In a slump

One of the most common questions that elite athletes ask me is: ‘How do I get myself out of a slump?’

Part of the answer to this question hit me while I have been away from my practice.

Travelling abroad affords me the opportunity to distance myself from my usual routines. As I separate myself from the familiar, I can step outside the milieu that I am usually embedded in.

As I distance myself from my familiar context I start noticing things. I notice the culture and my actions in the culture. I notice the language we use, the concepts and themes that are foremost in our minds. I notice my explanations of why things happen and why things are not happening. I notice what can be said and what is better left ‘unsaid’. I notice what I tolerate and accept, what I intellectualise about, and what I try to rationalise away.

The longer that I remain in this distanced position, the more I am able to notice and the clearer the picture becomes.

In 2003 I went on a 6 months sabbatical to Switzerland, with the intention to write my third book. I wanted to add to my existing knowledge base. I wanted to gain more information; to learn new things; to create new things. But the process that I encountered on my sabbatical had other things in mind for me. Instead of learning more (to accumulate), I found that the process actually challenged me to unlearn what I already knew (to let go).

This unlearning process rocked and fragmented my certainty and security, which proved to be emotionally and intellectually unsettling. I started to doubt everything I knew or thought about. I questioned every bit of information that existed in my mind. But as this process unfolded, I started to feel unburdened and lighter. I started to get in touch with my own thinking process and the assumptions that I may have unknowingly made. I became more aware of my own unique life philosophy. I was able to discern what was useful and meaningful information from what was conditioned cultural thinking that entrapped me, controlled me or disempowered me.

The factors that contribute to exceptional sporting performance are numerous and ever-changing. Nothing remains constant in sport. For the athlete in a slump, this is difficult to comprehend since the athlete tends to feel stuck. He is unable to distance himself from the situation that he finds himself in. He finds it difficult to feel the movement around him. Like travelling in a car or train, if you don’t look out of the windows, it appears as if you are not moving.

One of the most useful ways to deal with a slump is to get some distance from the problem being encountered. Most athletes find this difficult to do since it requires you to ‘let go’ and ‘unlearn’ some of the ingrained technical and/or mental skills that have been developed over years. This creates insecurity and uncertainty at a time when your confidence may be at its lowest. Yet as you distance yourself, you will be in a better position to assess your situation and notice what has been contributing to your failures. A plan of action can then get formulated to rectify the problem. And then the time-consuming and frustrating process of new muscle re-grooving (or re-wiring) needs to occur as a new foundation gets created. This requires patience, discipline and hard work.

River, train track and motor highway converge in downtown Richmond, Virginia

Can you imagine having a safe, relaxing run in a downtown city, along a river, under a train track that runs next to a major highway intersection? For a South African, such a scene would be frightening and would conjure up images of muggings, rape, violence, murder, harassment, filth and combinations thereof. While out on my run today, I couldn’t stop thinking that we had become prisoners in our own country. As a country we are truly in a slump. There is a desperate need for us to re-groove the essential values of respect, discipline and honesty.

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