In our book Peak, perhaps the most difficult concept that Anders and I introduce is the idea of mental representations. Over and over again we have gotten questions from people who are struggling to understand exactly what mental representations are and how they are formed. And it’s not a particularly easy thing to explain, particularly since mental representations differ from one skill to the next. The mental representations developed by, say, a pianist are quite different from those of a tennis player or a doctor. But all of them have certain similarities, and I’ve found that the more examples of mental representations that I learn about, the better my understanding of them is. (That is, the more accurate my mental representation of mental representations becomes.)
So I will be offering multiple examples of mental representations in this space, with the goal of helping people develop a clear understanding of what mental representations are and what roles they play in expert performance. Let’s start with a particularly simple one. It may not be as impressive as some of the mental representations that Anders and I discussed in the book—such as the way that chess grandmasters can play out entire chess games in their minds—but it has the advantage of being easier to understand.
I ran across this example in a meeting that Anders and I were attending of the Peaksware company, which makes software-based tools to help coaches, music teachers, and others work more effectively with their students—assigning weekly training routines, keeping track of their progress, and so on. At one point during the meeting one of the company’s founders, Joe Friel, was talking about some of his work coaching runners. (He is a legend in the biking and triathlon coaching world and is the author of The Cyclist’s Training Bible, The Triathlete’s Training Bible, and Going Long: Training for Ironman-Distance Triathlons.)
Joe was talking about training runners to get a good feel for how fast they are running, and he offered the following example of a simple exercise to do that: He would tell a runner to run four half-mile distances, each at a 3:30 pace, with a short rest in between, and he would time them. Typically a runner would do the first one much faster than 3:30, say about 3 minutes flat, and by the last one the runner would have slowed down to maybe a 4-minute pace. Joe would provide feedback—something like, You were too fast on that first time out, and because you put in too much energy then, you ended up going too slow on the last one—and have the runner try again on the next training day. Eventually the runner would be able to run all four distances at a pace of almost exactly 3:30 each time without having any way to pace himself except his internal sense of how fast he was going.
The purpose of the exercise was to help them in races, where it’s crucial to be able to control your pace. Go too fast and you may not have enough in reserve at the end of the race. Too slow and you may fall too far behind to catch up.
Although Joe did not use the term himself, it struck me that he was helping his runners develop a mental representation—in this case, a mental representation of what it feels like to run a half-mile at a 3:30 pace. To do this, I imagine the runner must develop some sort of mental model of what the pace and the stride feel like that is independent of the energy level or amount of tiredness the runner feels—not an easy thing to do since a pace that feels slow when you’re fresh and have lots of energy will feel much faster when you’re tired and your body wants to take it easy.
From what Joe said, expert runners can indeed pull this off. They know how fast they are running with surprising accuracy because they have learned through much practice and feedback what different paces feel like under varying conditions. And this is not the only sort of mental representation that expert runners develop—they have an intimate familiarity with their bodies’ effort levels and reserves, they have a clear idea of what their top competitors are capable of, and they develop a plan for how to run each particular race, depending on the characteristics of the race and who else is running.
Still, it seems to me this understanding of pace is a particularly edifying example of a mental representation because of its concreteness. It offers a simple, clear depiction of what can be an extremely complex, confusing phenomenon, and that is always a useful thing.