. Because, say what you will about Lochte’s intellect, and much has been unfairly said already, when the man stands behind the blocks, he is a genius. He’s pure automation. His mind is clear, uncluttered and at peace, because it’s operating on a frequency few athletes will ever approach. His mind and body have been so infinitely trained to execute that specific task that the frontal lobe has been utterly silenced.

Michael Phelps, of course, was the same way. Everyone remembers that blank thousand yard stare of his behind the blocks. The headphones were in, the jaw was slack, the eyes were unfocused and lost in some thought-free zone. As Epstein writes in SI, “thinking about an action is the sign of a novice.”

It sounds like an oxymoron, the thoughtless, primitive genius. But there is nothing simple about it. To reach a state of transcendent performance, the first thing that must occur is the elimination of higher consciousness in the moment. And to reach that state, an athlete must think and train so much for so many years that thought ceases to exist when it matters most.

Think about that.