Now that the Olympics and the Paralympics are over, I wanted to write a short piece on how the mind can improve athletic performance. Setting aside mental strength, which was clearly demonstrated by Andy Murray when he won the US Open Tennis the other day (I’m writing these words the following morning after having stayed up to 2am to watch the game), visualization – or mental imagery as some call it – can have a huge impact on performance.
When we think of side effects the first thing that springs to mind are the side effects of drugs. But who’d have thought that kindness could have side effects too? Well, it does! And positive ones at that.
In my talks I quite often explain how we catch emotion from people. It’s facilitated by an interconnected network of brain cells known as the mirror neuron system. If you’re with someone who is happy, your brain actually mirrors the activity of their smile muscles signaling your muscles to do the same.
For some reason I’ve been having a lot of conversations about empathy recently. Empathy has been defined in the scientific journals as ‘I feel withyou‘, as distinct from compassion, which has been defined as ‘I feel for you’. With empathy, we share another’s pain and we are very aware of the effects of our actions on them. With compassion, our focus moves a little in the direction of wishing them freedom from their pain.
I don’t know about you, but I woke up on Monday morning of this week feeling quite sad. The Olympics finished on Sunday and I think it just affected me on a very deep level. Among other things, it was really refreshing for the TV to be filled with positivity, dedication, passion, and achievement instead of being saturated with conflict, negativity or instant celebrity.
I’ve written, and I speak a lot, about how we are contagious, although not in the usual sense of the word where we catch the cold from each other, but in how our emotions are contagious. Social network research shows that if you feel happy, for instance, you not only infect your friends with happiness, but you also infect your friends’ friends and even your friends’ friends’ friends – out to a radius of three social steps. This is partly facilitated through mirror neurons, specialised cells in the brain that mirror our physical expressions of emotion.
We live in an interconnected world where everything we do affects other things. This is encouraging because it means that when you are kind, you are usually affecting more than the person right in front of you.