Superlatives are becoming somewhat redundant for Adam Peaty. For over half a century people have competed for world record times in swimming two lengths of a pool in the breaststroke, and the 22 year old from Uttoxeter has already done it 1.33 seconds faster than any person in history, which is, quite frankly, absurd. However, in my work as a psychologist Peaty represents something else: the psychological ideal. Allow me to explain.
In the most basic sense the thinking brain can be divided into two parts. The core of the brain (within the limbic system) is largely responsible for generating emotions, and is primarily concerned with the perpetuation of the species and self-survival. As a consequence, it is beneficial for this emotional brain to operate in terms of black and white, with no shades of grey, and essentially reacting rather than thinking. Its in-built fight-or-flight response, for example, is a more effective mode of survival when faced by a hungry pack of lions than pausing to think first. It is a powerful emotional machine, and it needs to be.
In contrast, the more recently evolved outer regions of the brain (the cortex) are where the thinking takes place. This part of the brain operates in the grey areas. It is rational, evidence-based, and allows consideration of alternative points of view. One theory among cognitive neuroscientists is that the thinking brain, the feeling of consciousness and free will, evolved to allow us to make decisions that weren’t necessarily just black or white, life or death, and to reason and reflect on what we might do differently in the future.
The problem for people and athletes in today’s society, where hungry packs of lions are less of a pressing issue, is essentially three-fold:
When the emotional brain perceives a potential threat, which will typically involve an event with an unknown outcome we can’t fully control, it will trigger a feeling of nervousness or anxiety, which is nature’s way of making us alert to danger and forcing us to make a decision. If the event is not dangerous or immediate enough to trigger an automatic fight-or-flight response, the emotional brain will look to the thinking brain for answers. However, the two brains speak a different language, and often the grey area reasoning of the thinking brain will only make the black and white emotional brain more anxious (which can cause athletes to choke under pressure).
And herein lies the genius of Adam Peaty’s psychological approach: he resolves the conflict between the thinking brain and the more powerful emotional brain by uniting them. After rationally assessing the threat of a race, he (knowingly or unknowingly) boils it down to the basics and begins to ask questions the emotional brain understands: Can I control whether I try? Yes. Is it life or death? No. Can I fight and win? Yes. When Peaty broke his own world record in Rio for the second time by almost half a second, and in Budapest in the 50m by three tenths of a second, he did it in the heats, where historically swimmers try to preserve their energy for the final. When asked why, Peaty’s response was simple:
“As soon as I walked in, it became fight-or-flight and I chose to get something out of it.”
For Peaty there is no room for grey areas. Whether it’s a heat or a final, it is black or white, all or nothing, fight or flight, and once that decision is made genuinely, in both the emotional and the thinking brain, nerves and anxiety can turn to adrenaline and strength. Perhaps this is the closest we as humans can get to free will, and the purest form of it. Last week Peaty’s coach, Mel Marshall, said of him:
"He is a lion. You have to put the meat in front of him for him to go and hunt."
More than this, Peaty is the psychological lion in a human’s den, and where everyone else is running, he stands and fights.
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