Like your tires, you don’t want to over-inflate your ego, but now new research suggests that, like your water bottles and your belly, you don’t want to under-fill it either.
Thinking hard takes energy
You can deplete your ego, just by thinking really hard. Consider all of your thoughts. There’s scheduling concerns, work issues, and possibly your family to think about. Going through those mental gymnastics can make you tired and could be hurting your ability to push past the pain when it really counts.
Performing poorly after intense thought is what scientists call ego depletion. It’s been tested most often in non-athletes, where experiments have shown that individuals couldn’t squeeze a hand-grip as hard or as long after asking their mind to do basic math.
Based on the data, University of Cork cognitive psychologist Derek Dorris wondered if intense thinking could also affect a competitive athlete’s performance.
Athletes perform worse after having to count
To test the idea, Dorris and his colleagues first asked 24 male rowers to count backwards from a thousand to zero by fives and then do as many push-ups as possible. The rowers performed the test and were asked to do it again later. When they repeated the counting-push-up sequence the second time, the rowers had to maintain the balance of a bubble of a level, and then do the push-ups.
The rowers did fewer push-ups after counting and balancing the level, than after counting alone, which suggests that tough mental intensity before a workout does affect an athlete’s ability to persist at an exercise, even when they know how to do it really well.
Dorris and his colleagues repeated the experiment on a different group of athletes — two male rugby players and six male and 16 female hockey players — to see if they got the same effect. Instead of push-ups, these athletes did sit-ups, and they too performed fewer repetitions after the more challenging counting and balancing task.
Clear and control your mind for hard, fast racing
The results imply that the harder you think, work or stress right before a practice or race, the worse you will perform. But like your tires and your water bottles, you can control your ego by keeping your mind clear. And, if you’re looking to get faster, thinking about how your ego works – and how to control it – might be something to contemplate — just not right before a big race.
What do you think?
What has been your experience in your racing or training after deep thought?
Citation: Investigating the effects of ego depletion on physical exercise routines of athletes. Derek C. Dorris, David A. Power, Emily Kenefick. Psychology of Sport and Exercise. (March 2012) 13: 2, 118-125. DOI: 10.1016/j.psychsport.2011.10.004.
Ashley Yeager is a science writer and a triathlete. Follow her on twitter at @tri_science.