Archive for the ‘Sports Psychology’ Category

Beat the Competition: Practice when you Sleep!

In Brain, Goal Setting, Neurons, Psychology, Psychology of Success, Sports Psychology, Success on July 12, 2009 at 6:48 pm


By Bakari Akil II, Ph.D.

Let’s say there are two piano players, Jim and Bob. In their individual lessons their instructor, Leslie, tells them a position is opening up in their city’s orchestra. Who gets it will be based on 5 songs they must play before judges. She gives them the sheet music for the competition and sends them on their way.

At this moment they are equal in skill and ability and neither Jim nor Bob has ever practiced the songs they are given. They dive with equal fervor into their preparation. Unknowingly, both adopt the same training regimen and practice an equal amount of time. However, this is where their similarities end. Jim and Bob are two very different people in one key area. Jim has always been very disciplined about going to bed early and insuring that he gets 8 hrs of sleep. Bob is a night owl and stays up late watching TV and reading books.  He usually gets 5 hrs of sleep each night.

However, if Jim and Bob’s training methods and length of training are exactly the same why is it more likely that Jim would perform better at the competition than Bob?

According to, “Your Brain: The Missing Manual,” Bob is missing out on a precious benefit gained during sleep that would boost his piano playing ability.  That precious gift is the brain reviewing the previous day’s activities and increasing the ability for Bob to perform those actions better the next time he tries them.

As we practice any activity neural pathways are created that help the brain to remember how to perform the action at a later date. Each time we perform a particular task the pathways become a stronger series of networks that can help us get the job done.  This apparently happens even when we’re sleeping.

So by sleeping three more hours Bob would perform just as well as Jim?

Most likely.

But there’s a catch to improving performance by sleeping. It has to occur during the Rapid Eye Movement (REM) phase of sleep. That is one of four stages of sleep we cycle through throughout the night. It is also the deepest level of sleep. If Bob does not cycle through the REM stages then he can’t reap the benefits.

The author of “Your Brain,’ Matthew MacDonald, cites two studies, one involving rats and the other humans that demonstrate the effectiveness of REM sleep in improving our ability to conduct tasks we perform during the day. In a study (2001), rats who had “electrodes implanted” in their brains were sent through a series of mazes. Their neuronal activity was “recorded.” When the rats later fell into REM sleep those same neurons fired in the same way as if they were running the mazes.

Another experiment, conducted by Robert Strickgold (Harvard Medical School) in 2000, was where human subjects were asked to play Tetris for 7 hours a day. Participants were observed while sleeping and awakened during their REM cycles. Many of the test subjects were indeed dreaming of playing Tetris (17 of 27). MacDonald goes on to say that in these types of studies, subjects who are prevented from going into REM sleep do not perform as well as others who are allowed REM sleep when learning “new tasks.”

Sometimes succeeding in something boils down to small advantages. We can only practice for so long or in so many ways. If I can gain an edge through a relaxing deep sleep, someone please, hand me a pillow.

Find out 101 more ways you can ‘beat the competition’ 🙂 in Dr. Akil’s groundbreaking new book SUPER YOU! 101 Ways to Maximize your Potential on Amazon or Lulu. You can also download a free chapter on your Kindle or iPhone at Amazon.


How Navy Seals Increased Passing Rates and My Random Army Experience

In Brain, Goal Setting, Psychology, Psychology of Success, Self talk, Sports Psychology, Success, Visualization on July 7, 2009 at 6:25 am
Navy Seal Training

Navy Seal Training

By Bakari Akil II, Ph.D.

It was 10 PM, pitch black and I was in the middle of the woods in North Carolina. My job was simple. I had to erect a 30 foot antennae that would be used to gather radio transmissions so our artillery platoon could conduct fire missions. I had been dropped off by a Humvee along with another soldier in another platoon.  We were all alone. He had the same mission but had to set up his antennae about 100 yards from mine.

It was the beginning of many such missions my unit conducted as ‘practice’ in the Army. In the snow, in the rain, in the summer heat we practiced the science of artillery. At least half of the year, every year, we spent in the woods in 3 to 7 day chunks. I thought my stint as a Cannon Fire Direction Specialist  (13-E) would be indoors in a command center like the one in the 1980s classic, War Games, starring Matthew Broderick. At least that is what my recruiter told me.


I was mere yards from the gun line, had to dig foxholes, pull guard duty, man the M-60 and listen to the artillery rounds fired up close and personal throughout the day and night. Luckily, I never had to go to war. I served during a relative time of peace (1993-95).

So,– why did we spend so much time living in the woods, firing live rounds, going through the motions? Why were 2 twenty year olds trusted to set up communications for 2 platoons (100 men) and to guide them into their new base in the woods for the next few days?

Well, we had to do this under as realistic conditions as possible so if we were called to war we would be able to perform our jobs with confidence and without thinking about it. Many of my fellow soldiers had served in the first Iraq War and they continuously relayed how serious warfare was and how we needed to be prepared. Our training reflected that mentality. But the ‘practice makes perfect’  approach isn’t always enough.

