The Art of Unlearning

posted on: June 20, 2016
author: Brian Lomax

24477362724_62eec583cbWould you be surprised to learn that a major part of the process of becoming excellent is unlearning? Sure, learning new techniques is important, but the unlearning process addresses the habits and beliefs that we have that limit our ability to reach true excellence. It is in this space that you can become truly elite.

I was reminded of this concept while listening to an interview with Josh Waitzkin. Josh was a chess prodigy as a child and the subject of the book and movie “Searching for Bobby Fischer,” and later became a world champion in Tai Chi. Josh wrote a book that I highly recommend entitled “The Art of Learning” in which he explains his own journey to mastery of such disparate activities as chess and martial arts. Today, Josh works with a handful of elite performers and teaches them systems for maximizing their energy and creativity.

In the interview, Josh discusses a performer’s tendency to judge situations as either good or bad, and how that judgment leads to mental, emotional and physical responses. To illustrate this, let’s examine a situation in tennis that occurs: you lost the first set. It’s likely that you judge this as a negative scenario in the match and that in turn may affect your emotional state and alter your physiology away from its ideal condition. In this case, your judgment is harmful, but it is a skill that you have honed over the years. This is good; this is bad. We tend to look at most things in life through that lens, yet it is that very lens that we need to remove or perhaps upgrade.

What if you could change your perspective on losing the first set or any adversity that might occur in competition? I’m not asking you to be happy that you lost the set, but let’s examine this differently. It is in these moments of adversity that true growth occurs. It is a challenge of your skills and if you embrace that moment, you will learn something about yourself. You will take your competitive skills to another level. It is all in your perspective. You must unlearn the skill of judging competitive situations, and replace that with an acceptance of what is happening in the moment and an enthusiasm to grow through this challenging experience.

This is very consistent with the Warrior Mindset that I discussed in this video blog from January of 2016. The concept of embracing the challenge is vital to any competitor’s success and now we want to ensure that we are viewing specific situations as challenges and growth opportunities rather than inherently “bad.” While I’ve been using the term “unlearning” in this post, I’m not sure that’s completely accurate from a cognitive perspective. I don’t think we actually unlearn anything, but instead we replace or upgrade our skills and perspective. That’s what we’re doing here; we are upgrading our perspective on adversity so that we grow and improve from it. We take our skills to a new level and we continue to approach excellence. We don’t shun adversity and react negatively. Instead, our upgraded perspective helps us realize that this adversity will make us stronger on our way to excellence, and if excellence is what we truly want in life, then our actions must reflect that intention.

Coming back to the Josh Waitzkin interview, he provides a simple example of the skill of judgment that needs an upgrade – the weather. From an early age, we are taught to view rain and snow as “bad” weather, and sunny as “good” weather. Is this actually the case? Think about it for a moment. Isn’t it kind of amazing that weather systems on this planet can create powerful forces like rain, snow, wind, etc.? Instead of viewing weather as good or bad, could we learn to appreciate it for what it is? OK, maybe we’re getting kind of deep here, but the point is that our judgments determine our mental, physical and emotional reactions, and the weather is a simple means of understanding that. How many tennis players do you know who love the wind?

Once we upgrade our perspective on adversity in competition, our ability to use our body language (presence, confidence) and breathing to manage our physiology and thinking processes will be enhanced. These basic skills of mental toughness and problem solving are more accessible when our perspective is focused on the path to excellence. Learn to be comfortable in the chaos of competition and you will have removed a major barrier in your journey to excellence.

photo credit: Interesting choice of transport via photopin (license)

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About the Author

Brian Lomax founded PerformanceXtra™ in 2009 with a mission of helping athletes achieve their goals and their top performances more consistently through a progression of mental skills that enables them to focus on what is truly important.

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