The Long Long Distance Edge - Part 1

Performance events that occur over a long time can inform short-term performance

Posted Mar 13, 2018

"Emma", used with permission
Source: "Emma", used with permission

How do you keep on trekking when you’re in the Himalayas…and develop bronchitis?

Emma, as I’ll call her here, is a colleague and friend. She has traveled much of the world, including walking the famed Camino de Santiago a few times. Invited by a family member to join a trek to the source of the Ganges River, she prepared as well as she could. She was proud to be in the best condition she had been in the last 20 years.

Emma went into this adventure with confidence. A sociable person, she imagined that her group would be hiking a moderately flat surface, even though at a high altitude. Not a walk in the park, nor even in Spain, but still….

On reflection, she said, “the truth was that I had no idea what I was getting into.”

From the start, Emma recognized that her short legs and, as it turned out, inadequate conditioning, meant that she would have difficulty keeping up with the others. Then she contracted bronchitis, probably during the flight to their jumping-off site.

In the 18th century, Samuel Johnson wrote: “When a man knows he is to be hanged…it concentrates his mind wonderfully.” Echoing Mr. Johnson, Emma reflected that “fear and a sense of danger concentrated my mind. What was absolutely necessary? What could I jettison?”

In the definitions of performance psychology that I have used, I’ve seen performance as a singular event to which well-prepared performers bring their well-honed mental skills in order to be fully present to this moment. Turns out that Emma found the same to be true, even though her performance occurred over time. Whether one minute or ten days, many of the principles of performance apply universally, although they need to adapt to the situation and individual.

In this blog, I’m highlighting performance techniques as they apply to Emma’s experience. I hope it’s of use to both the more typical “performer” (we’ve just witnessed the Winter Olympics and Paralympics, after all) as well as this more expansive perspective on performance.

Some of the standard mental skills that we use with performers include:

  • Breathing: The first mental skill that I think of—and that is in fact our first mental “skill”—is breathing: Diaphragmatic, deep, belly breathing. In fact, it was one of the first skills that I blogged about here 8 years ago. Having this skill—and making use of it—may be the most important thing one can do in any performance situation. And of course the good news is that breathing is always there, always available to us.

Sometimes, breathing is useful for getting through physically painful moments. At times, it helps focus us, keep us in the present—the basis for mindfulness. At others, it becomes the prelude or deepening for imagery or distractions of one sort or another.

In Emma’s case, breathing, and focusing on breathing, was more complicated; she was walking “in thin air”, some 13,000 feet above sea level. And with bronchitis, there wasn’t much space available in her bronchial tubes for getting air in and out of the lungs. Breathing as best she could, and not panicking about how shallow her breathing was, became methods for grounding herself.

  • Goal setting: This basic principle of mental skills actually depends, in intensive long-term situations, on both the individual and where they are in the process. For Emma, goal setting became a luxury she couldn’t afford: “I realized that when I thought: ‘How much farther do I have to go to get to a rest stop or lunch or some other goal?’, if I was wrong about it, I then needed to use mental energy to manage the disappointment. I didn’t have the bandwidth to manage that. My better option was: ‘Where I am I putting my feet? Am I lifting my feet high enough to get over that rock?’” (The anticipated flat surface…wasn’t. And that’s when the group was merely walking along the valley, when they weren’t ascending or descending. See photo image for a sense of what it was actually like.)
  • Concentration or attention: For Emma, this was a critical mental skill: “I had to toss away the mental baggage, the expectations I’d had about what I’d focus on. Looking at the scenery, for example—that was the entire point of the trip—to experience the grandeur of that terrain. It became irrelevant.

“I stopped taking photographs—even the question of ‘would this be a good image?’ required more time and mental energy than was available to me. I had imagined socializing with other people while we were walking. Instead, the reassurance of being paced by the tour leader became my social connection.”

Beyond these “traditional” mental skills, we can identify some other aspects as well. And perhaps translating “back” from these situations to more short-term situations can be useful for more traditional performance situations.

  • Make sure that there are supports in place. For Emma, the trek was structured in a way that meant that the tour leader became attentive to her needs and capacities. He paced her throughout. She was able to let go of the fear that she would get so far behind that she wouldn’t be able to see anyone else in the group. His support and availability in turn inspired a different kind of confidence that she would indeed get through.
  • Deep field: Relying on just one person has its limits. The support person has only so much capacity—and only so much skill. A coach also looks to adjunctive helping professionals; a team does best if there’s a “deep field” of others who can step in as needed.  Emma’s tour leader dispatched one of his assistants to carry Emma up a particularly difficult terrain (which he accomplished…with dispatch). 
  • “Trust your body.” “Listen to your body.” Standard—and important—advice. And yet a huge challenge, when your body is so different than it’s been, when the body signals you’ve counted on in the past seem almost irrelevant to what you’re experiencing now. How far could Emma push through? When did she need to rest? What would be the “costs” and how could she re-balance? What were the options under these circumstances? Sometimes, she just needed to put one foot in front of the other.
  • Gratitude: One of the basic tenets of positive psychology, gratitude involves an appreciation for…well, pretty much everything. Some people find it useful to write in a gratitude journal. Others attend to the sensations they experience. Reflecting, Emma felt  a sense of “unbelievable exhilaration when I realized I’d done it. I was tremendously grateful. I learned that I’m not as physically strong as I thought I was. At the same time, I learned that I’m mentally stronger than I thought I was.”