My good friend Daryll Scott told me a story of Tim Henman's commentary on a Roger Federer game at Wimbledon once upon a time.

Faced with a big point in the game, Henman asks himself and the viewers, "I wonder what he'll be thinking now?"

Daryll's opinion on the matter matches mine.

At that moment in time, the worst thing that Federer could have been doing was 'thinking' in the conventional sense.

Thinking is slow and pretty ineffective when it comes to the execution of highly rehearsed movement skills. Thinking uses the brain in a sub-optimal way for these things.

Looking at Federer's long career and how many of those big points he's won down the years, I'm guessing they weren't thinking times. They were focusing times.

 

I had a related experience last night. Having reinjured the knee that ended any chance at a pro football career last summer, I've barely played since.

Last night I played a casual game of 5-a-side for the fourth time this year.  Having seen some excellent people about recovering and worked a little with myself to no avail yet, I've decided as it's mostly kicking with my left leg that puts me in pain that I will play right footed - for me football is such a big part of my life it's better than not playing at all.

Playing with the other foot is a bit like writing with your uneducated hand...really quickly...with people trying to grab the pen out of your hand.

Because playing mostly with my right is newish to me and I'm standing on a leg I don't trust myself fully on, I'm playing like a shadow of my former self. I play slowly, clumsily and I hesitate lots. I'm constantly guarding my left knee and reminding myself to play right footed. 

Funny thing happened last night though.

A few times, I forgot about my possible pain and my instincts from many years of practise took over. On occasion, a very quick passage of play occurred and I instantly reacted. Before I knew it, I'd smashed a ball on the volley in the top corner from the halfway line.

It was probably the cleanest shot I have hit for years. And it was completely pain-free. 

 

Thinking is great. It is one of the main differentiators of mankind from our animal counterparts. But in some circumstances, it really stinks.

The tennis player who thinks too much on the court will be a little slower to respond and will act based on less information (consciously we can only take in and act on between five and nine chunks of data at any given time), making poorer decisions. A more unconscious focus is quicker and takes into account a lot more information when acting.

An injured footballer who thinks too much plays cumbersomely and holds excessive tension that actually creates his own pain. Take conscious thinking out of the equation and he can do things he hadn't found possible for a very long time. Excruciating pain can disappear when movement is more entrusted to the involuntary parts of the brain that are ideally suited to it.

I've still got work to do to play comfortably all the time. The more I can keep my thinking off the pitch, the easier and easier I'll play.

Could you do with thinking less in your sport and letting those skills you've built through all that practise come out easily and effortlessly?

 

Arton "Getting back in the game" Baleci