Fast & Slow Thinking for Athletes & Coaches

The human brain uses two main systems for making decisions. System 1 is when your brain is on autopilot
For example, when you throw a ball, or talk to a friend, or breathe, or eat, your mind uses system 1. Things that are automatic are system 1, like adding 2 plus 2. How about multiplying 6 x 6 x 6. Nope, that's system 2.

Great athletes (and actually all athletes) spend the majority of their time in competition in system 1. When Lebron James is deciding whether to pass, dribble, shoot, or drive the ball to the net, he’s using his powerful mental computer to automatically optimize success and then executes that action. What might be a system 2 equation for a newbie basketball player, it's as simple as 2+2 for Lebron. In system 1, we make quick, instinctive decisions.

Sometimes it feels emotional and out of our control. Like if your parent scolds you, you might feel angry or hurt and want to react back. System 2 is when your brain makes conscious effort to solve the problem. In system 2, we make more rational decisions and can solve complex challenges. It takes effort and energy to use our system 2 abilities. For instance, if you're playing a game of chess it takes you seconds or even minutes on each move. But a grandmaster? They see the board and instantly know and execute the right move within seconds. For them, a chess move is a system 1 decision, not system 2. So why do we have a system 1 and a system 2 in our brain?

In our brain, we actually have 3 brain layers in one! The inner layers are called the reptilian and middle layer. In evolution, those developed first when all we cared about was not getting eaten by other animals. These two layers represent System 1. Basically, they are the survival skill and help us automate our behaviors. The outer layer of the brain is our system 2 -- it is the neocortex which allows us to make complex decisions. While it exists in various mammals, only humans have one that is a significant portion of our brain.

Whether using system 1 or 2, the brain is a conveyer of signals -- visual, sound, touch, taste, smell -- the speed at which a signal passes through your brain reflects the level of automation.  When your brain decides something is a survival skill, it will work to rewire and make the action as automatic as possible, making it a system 1 function. Speech, vision, movement, all of these skills are hardwired in system 1. They are automatic. 

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Your Sports Brain is Like a Jungle

Imagine this. You have a single piece of mail that you are trying to deliver to the mailbox one mile from your home. You open your door and outside that door is a very dense jungle with vines, branches, bushes everywhere.

  • On Day 1, you use an axe to hack through the jungle for hours, struggling, but you do get to the other side and deliver the mail (and then you struggle back to your home again!).
  • What does the path look like on Day 2 as you go to the mailbox again? A little easier, right? But you still need that axe since vines grow back and you only cleared enough to get by.
  • How about after the 15th day? You’ve walked down this path 30 times, and now the path is matted down, the bushes are cleared, you've cut through it.
  • In fact on Day 20 you can run on it. Instead of walking on the path, you can now run through. On Day 1 it took you 6 hours to get through the jungle to deliver the message, but here you can get there in 6 minutes.
  • On Day 30 you buy a bicycle. now instead of 6 minutes it takes you 3 minutes to deliver the message
    This is great, but you know you can do it better. In fact, you decide to build a fiber optic cable underneath the path? Now when you want to send the message, you can do it digitally and instantly.

That is a system 2 task that has been moved into system 1 and you are now able to execute that action flawlessly without thought. Early on, delivering the message is incredibly difficult. You fail on a regular basis to get the message through because it's so hard. Then one day you wake up and figure it out. Your brain has wired that message as a survival mechanism, and we have automated that process.

Watch the Video: Purposeful Practice: System 1 vs System 2

Think (Fast) Like an Elite Athlete

That is all experts do. They move more of that information in their craft from system 2 to system 1. Practice is our opportunity to challenge ourselves in system 2. It’s our opportunity to stress our brain. It’s our opportunity to fight through the jungle. 

Have you ever watched an elite level competition? What sort of drills or sessions do they do before the game? The same stuff you do, just quicker, tighter, faster, more cleanly. Your responsibility is to challenge yourself to develop those skills through continually creating purposeful practice through challenging your brain to think. In order for competition to exist as a system 1 task, you must make a conscious effort to make practice a system 2 task. Introduce stress to practice to achieve this goal. Challenge yourself to be uncomfortable practice.