Your Mind Rules Your Feet

Mental skills for the everyday athlete

“Find Your Young Lady”

Can a simple illusion improve your running?

For a runner there are few things more exhilarating than finishing a hard training run or race feeling strong and confident. If you are like most runners, at one point or another things just do not go your way. Your legs feel like lead, your body begins to ache, you are out of sync, and your breathing feels out of control. Despite your best efforts, you begin questioning why you decided to go for a run in the first place. If you can relate to this experience or a similar experience outside of your running life in which nothing feels as though it is going right, this post is for you.

When I am having trouble on a run where each step feels like a slow form of torture or I am having a bad day at the office where I just cannot seem to get anything right, I remind myself to "Find my young lady." "Finding my young lady" may not seem like the most politically correct way of doing so, but it is an effective way of reminding myself that I have the power to change how I respond to negative to situations. 

The phrase "Find your Young Lady" comes from an illusion I use as a metaphor to teach athletes how to reframe their experiences. Here is how it works. The illusion is the "Old Woman/Young Lady" illusion that you might have seen if you have ever taken an introduction to psychology class. In this illusion, there are two images, an "Old Woman" and a "Young Lady" merged into one picture. There is no right or wrong way to perceive this picture, and do not worry, how you see this illusion does not say anything about you psychologically. Personally, I am drawn to the black dot in the middle of the image and the dark line below it, which causes the image of the "Old Woman" pop out. In order to see the other image in the picture, the "Young Lady" I have to intentionally short circuit my tendency to see the "Old Woman" by directing my attention to those aspects of the image that I often neglect. As I turn my focus on the small curved line in the middle of the image on the left hand side and feather coming out of dark hair on the upper left-hand side, the "Young Lady" instantly emerges. (To see the "Old Woman", try focusing on the two black dots in the middle of the picture, as if they were the eyes of the "Old Woman" with a big nose looking down. If you are having difficulties seeing both images, here is a hint: The tip of the "Old Woman’s" nose is the bottom of the "Young Lady’s" chin.)

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So how can everyday athletes use this illusion and irreverent phrase to improve their performance?This illusion draws attention to the fact that in any situation, past experiences cause you to gravitate to familiar internal and external cues that can either fuel your motivation or sap your confidence. For example, during long runs and as workouts become more strenuous, your assessment of how you feel may be dominated by the burning sensations in your quadriceps or how tired and heavy your legs are feeling. As these thoughts dominate your thinking, your perception of your run becomes skewed toward what is not working out for you as opposed to what you are doing right. Your thinking is based on limited information (i.e., the sensation in your legs) and is missing vital information such as the fact that your breathing is smooth, controlled, and rhythmic throughout your run. Your form is holding up, you are swinging your arms the way you should, and this is the farthest you have ever run. This information could dramatically change how you experience your run, and without this valuable information about your breathing, form, and distance you might come to the conclusion that you are out of shape and that you will never be able to get through your run let alone complete a full or half marathon. In fact, this might be the furthest thing from the truth.

The mantra "Find Your Young Lady" reminds us that our initial impression of a situation or what jumps out first, especially when it is negative, only provides part of the story. There are a whole host of other cues in any situation we can attend to that can turn our assessment of the situation around, thus turning what might have been considered a bad run into a positive experience. Thus the first lesson we learn from this illusion is: In every situation, there is more than meets the eye.

The second reason this illusion can be helpful is it highlights the fact that the meaning of an experience changes based on what cues you choose to focus on and how you choose to perceive those cues. In the "Old Woman/Young Lady" illusion, the image itself never changes. The black and white lines and spaces are always the same. However, the meaning of the image, whether it is an "Old Woman" or "Young Lady" changes based on which cues you choose to attend to. This is where the mantra "Find Your Young Lady" again comes in handy, as it is a reminder to change how you are interpreting situations and cues so that you can have a better run and actually run a bit faster. So instead of interpreting that burning sensation as a sign that you are out of shape and weak, that burning sensation can become a cue that lets you know you are really pushing yourself and getting the most out of a workout, thus becoming a fitter and faster runner. The second lesson from the illusion is: Your experience if what you make of it.

If you are able to apply these two simple lessons 1) in every situation there is more than meets the eye and 2) your experience is what you make of it while you are running, you will greatly increase the likelihood that you will have a good run. During every run as self-doubts and negative thinking begin to creep into your mind, take a quick inventory of your experience to assess if there are any aspects of your run that you are neglecting that could quiet your negative thoughts. Additionally, the next time you are slogging along and struggling through a run, try finding your "Young Lady" and reframing your experience by focusing on your form or ability to stick it out and persevere even though you want to give up.

 

 

 

 

Luis G. Manzo, Ph.D. is a licensed psychologist who specializes in sport psychology.

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