Which brings me to the Navy Seals. I will admit that training to become a combat soldier is tough. But becoming an elite soldier such as a Navy Seal or Ranger is even tougher. These guys are not only regular soldiers they also go through further training to become masters of terrain and conditions and to handle situations in hostile territories as a small group or on their own. Their training has to be super intense in order to have soldiers who can actually carry out their missions.

Hence, they had an extremely low passing rate for trainees. According to  The Brain, a show featured on The History Channel, out of 140 recruits (average/each cycle) only 36 would make it. However, they noticed that they were losing a number of good recruits not because they couldn’t phsyically hack it, but because they had a mental block. It was in one key area; the water. The Navy Seals have a drill in a pool where recruits have to remain under water for 20 minutes. They are equipped with oxygen tanks for air. All they have to do is stay under water without coming up. Seems simple enough.

Well there’s a catch. The recruits are constantly harassed by their instructors who rip off their masks, tie their (air) lines in knots and conduct other general forms of harrassment. The recruit’s job is to not panic; wait until the attack is over; calmly fix the problem while remaining under water and then wait for the next attack. At the end of the 20 minutes the recruit will be required to kiss the floor of the pool and then will be brought up by the drill instructor.

But the opposite often happens. Soldiers do panic and even with 4 chances to pass (at different times in the program) many never make it. So the Navy Seals turned to psychology. Using a four step process they increased the passage rates in their program. What did they do? They emphasized what psychologists and communication academics have been advocating for years:

Goal Setting    –    Mental Rehearsal    –    Self Talk    –    Arousal Control

With goal setting the recruits were taught to set goals in extremely short chunks. For instance, one former Navy Seal discussed how he set goals such as making it to lunch, then dinner. With mental rehearsal they were taught to visualize themselves succeeding in their activities and going through the motions. As far as self talk is concerned, the experts in The Brain documentary made the claim that we say 300 to 1000 words to ourselves a minute.  By speaking positively to themselves the soldiers could “override fears coming from the amygdala, a part of the brain that helps us deal with fear.  And finally, with arousal control the recruits were taught how to breathe to help mitigate the crippling emotions and fears that some of their tasks encouraged.

This simple four step process increased their passing rates from 25 percent to 33 percent, which is excellent in a rigorous program as theirs. This just demonstrates that achieving success doesn’t always have to be a difficult process. A few minor changes and tweaks may be all that is needed.

For an outstanding number of ways to increase performance, check out Dr. Akil’s exciting new book SUPER YOU! 101 Ways to Maximize your Potential on Amazon or Lulu. You can also download a free chapter on your Kindle or iPhone at Amazon.

Success as an Unconscious Process: Level 2 and Revisiting “Blink”

In Brazilian Jiu-jitsu, Psychology, Psychology of Success, Sports Psychology, Success on June 27, 2009 at 1:39 pm
Bakari Akil II thrown by instructor James Smiley

Bakari being thrown by instructor James Smiley

By Bakari Akil II, Ph.D.  

We slapped hands, as is customary before a grappling session. His demeanor was calm and he gave no indication when we were talking earlier that he was ultra-aggressive. We postured for a brief second, sizing each other up. Without warning he leapt into the air with both of his arms, legs and torso coming my way. Reflexively, I placed both hands in the middle of his chest and pushed him downward. There was a thunderous sound when he hit the mat. We both looked at each other for a moment; me startled by his aggression and he by my quick but explosive defense.

What happened that moment lies at the heart of what Malcolm Gladwell talks about in his book, Blink: the power of thinking without thinking. I am by no means an expert at Brazilian Jiu-jitsu (BJJ), which is essentially wrestling with submissions. But I have been practicing BJJ as well as Judo for a combined 4 years. Each class we drill takedowns, takedown defense, how to hold someone down, how to protect yourself if taken down and how to make a person submit through a combination of chokes, joint locks and other nefarious techniques.

Once we finish drills we then ‘roll’ or wrestle with each other to solidify the techniques we practice. Where I train, new and advanced techniques are introduced often. Yet, they are extensions of basic techniques, so it is not uncommon to practice the basics hundreds of times. We practice to the point where carrying out a technique becomes an unconscious process. Or what Gladwell would describe as a Level 2 event. Level 1 is reserved for tasks where we must be actively engaged in order to get something done. Unfamiliar tasks and unknown variables cause us to perk up and pay attention in these situations.

At a speech at the University of Washington, Anthony Greenwald, Ph.D. who Gladwell also profiles in his book, discussed the unconscious manner in which we operate when performing certain tasks. He asserted that we are comfortable in these situations and can go through the motions without having to think about what to do next. He cited riding a bicycle, going through a checkout lane and driving as actions where we don’t often give our full attention. In fact, he went a step further and said we spend most of our life in Level 2.

