As a maturing competitive figure skater, I have noticed that my lessons are increasingly similar to Groundhog Day. I seem to be relearning the same skills over and over again — and losing elements along the way. I have finally and completely let go of any daydreams of being in the Olympics. Sigh…
But seriously, why is this happening?
I recently booked a session with my incredible sports-mind coach, Dave Diggle of the Smart Mind Institute (www.smartmind.com), to explore why this happens to aging athletes. A former Olympic gymnast, Dave travels the globe working with high-level athletes in every sport imaginable, from rugby to gymnastics to racecar driving to figure skating. I first reached out to Dave in 2012 after knee surgery when I simply could not get my competitive edge back, and for the past 10 years, Dave has helped me sharpen my skills, increase my confidence, and achieve greater competitive results, including multiple national gold medals.
So, What is Happening to My Skills?
In my mid-60s, I started to notice I was losing a few skills. It took a while to let go of those elements and reconfigure my programs to highlight what I still did well. But this past year my frustration grew, on some days with a bit of trepidation just stepping on the ice. I was not loving these new feelings of insecurity!
Regarding skill inconsistency, Dave explained that skill acquisition occurs in the prefrontal cortex, the front of the brain. Once we’ve accomplished and can trust a skill, it gets relegated to the subconscious, but each time we work to improve an acquired skill, it moves back to the prefrontal cortex for the brain to rebuild the blueprint. If you’re old enough, you might remember those hand-cranked printing machines our teachers used in school – a drum rotated, picking up ink and printing dark purple copies, and as the well of ink ran dry, the copies became lighter and lighter until they were invisible. Well, when we’re younger, the blueprint stays strong for much longer periods of time, but as we age, starting at around 45, the blueprints can become fainter, just like a near-empty ink well. This causes us to second-guess our subconscious, forcing the element back into the prefrontal cortex so we can refine or relearn it. For me, this was happening more and more frequently over the past year — I’d regain the skill for a while until the next Groundhog Day event. The ink well is clearly not as full as it once was.
There were days when I’d step onto the ice without the same confidence I had in the past. I found myself a bit tentative struggling with moves, edges, and turns that had been easy for me for decades. Dave explained that our prefrontal cortex is one of the last areas of our brain to fully form (the mid-20s), and as such when we’re young, our only form of gauging and trusting is through emotion. This can lead to inconsistent processing as a child, but once our prefrontal cortex develops, we move to a more system-based process that leads to consistency.
However, as we age, we tend to gravitate back toward emotion. We revert from having a trusting mechanism to one that analyzes how we feel at every turn because, as mentioned earlier, the clarity of our blueprints becomes fainter and we stop trusting. More than a few times, I have found myself asking, “How do I feel about this?” Apparently, this is all a normal part of the aging process: My skills are not as sharp, my blueprints are softer along the edges, and my gauge is no longer one of trust but of feeling.
But We Can Prolong Our Success
Dave says we can prolong our achievements on the ice, or in any sport, with tools such as Visualization/Mental Imagery, Recognition & Reward, and Specific Language Patterns.
Visualization enables us to create and recreate in our minds what a successful skill “blueprint” looks and feels like, allowing us to refine, build and create an even stronger blueprint. The more robust the blueprint, the less emotions are necessary for trusting it.
Once the blueprint has been reestablished, you can add the emotional overcoat – trust – to the skill or program. This is accomplished by accessing the memory part of the brain, the hippocampus, to recall the feeling of success and bring it to the surface alongside the reestablished blueprint, gluing the two together.
Dave recommends different types of visualization and mental imagery:
1. Disassociated visualization is when we use our mind’s eye to “see” ourselves performing on the ice. Not only do I “watch” myself successfully complete an element, but while at a competition venue, I stand at the boards, play my music, and visualize myself skating my entire program. I’ve also used this type of visualization while off the ice due to injury or travel; it has allowed me to trust the process and gain the positive emotional feeling of “I know I can do this” when I’m back on the ice.
2. Pre-emptive visualization is a tool that helps us break down a skill when we feel tentative. In the same way we learn or build a skill in our prefrontal cortex, pre-emptive visualization is a neurological process that lays a neural pathway for us to follow the specific foundation of how that skill works. So rather than waiting for a skill to lose its quality, we can pre-emptively layer the detail on our skills by each day picking a different skill and visualizing how that skill is executed. As stated earlier, there are days now when I feel a bit uncomfortable as I step onto the ice because I focus more on my feelings than on the blueprint. But with pre-emptive visualization, I can focus more on the logic and preparation rather than doubt or any other negative emotion.
Recognition and Reward is the process in which we “teach” our brain where to use positive emotions. This is the same psychological process that a rat in a laboratory maze uses to follow a specific path to receive a food reward. We can train our brain to follow our performance blueprints by recognizing success and rewarding it, thereby building a positive pattern of success. This can be accomplished either by receiving something upon completion or by sharing our successes with our friends and family. When we share success, our brain releases dopamine and we feel great, training our brain to follow that pathway again to receive that positive hit repeatedly.
The big takeaway is that starting around age 45, we need to use new tools and a “smart mind” to manage our training and optimize our time on the ice. Which leads to the final tool, Specific Language Patterns. This relates to our self-talk. Keep it positive! When I get off the ice, the first thing I do is recap the two or three things that went well during my session, so that I don’t dwell on anything that might’ve gone wrong. In addition, I’m working on modifying the negative “I can only skate for an hour, three times a week” to the positive “I can still skate for an hour, three times a week.” That’s empowerment!