If you are like me and you believe that thinking is better path to success than not thinking, its hard not to take it personally when an athlete or other performer who is choking is said to be “overthinking it.” He needs to get “untracked.” And if he does and reaches peak performance he is said to be “unconscious.”

There are experiments that seem to confirm the idea that too much thinking harms performance.  But here’s a model in which thinking always improves performance and which is still consistent with the empirical observation that thinking is negatively correlated with performance.

In any activity we rely on two systems:  one which is conscious, deliberative and requires “thinking.”  The other is instinctive.  Using the deliberative system always gives better results but the deliberation requires the scarce resource of our moment-to-moment attention.  So for any sufficiently complex activity we have to ration the limited capacity of the deliberative system and offload many aspects of performance to pre-programmed instincts.

But for most activities we are not born with an instinctive knowledge how to do it.  What we call “training” is endless rehearsal of an activity which establishes that instinct.  With enough training, when circumstances demand we can offload the activity to the instinctive system in order to conserve precious deliberation for whatever novelties we are facing which truly require original thinking.

An athlete or performer who has been unsettled, unnerved, or otherwise knocked out of his rhythm finds that his instinctive system is failing him.  The wind is playing tricks with his toss and so his serve is falling apart.  Fortunately for him he can start focusing his attention on his toss and his serve and this will help.  He will serve better as a result of overthinking his serve.

But there is no free lunch.  The shock to his performance has required him to allocate more than usual of his deliberative resources to his serve and therefore he has less available for other things.  He is overthinking his serve and as a result his overall performance must suffer.

(Conversation with Scott Ogawa.)

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