The End of the Tour profiles the five-day relationship/interview that Rolling Stone writer David Lipsky (played by Jesse Eisenberg) had with the prodigiously talented novelist, David Foster Wallace (played by Jason Segel). I recently heard an interview that Terry Gross conducted with Wallace in 1997. The interview was replayed on NPR in conjunction with the release of the movie.
During the Fresh Air interview, there is a great exchange between Gross and Wallace, who was a talented tennis player in his youth about how he let his mental chatter get in the way.
GROSS: Now did all your self-consciousness interfere with your performance on the court?
WALLACE: This is a marvelous set of – well, of course. I mean, this is one of the great mysteries about athletes and why I think they appear dumb to some of us, is that they seem to have this ability to turn off – I don’t know how many of your listeners have this part in their brain – but “what if I double fault on this point?” Or “what if I miss this free throw?” Or “what if I don’t get this strike with the entire bowling team [watching]? ” The professional athletes and great athletes, at first I thought it was that that stuff doesn’t occur to them. But, you know, when I hung out with the pro tennis player for the tennis essay, it occurred to me that it’s more like they have some sort of muscle that can cut that kind of thinking off….
GROSS: Did you have that ability to turn it off?
WALLACE: No. And that is – I was a middlingly-talented athlete but my big problem, and the coach told me at age 13: “Kid, you got a bad head.” And what he meant was I would choke. I would begin thinking about, oh no, what if this happens and then I would say well, shut up, don’t think about it. And then I would say to myself, but how can I not think about it if I’m not thinking about it. And meanwhile, you know, I’m standing, drooling, on the baseline going through this whole not very interesting game of mental ping-pong while the other guy is briskly going about the business of winning the match.
They have some sort of muscle that can cut that kind of thinking off.
It’s not that elite athletes don’t have doubts or get distracted. But it is true that the better ones can stop the negative self-talk and the ongoing chatter that interferes with smooth performance.
When athletes (or anyone trying to perform at a high level) let the inner critic question the ongoing performance, the dreaded “choke” can occur. Going blank during a test, missing a wide-open layup, missing the goal completely on a penalty kick… These occur much more frequently when the brain gets overloaded with doubt and anxiety.
Sian Beilock, a cognitive scientist at the University of Chicago, has spent much of her career studying this phenomenon. Her book “Choke” is an excellent read on the subject. A 2012 NOVA piece profiling Beilock and her research is well worth watching. Her research has found that when performers are experiencing stress, there is increased neural activity between the emotional centers of the brain (e.g., the amygdala) and the pre-frontal cortex. This crosstalk interferes with the individual’s ability to perform smoothly and without critical self-talk.
Importantly, Beilock and others have shown that we can learn to quiet the negative self-talk through regular mental practice. Beilock offers an interesting strategy based on some research she conducted with students getting ready to take the pressure-packed end-of-grade test. She had some write about the stress and how they were feeling for 10 minutes before the test. The other group (the control subjects) sat quietly. The group that did the writing scored in the B+ range compared to the controls who scored in the B- range. Those in the writing group seemed to benefit from processing the emotion ahead of time, perhaps turning down the amygdala’s power to disrupt the performance during the actual test.
Beilock also suggests that we learn how to shift our awareness from our self to the activity. In a 2012 interview in Smithsonian magazine, Beilock’s research on this topic is described in more depth.
Skilled athletes use streamlined brain circuitry that largely bypasses the prefrontal cortex, the seat of awareness. When outside stresses shift attention, “the prefrontal cortex stops working the way it should,” she says. “We focus on aspects of what we are doing that should be out of consciousness.”
Beilock recommends distracting the mind with meaningless details, like the dimples on a golf ball, or speeding up movements so the brain doesn’t have time to overthink. Under lab testing, golfers who moved more quickly improved their performance by a third.
These strategies have a lot of implications for athletes and others striving to reach excellence. Stay tuned for other strategies (e.g., staying in the present moment) to help turn down the volume on the inner critic.