But this is referring to the everyday, ordinary and mundane tasks we face. What about the areas of life where you truly want to excel? How many of the tasks related to you becoming a success in this area do you complete at Level 2? How many ‘reps’ have you done; how much ‘film’ have you watched; how many ‘plays’ have you devised and practiced and how many ‘competitions’ have you entered in order to make what you do an unconscious process. Sure, you must be fully present when engaging in any activity. But the more you can focus on the big picture and not on the individual steps the better off you will be.

For some intriguing ideas on success investigate Dr. Akil’s new book SUPER YOU! 101 Ways to Maximize your Potential on Amazon or Lulu. You can also download a free chapter on your Kindle or iPhone at Amazon.

To improve performance, you may want to get an audience or compete

In Psychology of Success, Sports Psychology, Success on June 25, 2009 at 2:33 pm


Picture a man competing in three bicycle races. One is where he rides solo for time. The second is where he uses a “pacer” to help him maintain a consistent speed. In the third race he races against other cyclists. Which of his times will be fastest?

Norman Triplett, believed by many to be the pioneer of sports social psychology, discovered that “competition” affects “performance.” Bluntly, you perform at a higher level when other people are present. He discovered that professional cyclists achieved faster times when racing against other riders. Their times increased when they were timed in solo events or used pacers.

But that’s just the tip of the iceberg. Numerous researchers who followed in Triplett’s wake received results that supported and debunked his conclusions. Sometimes people performed well when an audience was around, other times they failed miserably. It was Robert Zajonc (pronounced as Xyience) who came along and found that if you have no talent for a task your performance will decrease when an audience is present. On the other hand, it would increase if you were well acquainted with the task at hand.

In a oft cited study (Micheals et al), pool players were classified into two categories; below average and above average. Their games were observed with no audience present and then with four observers milling around. What they found was telling. The above average players scores increased when an audience was present while the below average players scores nose-dived.

Now for the twist!

We are all trying to excel at something. But how often do we put a spotlight on what we are trying to accomplish? Do we tell others what we are trying to do in order to establish accountability and to make sure we are doing our best?  What about throwing our hats into the ring where we are forced to “bring it!” Competing and finding an audience may be an easy way to bring about improvement.

—– Sorry about that “bring it” reference.

For the latest ideas on increasing performance purchase Dr. Akil’s dynamic new book SUPER YOU! 101 Ways to Maximize your Potential on Amazon or Lulu. You can also download a free chapter on your Kindle or iPhone at Amazon.

4th and Long: The Psychology of a Pro and “Story” before “Glory”

In Psychology, Psychology of Success, Sports Psychology, Success on June 23, 2009 at 5:45 am

Michael Irvin - 4th and Long

By Bakari Akil II, Ph.D.

On the Spike TV show 4th and Long, the premise is simple. Twelve former stand-outs in college football sign up, one survives and wins a spot in the Dallas Cowboys’ training camp. The show is hosted by former football star Michael Irvin and the players are led through drills by two Dallas Cowboy assistant coaches. All sort of challenges are thrown their way to test their mettle and to see who they could trust to bring to training camp. Eight mile runs, drills in mud and basic ‘smash-mouth’ football is the norm on this show.

However, the episode that aired on Sunday June 21, 2009 was harsher than usual. After weeks of brutal tests and drills, the seven contestants that were left were given the opportunity to play flag football, have a barbeque with steaks, sausage, ribs and beer. Then they were taken to a nightclub where they were allowed to order anything from the bar and mingle with regular people (read women). They partied hard and returned to the training facility at 3: 15 AM.

What’s harsh about that you may be thinking? But, it was all a ploy. Michael Irvin and crew give them a taste of the good life by having them chauffeured in the hugest limo ever, had their images plastered on screens all around the bar and treated them like “rock stars.” However, the plan for the next day was to take them through conditional drills until one of them quit by taking their jersey off. That previous day of overindulgence was a detriment rather than a blessing.

They drilled for 5 hours without anyone quitting. FIVE hours of 100 yard dashes with parachutes on, running stadium stairs, running through ropes, burpees, etc. At the 5th hour Michael Irvin blew the whistle and called them all in. He told them that what they had just endured is what being a professional was all about. He told them that if they had been doing this type of work everyday they would have been professional football players years ago. (We know that that is not necessarily the case, but it is easy to understand what he meant.)

Irvin stated that the fun they had the night before was “the glory.” He relayed stories of how the entire Dallas Cowboy team would have to be ushered in through the back of hotels because people wanted to “clamor” and “touch” and be close to them. Yes, “the glory” was nice, at the proper time. But the “story,” he said, is written when you are alone.


How much time do we spend working on our own stories? Do we put in the time and effort required every day? Or do we self-sabotage ourselves with too much ‘fun?’

He’s not Michael Irvin but he has a Ph.D. 🙂 and a ton of ideas about success. Check out Dr. Akil’s exciting new book SUPER YOU! 101 Ways to Maximize your Potential on Amazon or Lulu. You can also download a free chapter on your Kindle or iPhone at Amazon.