The Myth of ‘Just do it’: Thought and Effort in Expert Action preface

Do similar considerations apply to “blanking out”?

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Do similar considerations apply to “blanking out”?

Flubbing a golf shot that one could normally perform well is a different kind of mistake from blanking out, or not remembering something one would normally know well. And one might wonder whether, even if conscious self-monitoring isn’t implicated in the former, you’re consciously trying to remember what to say is implicated in the latter.

According to Dreyfus (2013), “in total absorption, sometimes called flow, one is so fully absorbed in one’s activity that one is not even marginally thinking about what one is doing” (p. 28). He cites Merleau-Ponty in support:
The orator does not think before speaking, nor even while speaking; his speech is his thought. The end of the speech or text will be the lifting of a spell. It is at this stage that thoughts on the speech or text will be able to arise. (Dreyfus 2013, p. 28, quoting from Merleau-Ponty 1945, p. 209)
This might seem to apply to dancing as well: it might seem that during a performance a dancer must remain under the spell of what her body has learned so well that the choreography is no longer in her mind but that, rather, her movements are her thoughts. Is this the right picture?

I would like to suggest that it is not. There may be exceptions—perhaps Merleau-Ponty was one—however, many excellent orators consciously review their talks beforehand, and at least claim to think productively while speaking (or at least, this is what my informal surveys indicate). The thinking, of course, could take many different forms, depending on the task at hand: if presenting a work-in-progress, one might actually be trying to figure out ideas as one is speaking; if presenting a well-rehearsed speech or fully worked out ideas, the thinking may be focused more on delivery and the audience’s reactions. But even in this latter case, it seems useful to keep the content present in the conscious mind, and to facilitate this, one may consciously review the speech ahead of time. This is true of dance as well: dancers often review choreography beforehand—no matter how well they know it—and keep it present to their minds as they dance. Correlatively, it would seem that to be ‘under a spell’ is dangerous precisely because it leaves one open to blanking out. If one is not even marginally thinking about what one is saying, then if one all of a sudden switched to consciously guiding one’s words, the words may not be there to find. Heidegger tells us that when a lecturer enters a familiar classroom, the lecturer experiences neither the doorknob nor the seats and that such features of the room for the lecturer are “completely unobtrusive and unthought” (1988: p. 163). All of such things would indeed seem to be beneficially unthought, so as to leave plenty of mental space to think about the lecture.

Heidegger, Merleau-Ponty and Dreyfus and indeed most researchers in sports psychology all agree that thinking occurs when there are difficulties that need to be addressed. John Dewey puts it like this: “Thinking begins in what may fairly enough be called a forked-road situation, a situation which is ambiguous, which presents a dilemma, which proposes alternatives [yet]…as long as our activity glides smoothly along from one thing to another, or as long as we permit our imagination to entertain fancies at pleasure, there is no call for reflection” (1910/1997, p. 11). However, experts are continually in forked-road situations: their activities glide smoothly from the observer’s perspective; however, from the point of view of the expert herself, there is always room for improvement, and thus experts are always considering, trying, and reflecting on how to surpass what they have done in the past. Heidegger says that “in our natural comportment towards things we never think a single thing, and whenever we seize upon it expressly for itself we are taking it out of a contexture to which it belongs in its real content” (1988: p. 162). This may be generally true, but expertise is not natural; it involves pushing beyond what is natural.

In fact, I think there are many cases of ordinary action in which thinking rather than just doing would be beneficial as well. Merleau-Ponty emphasizes that in our everyday actions we proceed unreflectively and that “the conventions of our milieu…immediately elicit from us the words, the attitudes, the tone suited to them” (1945: p. 126). Unfortunately, however, what are elicited unreflectively are sometimes stereotypical reactions (for example, complementing a girl’s looks and a boy’s brains) built upon implicit biases that perhaps can, at times, be avoided only by explicitly thinking about what you are doing or saying.75)

Don’t think” as a last resort?

The conclusion I think we should draw from the considerations I have canvassed is that even given the admittedly suggestive varied-thought experiments, the idea that, as Beilock put it, “skill-focused attention…hinders performance at higher levels of skill,” lacks the type of support that would make it reasonable to accept what some see as its corollary: that experts generally ought not to engage in skill-focused attention during skill execution. What this means for the explicit-monitoring theory is that regardless of whether anxiety causes increased focus on, monitoring of and conscious control of one’s movements, there is room to question whether such mental processes are causally relevant to coking. Thus, we should rethink the view that preventing experts from engaging in such mental processes can prevent a choke.

Could it be, however, that for those with overwhelming performance anxiety, the only way to cope is to revert to an automatic mode of performing? I cannot answer this question, however, I think that there are various reasons why, unless all else fails, one should not attempt to perform automatically. One, quite simply, is that if thought is important at a high level of performance, then an entirely automatic performance is one in which the performer is not thinking about what need be thought about and thus an even better performance might result from a more thoughtful approach. Moreover, as we saw, Nicholls’ (2006) qualitative research suggests that one way to mitigate anxiety is not to act automatically, but, actually, to redouble focus and attention.

Another problem is that it is at least not clear that one can deliberately achieve a state of not thinking, and thus, eliciting automaticity is not as controllable as eliciting thoughtful, deliberate actions, as the paradoxical command “be spontaneous” illustrates. I can deliberately focus my mind on various aspects of my performance, but it seems that achieving the state of letting things just happen, of acting automatically, is something one can no more do than making oneself fall asleep. Indeed, Dreyfus and Kelly (2011), who argue that the type of relation the expert has to her actions is analogous to how we stand in relation to the process of falling asleep—it is more like something that happens to us rather than something we do—point out as much. So even if playing automatically is one way to avoid choking, if playing with increased attention and effort is another equally effective means, it might be better to go with what one can control.

Finally, when acting automatically, at any moment, it seems, the mind any moment, it seems, the mind might jump back into the picture and thus as Tobias’ example illustrates, it might be best to have the mind present all along. The high diver standing motionless on the board for a moment before she jumps goes over the dive in her mind and thus is painting her body with thought, so that the conscious mind will be also present in the dive.

Of course, it might be that when things do start to go wrong, extra attention is called forth. As such, poor performance might be associated with attention. This might lead one to think of the attention as causally detrimental – yet it may be that the choke causes the heightened attention, rather than such attention causing the choke. Again, one cannot attend to every detail, and thus some aspect of the performance will need to be automatic. But if Tobias’s and Gallwey’s examples are correct, the level of focus is at times much lower than promoters of the just-do-it principle have thought.

Rather than advising those who are, say, preparing for an interview or an important talk to not think very much during the process and “just let it roll”, lest the thinking causes them to blank out, I would say that a better piece of advice is to be like the high diver on the board prior to her plunge: before the event, they should review what they have to say so as to make sure that it is there in the conscious mind, and once there, thinking about it will not interfere with doing their best. I have noticed that excellent speakers do this. No matter how well they know the material, they will consciously review it before an important talk. And it may be that Rick Perry would have done better in that presidential primary debate if he too had consciously reviewed the key points he was hoping to make.

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Libby Zion

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