Athletic success demands critical thinking skills

As you progress as an athlete you must be able to think through both positive and negative athletic outcomes without being hard on yourself. The development of critical thinking skills can mean the difference between staying with the sport you love or abandoning it altogether.

The Foundation For Critical Thinking describes critical thinking as the intellectually disciplined process of actively and skillfully conceptualizing, applying, analyzing, synthesizing, and/or evaluating information…”

A pretty heady explanation isn’t it. I blanked out after reading the first 2 lines myself and shortened the definition by 6 lines. Let’s further pair this definition down as the objective analysis and evaluation of an issue in order to form a judgment. This latter definition provided by the google search dictionary is a bit easier to consume for the purposes of this article.

The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy proposes that there are 11 steps to thinking critically and they are Observing, Feeling, Wondering, Imagining, Inferring, Knowledge, Experimenting, Consulting, Identifying and analyzing arguments, Judging and finally Deciding.

Instead of copying the definitions of these 11 steps lets pair them down to a shorter list of steps and apply them to the potential outcomes of training, events and or races. Doing so will help you the athlete understand how to use these steps and apply them to your own thought processes.

You might be asking yourself what does critical thinking have to do with athletic performance. It’s actually pretty simple. I want my athletes to graduate from hindsight thinking and become more active in developing positive thoughts when things don’t go to plan. In other words, I want to stop the woulda’, coulda’ shoulda’ mentality that plagues so many athletes.

My desire is to give you a simple set of steps to apply them to various athletic scenarios in an effort to help you think critically without being critical of yourself.

Ask Basic Questions
The fore-mentioned 11 steps are simply about asking yourself questions. So let’s pair them down and set up some examples of basic questions after a workout or race. I like to work from a who, what, when, where, how and why – line of questioning. Not necessarily in this order.

What happened in the race that caused you to not do your best, finish higher or miss out on a higher podium spot?

How do you know this information?
Are you guessing or are your thoughts based on facts? Such as I didn’t get the win because I was poorly positioned or I lacked skills or a level of fitness to make the race-winning move. As you are setting up these basic questions you need to determine if you are trying to prove, disprove or just critique your efforts.

“Always assess the situation before completing a task or taking action to resolve a conflict.”  ― Saaif Alam

When shouldn’t you apply critical thinking?
I don’t think that there is necessarily a perfect time to turn on or off critical thinking but I would say that just before a race or event I become much more observational rather than critical. I have always thought of this as being in race mode. However, in training, I may very well apply critical thinking pre, intra and certainly post-workout. Especially if I am trying new training modalities.

“We may not yet know the right way to go, but we should at least stop going in the wrong direction.”  ― Stefan Molyneux

What are you overlooking or better yet what do you not know? Were there extenuating circumstances that you may have overlooked in the above scenarios. Were there race tactics being used that you didn’t see unfold? If you determine that you were just outraced due to a lack of skill, racecraft or fitness what are the limiters you need to work on. Is this an educated guess, wild guess or do you actually know what you are overlooking?

“It’s important to realize that sometimes the information you need is hidden behind the information available.”  ― Anne Elizabeth Moore

Question Your Assumptions
In the previous paragraph, I am asking if you are applying an educated guess or a wild guess. Educated guesses are ones built out of experience whereas wild guesses are based on a desire to understand something that we have no prior experience in but are desperate to make sense of outcomes.

Another way to question yourself is why am I doing this?
If we keep doing the same things to prepare, train and develop as an athlete but never get stronger, fitter or faster then it’s time to question your assumptions and evaluate beliefs about the “right way” to do what you have been doing.

How do you gain perspective?
Try reordering your thoughts, results and or outcomes. When I was studying art I was told to quit drawing what I thought I saw and only draw what was there. This helped some but what really helped was when I was told to take the object or photo I was trying to draw and turn it upside down. This new perspective allowed me to see things more clearly. We can do the same thing as athletes not by looking at the performances of others but our current and past performances to find ways to continually improve or by restructuring our basic questions of outcomes.

“Before accepting your guess just based on how you feel, let’s admit we just don’t know and discover if it’s real.”  ― Joseph Raphael Becker

Are you ready to think and act like a scientist?
When your performances aren’t living up to your expectations or the same training is no longer getting you where you want to be you must look elsewhere. In our art school example above you must work with what you see not with what you think you know.

Better yet where do you get the information you need? If you have been doing the same training repeatedly and the results are failing you look to peer-reviewed sports science studies, not blogs, not vlogs and not your training partners. Taking the time to understand your strengths and weakness by using your data and then looking for topics on ways to improve upon these weaknesses will help you immensely. However, when looking at studies make sure you find a few studies that have similar outcomes so that you are not wasting your time trying to put a one-off study into practice.

“When everything impossible had been eliminated and what remains is supernatural, then someone is lying.”  ― Isaac Asimov

Is your thinking sabotaging your confidence?
The human brain is AMAZING but not perfect. Our brains can process more information than we can speak out loud or while reading quietly to ourselves. Our memories are fallible and when we add our own biases we can quickly misinterpret outcomes and our introspective self can become very negative. Cognitive biases are when our brains act too quickly and make intuitive judgments and jump to conclusions before taking the time to slow our thought processes down.

“You have a brain and mind of your own. Use it, and reach your own decisions.”  ― Napoleon Hill

Who can help?
If you are at your wit’s end with trying to solve your performance shortcomings and your questions and experiments are not bringing about improvements then it’s time to call in reinforcements. This is where coaches come in. Coaching isn’t just about athletic performance we also help with the mental side of sports, or at least I do.

“Don’t complain if the issue is complicated if it weren’t complicated it would not be an issue.”  ― Amit Kalantri

In the end, it’s all about you.
While research is always a helpful tool when trying to apply new ways of becoming fitter, faster and stronger it’s important to think for yourself. Just because research states to train a certain way it doesn’t mean you should blindly follow the guidance.

Until Next Time,
Train Smarter Not Harder,
Coach Rob

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Supporting articles

Defining Critical Thinking

Critical Thinking

Want To Think Better? Avoid These 6 Cognitive Biases

7 Ways to Improve Your Critical Thinking Skills

Think Critically Before Thinking Critically