Cognitive Distortions That Impede Improvement

Since you have a human brain, you should know that it does not really work all that well most of the time. Sure, it’s amazing and wondrous and a genuine marvel of evolution, but it is nonetheless marred by all sorts of biases that are very useful for keeping a hunter-gatherer alive and are less useful for objective reasoning. If you think that these don’t apply to you, well, there’s a name for that: the blind spot bias.

The exhaustive list of biases and fallacies would take ages to explore, so I will be looking at some of the most common ones, organizing them by subject, and discussing how they can negatively affect your performance and training. Remember, it is impossible to do away with cognitive biases, but by being aware of them we can reduce their impact on our lives.

1) Negative Predictions, Underestimating Coping Ability, Catastrophizing.

It is apparent where these sorts of biases arise: in general, pessimism is a good survival tool. “I don’t have enough food, so I should work more” is going to be a better option than, “I am sure I have enough food, so I can take it easy” since something unexpected might go wrong.

This sort of thinking, however, has a significant impact on tournament performance. These biases are what create the downward spiral of: “I can’t do this. I’ll lose, and everyone will judge me. I’m too nervous to compete! I suck, and this is the worst thing ever!” If that is going on in your brain, then you are in for an uphill climb in the next round.

If I may, here are some realities that may be useful to remember:

You can do as well at any given moment as you’ve ever done at any previous moment. Your best fight ever is a thing you can repeat right now, here, today.
Maybe you’ll lose anyway. It’s really easy to lose, so everyone does it a lot, even the really good people.
No one cares if you lose. No one will judge you because it’s not worth the time or energy to them to bother. OR, someone will judge you, it will have zero actual ramifications, and you have no reason to care. If you have reached the level where people do care if you lose, like a war point, then accept that your opponent is probably in the same situation and you’ve signed up for a zero-sum game.
Being nervous should only happen when there’s something on the line. By the time you’re fighting for “something”, you’re hopefully experienced enough to remain calm throughout. If not, you might have been pushed too far, too fast.
It’s not the worst thing ever because the swords aren’t sharp; no one’s health or finances will be harmed through your defeat or enhanced by your victory.

2) Negatively Biased Recall, Self-Criticism, Expecting Too Much Enthusiasm.

These are some terrible little habits that we can get into to undermine our improvement. I am especially guilty of self-criticism and negative recall: when I do something poorly, I tend to fixate on that, even if I did well otherwise. In fact, I’m so bad about this that I focus on my losses in tournaments I ended up winning, and mistakes I made in fights I where I was the victor. I think my only saving grace is that I have an odd mix of characteristics where my ego is sufficiently strong that I can be utterly merciless, obsessively so, with the negative aspects of my performance without it making me feel bad about myself. I don’t really know how that happens, but I can probably blame my parents for being unconditionally loving and supportive. Thanks, Mom and Dad! I’ve also had enough failure and success to realize that one setback is only a single data point out of thousands.

These sorts of things are what gnaw at us the day after the tournament: we remember the one fight where we got put down on the first action after lay on was called because we started in wide measure, and we forget the 5 people we defeated when the previous year it was only 3. When I was new, one of the ways I got around this problem was to keep a journal after every event; the act of narrating the day helped me keep perspective on my performance and gave me a month-to-month, year-to-year sense of progress. I still do that, but not in written form.

Oddly, a large number of people actively resist that sort of things because they confuse it with competitiveness, which is frequently verboten (and shouldn’t be, because challenging each other is where a lot of the fun originates!), but trying to improve is essentially competing with your past self. Our game happens to be one where in order to improve, you have to defeat other people. It’s inherently competitive. Help yourself see how you’re improving by caring enough to attend to your improvement.

Self-criticism is ultimately self-defeating. I do this one a lot, but I will also admit to getting better results without it. “I need to lunge faster,” is worse than “I will lunge fast,” which is in turn weaker than, “I lunge fast.” Our thoughts create our performance in substantial ways. Pay attention to your thoughts and rephrase them into positives.

Finally, we cannot expect others to match our enthusiasm about ourselves. You are the center of your world, but no one else’s. Often, we do what we consider to be a fantastic job, and we receive praise for it, but if the praise isn’t *enough* we discount it or focus on how it was inadequate. “Good job” sounds disappointing if you expect to hear, “Great job.”

The paradox thus far is that a lot of the things that undermine our confidence are by-products of a warped form of egotism. We are the most important people in our own lives, and we have a tendency to overestimate our importance to others, which in turn amplifies our perception of our failures.

3) Entitlement, Moral Licensing, Faulty Cause and Effect, Self-Serving Bias, Doubling-Down, Underestimating Time.

These are all behavioral or habitual problems that lead us astray. Entitlement lets us think that we are special (hint: you are not) and that things that are true for everyone else will somehow not be true for us. This is what lets us think that shortcuts will work, or that a habit we have is really OK even when it’s plainly not. We’re told we’re special from infancy, but the reality is that it’s a very narrow definition of special, and when it comes to general things like a learning process or what constitutes good technique there are limited viable options if you want to achieve your maximum performance.

