Is overthinking possible?

"The Thinker" sculpture with cloudly background


Is it possible?
What are the consequences?

This is the first of several entries on Life Skills, inspired by the book Choke: What the Secrets of the Brain Reveal About Getting It Right When You Have To by Sian Beilock.  It’s an excellent book.

It’s harder to learn a skill as we age.  We’ve all experienced this dropoff, regardless of our age.

From Psychological Bulletin #133, in an article by Hernandez and Li, “Age of acquisition: Its neural and computational mechanisms”, the authors demonstrate that early learning is less dependent upon the brain’s prefrontal cortex (working memory, executive functions), instead relying on sensory and motor inputs.  In other words, we think less and feel more as children.  We remember skills better and learn language (including accents) more concretely.

Our prefrontal cortex finishes development by mid-early adulthood.  Until then we rely on our other senses to form the basis of our memories and skills.

As we age, our working memory and executive functions guide our learning.  We think more in tips-n-tricks, mnemonic devices, and procedures than basally in muscle memory and sensations.

In the Proceedings of the ISSP 11th World Congress of Sport Psychology in Sydney, Australia, authors Masters, Eves, and Maxwell write of the “Reinvestment scale”, a scale that measures skill breakdown under pressure.

Take this quiz.  It’s short and you’ll learn something really important about yourself.

Number a piece of paper from 1-10, leaving enough space for one number.
Using the scale of 1 (Strongly disagree), 2 (Disagree), 3 (Agree), and 4 (Strongly agree), answer the following questions:

1. I rarely forget the times when my movements have failed me, however slight the failure.
2. I’m always trying to figure out why my actions failed.
3. I reflect about my movement a lot.
4. I am always trying to think about my movements when I carry them out.
5. I’m self-conscious about the way I look when I am moving.
6. I sometimes have the feeling that I’m watching myself move.
7. I’m aware of the way my mind and body works when I am carrying out a movement.
8. I’m concerned about my style of moving.
9. If I see my reflection in a shop window, I will examine my movements.
10. I am concerned about what people think about me when I am moving.


Count up the number of questions you answered 1 or 2, and the number you answered 3 or 4.

According to Masters et al., university coaches whose players they rated “likely to ‘choke under pressure'” tended to answer 3 or 4, but those rated as “go-to” players tended to disagree.

On an interesting side-note, Masters, et al. have also found a relationship between Parkinson’s disease and agreeing with the above questions.  This is likely due to the patient’s need to constantly monitor motion as the disease progresses.

What can we take away from this?

Aside from the obvious — trust your instincts more and ‘think’ less — we need to train for diverting these patterns of self-reflection.

Of course, we need to reflect on our motions to improve a skill.  However, we must be able to find respite from this cycle to avoid “paralysis by analysis”.  Dedicate time to turning off this process: take breaks to be kind to yourself.  Breaking the cycle for even a moment will help you find relief, and even if for a short period of time at first, you will gradually learn how to lengthen your time off.

Start slowly.  Practice your new skill at a beginner’s level.  Allow the skill time to absorb.

Above all, as you practice, rely mainly on how you feel.  Allow your muscles to learn.  We each have our own threshhold for unhealthy levels of self-analysis.  Find your own balance and be true to yourself.

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