Pure Genius

Q&A: Barbara Montero, philosopher, on the myth of 'Just Do It'

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Many top athletes and professional dancers say that thinking about their movement interferes horribly with their performance. Barbara Montero says no, that often it is absolutely necessary.

There is a widely held view that thinking about one's performance while performing ruins our ability to perform well. Many athletes say that once you've mastered the skill, one ought to let go of thinking and well, to quote Nike's tag line, "Just do it."  Professional golfer Dave Hill said, "Golf is like sex. You can't be thinking about the mechanics of the act while you are performing."

I first heard that quote from Barbara Montero, associate professor of Philosophy at College of Staten Island and Graduate Center, City University of New York and author of a forthcoming book, Mind, Body, Movement: The Relevance of Consciousness to Expert Performance. (This is a working title, to be published by Oxford University Press.) Montero holds that thinking is not detrimental to successful expert performance. She describes the kind of thinking that might interfere but also the type of thinking that is actually necessary for an expert to improve upon his or her top performance.

SmartPlanet spoke with Montero, to hear more about the 'just do it' philosophy and why she feels it is misguided.

SmartPlanet: You've mentioned a quote from the choreographer George Balanchine, “Don’t think, dear; just do.” Can you explain the meaning of this quote in terms of how you talk about thinking ruining performance?

Barbara Montero: This quote is so often cited that I was interested in finding out what he meant, because it is contrary to the view that I’m trying to present which is that: Thinking is an important element of performing at the highest level.

And did you find out what he ultimately meant?

I contacted some of the people he said this to -- like Violette Verdy -- and she said that it wasn’t that he was trying to promote the idea that you shouldn’t think.  But rather, if everything was failing then maybe it’s a good time to take the mind out of the picture and just let things happen. He would say it in cases where you’re stuck, like an elevator between floors.

So what about the idea that thinking interferes with the artistry of performance? It seems he could be implying that.

The idea that one shouldn’t think during performance is I think mistaken. There are certain types of thoughts that might interfere with performance, I do not deny that. If there are some movements that have become automatic, thinking about those would distract you -- like thinking about how a hip rotates when we walk.

So what are the relevant thoughts that are helpful, if not necessary, for performance?

For runners during a marathon it is not necessary to think about the mechanics of the movement, but there will be strategies about how to overcome the next person in the race, and so strategies need to be in place. For a dancer, you might be thinking about musicality or relating to a partner. And sometimes there are certain technical aspects because the technique is so difficult. Ballet, for instance, is very focused on precise muscular details. But if a dancer or an expert in general has practiced “thinking while doing,” then there isn’t a problem.

I know that many dance teachers say, once we have the moves down, to let go of thinking about the movement, just let your body feel more of the rhythm.

I would interpret that to mean not don’t think, but now it’s time to think about what really matters which is the artistry versus technique.

What are some studies that support the idea that thinking does interfere?

One psychologist who has written a book on this topic is Sian Beilock [at the University of Chicago]. She’s run a number of experiments on athletes. She analyzed results from college students who have a significant amount of golf experience and those that have less experience. She asked them to do a task that encourages focusing on the movement.

And then she’d have them do the task that takes the mind away from the movement like listening to a tone and saying whether it’s high or low.

She has found that in skill-focused conditions -- where the athlete is asked to focus on the skill by having them say high at the apex of the [golf] swing and low at the end of the follow through -- that they do worse than when they just need to identify a musical note as being high or low.

Studies like that  are supposed to suggest that thinking about the movement itself interferes with the movement.

But you disagree.

In these studies the athletes are asked to do things that are very contrary to what they normally would be doing. They’re asked to think in a way that would be very contrary to what they’re normally used to be doing.

One interesting thing: They find that for the more skilled athletes this type of thinking interferes more than for the less skilled athlete.

Interesting.

When you’re not so skilled nothing really is going to interfere. For example, if I’m asked to hit a golf ball into a hole it’s basically random. So whether I think or not it’s not going to matter.

It might be that the experts have the “ability” to focus on their movements. And when they’re asked to focus on some aspect of their movements that they normally wouldn’t think about, then that’s going to interfere with their focus on the aspects of the movement that would be beneficial.

But there are other studies done in more natural settings, outside of the psychology labs. And in those studies there isn’t really any support of the “just do it” principle.

For example, the sports psychologist Adam Nicholls has done some really interesting work in which he asked elite golfers to record the ways they dealt with stress during games. Now, of course, we give up having a controlled laboratory setting, but we gain a real life situation, and what he found was that it was very common for the golfers to cope with stress by increasing attention and focus. Another sports psychologist, Dave Collins, has looked at elite weightlifters and found that in high-pressure situations they consciously adjusted their movements making them more variable yet just as successful. So it seems that outside of the lab, we don’t see athletes 'just doing it.' Actually, Collins has been able to come up with similar results in the lab by asking golfers to try to improve their stroke. Improving takes the mind right to the movement, yet there were no deleterious effects.

You have mentioned that top-performing athletes need to focus on the details of their performance because improvement at the expert level requires that type of thinking.

In the arts, great performers are always doing something new and trying to do something different to make it better. Especially when you do the same choreography time and time again. Every time you want to make it different and add something new. This is “improving” in action.

And I think in athletic performance where the goal is really to win, to beat your opponent, you don’t want to just be trying and playing and being creative, but you also need to do better than ever. So to do it in the way you’ve always done it is not going to be enough. You need to give it the extra push.

I was just talking to a triathlon coach. He thought that always focusing on the details of movement is going to be detrimental. But I think there are cases where you might want to focus on the details. And as long as you have practiced focusing, then it can help you improve how, say, you push off from a long jeté and you need to make sure that your heel is forward, turned out.

If you haven’t practiced “focusing” on certain details of movement and all of a sudden you start focusing on those details that might very likely interfere with performance. It also depends on how fast movements are. In grand slam tennis for instance, the swing needs to start before the ball has left the opponent’s racket. But players get clues from body movements. So even in that situation, there might be conscious recognition of what’s happening next.

Christie Nicholson

Contributing Writer

Christie Nicholson produces and hosts Scientific American's podcasts 60-Second Mind and 60-Second Science and is an on-air contributor for Slate, Babelgum, Scientific American, Discovery Channel and Science Channel. She has spoken at MIT/Stanford VLAB, SXSW Interactive, the National Science Foundation, the National Research Council, the Space Studies Board and Brookhaven National Laboratory. She holds degrees from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism and Dalhousie University in Canada. She is based in New York. Follow her on Twitter. Disclosure