And you won’t do that if you commit moral licensing, which is the little voice in your head that tells you that since you are partway to a goal that you can do things that are contrary to that goal. This is why people who have lost 20 pounds can eat 3 pieces of cheesecake: they’ve made so much progress that they can reward themselves… by undermining a week of effort in one sitting.

Of course, our failure to recognize the effect our actions have on us, and to see the reciprocal nature of the excuses we make for ourselves, can cause stagnation for months or even years. If your form is off, and you drill 2 days a week but take the other 5 days off entirely because lunging makes your leg tired, it might be a long time before your lunge improves. It’s also possible that your leg wouldn’t be so tired if you lunged more often. How many of us skip exercise because we lack the energy we would have if only we exercised more? How many of us stick to a habit for a month or two, see modest gains, and then quit because it was taking too long?

How many of us then, having given ourselves an excuse to escape the effort of improving, will continue to spend our time on what we know is comfortable and familiar, but only got us to a place where we don’t necessarily want to be in the first place? I have known many fighters who mistakenly believe that because they had a trick work 10% of the time that they could make it work 20% of the time if they did it twice as fast. 30% with more practice. 40% with still more. It may well be that 10% is all that trick can get, and all of that time will be wasted.

On the bright side, we will often attribute our successes to things we did and our failures to things other people did. You’ll win a fight because you were more skilled, stronger, faster, smarter than your opponent, but you will lose because you slept poorly, missed breakfast, had a tall opponent, or caught a sleeve. You will do all you can to feel good rather than be good.

If you don’t accept that your performance is fully your responsibility, you will never take full responsibility for your performance. Cheesey, I know, but true.

4) Unrelenting Standards, All or Nothing Thinking, Shoulds and Musts, Sunk Costs, Overthinking.

In addition to being lazy, not admitting we’re lazy, and then coming up with excuses why it’s OK that we’re lazy and/or not really lazy at all, we’re also unrealistically hard on ourselves. Yay?

There are many fencers out there who fall to pieces because they see anything other than perfection as failure. They don’t feel satisfied with success if the success isn’t exactly as they want it (remember that line about warped egotism?), and become trapped by what they perceive as inadequate success. This can combine with things like underestimating time and self-criticism in particularly insidious ways. Everyone has bad days, even you. You’re not special (if hearing that bothers you, it’s because of your entitlement bias).

That doesn’t mean that you can’t accomplish great things, though. Nor does it mean that not accomplishing great things makes you a failure. If you ever hear anyone say, “Second place is the first loser,” you should feel free to defenestrate them immediately. Silver medals are *made of silver*. The only real binary we need to worry about is whether or not the thing we just tried worked. “Good enough to work” is all the matters in the moment; we can aim for perfection in laboratory conditions, where it is absurd to always give 100%. Thinking that you should always do your very best or try your hardest is sometimes damaging, and often inefficient. Sometimes an adequate job is all that is necessary, and going beyond that is wasteful. Do you need to be in good enough shape to run throughout a melee, or do you need to be able to maintain a 5 minute mile for an entire marathon? Allocate your time wisely.

If you are training enough and trying as hard as you need to when you’re training and you still aren’t getting the results you want, you’ll be pretty tempted to stick with that training plan and keep all of your bad habits, even though that time spent is gone forever and cannot be regained. Ideally, you’ll be willing to accept the need for change and take action to bring it about. I’ve done it. It is not easy. I gave up about 6 years of practice to start studying Capoferro, and it was worth it… but I had to give myself permission to start all over again, and to accept that I would take 2 steps back to take 3 forward.

When you do practice, though, do not go into too much detail about every little nuance. You do not need to think about the names of the muscles in your arm; you just need to make it extend. Standing in guard with a narrow profile may have 30 different components to it, but you can shorthand all of that into “stand in guard”. The word “set” has a 60,000 word definition in the online OED, and you do not need to know it all at once. Just say the word, look to context for clues, and hash it out with 3 letters. Have one key phrase and add to its meaning over time. I often describe good fencing as “control measure; close the line; find the sword; take tempi”, which ended up condensing even further into the advice I *actually* give myself before a fight: fence well.

“Fence well” covers a lot of things, but it takes half a second and only 9 letters to remember.

5) Ignorance of Knowledge Gaps.

This is why it is good to fence against a variety of opponents: you do not know what you do not know.

There are three types of knowledge: things you know you know, things you know you don’t know, and things you don’t know you don’t know. The third type is what will kill you.

Consider this hypothetical: you are lost in the forest, and you are extremely hungry. You find some mushrooms. Do you eat them? Maybe.

If you know they are edible, you do. If you know they are poisonous, you don’t.

If you know that some mushrooms are poisonous, but you don’t know about these particular mushrooms, you don’t eat them.

If you don’t know that some mushrooms are poisonous, you eat them. Maybe you die, maybe you live.

No matter how much we practice, if it is with the same people and in the same way every time, we eventually become exceptionally good at what we are practicing, but maybe not anything else. The people out there fencing according to internal priorities we haven’t encountered will operate outside our expectations and possibly defeat us. Some opponents are just bad enough to be more dangerous than a better educated one. Diversity prepares us for anything (that I know about).

6) Delusions

Counterfactual thinking is possibly the worst of all, because once you divorce yourself from reality, there’s not much anyone can do for you or say to you that will be of any good. If you’re going headfirst into the Dunning-Kruger Effect, it will be up to you to dig your way back out.

Look to the *evidence*, look to the *facts*, look to your *reason*, constantly check for biases and fallacies (but not so much that you fall victim to overthinking everything!), and, most importantly of all: HAVE FRIENDS WHO ARE WILLING AND ABLE TO CALL YOU OUT ON YOUR DELUSIONS. Listen to them when they do.

Though positive thinking and talk are absolutely and inarguably necessary, it is important that all praise be true. One of the worst things your training partners can do is praise you beyond reality; it is very difficult to make any progress when you come to believe that you are much better than you are.

But, in the end, you shouldn’t worry too much. Everything will work out!*

*http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pollyanna_principle

10 comments to Cognitive Distortions That Impede Improvement

  • Tibbie Croser

    Dante wrote: “On the bright side, we will often attribute our successes to things we did and our failures to things other people did. You’ll win a fight because you were more skilled, stronger, faster, smarter than your opponent, but you will lose because you slept poorly, missed breakfast, had a tall opponent, or caught a sleeve. You will do all you can to feel good rather than be good.

    If you don’t accept that your performance is fully your responsibility, you will never take full responsibility for your performance. Cheesey, I know, but true.”

    I (Tibbie) will say that there can be a converse bias. I tend to see my failures as my own fault and my successes or improvements as my opponents’ failures. I find myself disappointed when I beat or lose only narrowly to a fighter who outranks me. I don’t want to find out that my rapier gods as mortal. 🙂

    Second point: Dante wrote: “Though positive thinking and talk are absolutely and inarguably necessary, it is important that all praise be true. One of the worst things your training partners can do is praise you beyond reality; it is very difficult to make any progress when you come to believe that you are much better than you are.”

    I (Tibbie) also want to say that false praise given to a new fighter can make her disbelieve praise ever afterward. I am never sure if compliments on my improvement in fighting are based on fact or just intended to encourage me.

    • Tibbie Croser

      The above were my first thoughts on reading the post, and not well expressed. The post is relevant to me because I’m currently trying to determine if and how my own negative thinking and self-doubt are holding me back.

      • What’s the number one thing you need to improve? This is not a question to overthink: what thing holds you back more than anything else?

        • Tibbie Croser

          In technical terms, the number one thing I need to improve is controlling my opponent’s blade so that I can attack safely. If I could overcome this problem, my confidence would soar.

          • Dante di Pietro

            OK, a couple things:

            In technical terms, as you say, you are describing what is commonly referred to as “finding the sword.” Wistric has written about it here, and I have an entire section on it on my website (www.freewebs.com/dantedipietrohma/) as well as an article called “How To Attack Safely.” There’s also a self-assessment that’s not bad.

            However, there is a lot more to it that what is simply found within those documents; all of our respective writing makes implicit assumptions about the fencer in question. A brief, non-inclusive list of things a person must also have in place prior to “controlling their opponent’s blade”:

            1) Sufficient fitness and kinesthetic intelligence to perform all actions necessary, including strength, coordination, and endurance.
            2) Reaction time necessary to take advantage of a tempo.
            3) Knowing what tempi are.
            4) Knowing how an opponent is likely to respond and what to do in case of each option.
            5) Having a good guard and smooth, effective, explosive lunge.
            6) Knowing the formation of counter-guards and how much adjustment is too much adjustment.
            7) Knowledge of measure, wide and narrow, for both you and your opponent.

            That’s not everything; I am just spitballing some ideas out there. The 1st and 5th thing probably matter most.

            So if you think you have all of that down (and you may well), then “controlling the opponent’s sword” is a thing to work on, and there are specific ways to make that happen mechanically. If any of that sounds like a weak area, then that is the thing to work on because the goal of controlling an opponent’s sword won’t happen without all of the earlier steps in place.

            There is a lot of “I don’t know what I don’t know” going on in SCA teaching, so many people skip vital learning steps through no fault of their own. We have a lot of journeymen instructors who do their best, but good instruction requires expertise in both the subject matter and in teaching.

  • Tibbie Croser

    I certainly don’t have all those steps down. Instead of “controlling my opponent’s blade,” I probably should have said “keeping my opponent from stabbing me while I attack him or her.” Whatever kinesthetic intelligence is, I lack it, and that’s probably one of the many things holding me back.

    Anyway, I don’t want to hijack your thread on cognitive distortions for a discussion on bladework. I’d much rather read what other, more advanced fighters have to say about your post.

Leave a Reply

You can use these HTML tags

<a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>