• John Pates

Precognitions in Elite Golfers - The power of the Unconscious mind

As an applied sports psychologist, I spend most of my time gathering knowledge from phenomenological semi-structured interviews with coaches and athletes. Over the years I have talked to scores of elite athletes. During the interview process, I will always ask the following phenomenological question; ‘tell me about the best performance in your sport”. Their response is usually a vivid recall of an important, significant event. However, when asked to elaborate, and describe their subjective experiences during the event, there is often a delay in responding or a complete and utter blank.

Athletes struggle with this question because during peak performances they often enter an altered state of mind Csikszentmihalyi (1975) called flow. During flow, the athlete becomes so absorbed by the moment and task in hand they lose their awareness of self. In this state of mind, the brain is not in its usual wakeful condition because it has entered the realm of the unconscious. In this altered state of mind, athletes perceive their ‘will’ to be in control of their performance. In other words, they perceive what they want to happen, does happen. This creates feelings of confidence and happiness and being in control. Time distortions such as tachypsychia often emerge from the experience. The athlete's inflow may also experience spiritual transcendence and the loss of self- consciousness.

The strange happenings of the flow state experience can be explained using theories allied with quantum physics. Time distortions, for example, can be explained by the fact time in the quantum world of the unconscious mind is non-linear (Pandarakalam, 2018). Additionally, the loss of self-consciousness can be explained by the absence of awareness and the failure of quantum collapse. When this takes place, the unconscious mind becomes operational (Pandarakalam, 2018). In the absence of conscious awareness, the athlete relies upon his/her instincts and intuition.

Intuition is key to understanding optimal performance in sport. Reports from elite athletes support this supposition. Murphy and White (1978), for example, cite numerous cases where athletes rely on intuition to achieve excellence in sport. For example, the St Louis Cardinals baseball player Lou Brock who broke the ‘all- time’ stolen-base record in 1977 was cited as a player who emphasized intuition rather than physical qualities as the reason he was so good at stealing bases. In another example, Cleveland Brown fullback Jim Brown reported he “had a sixth sense that told him how the defense would react.” When hockey great Wayne Gretzky was asked for the secret to his success, he replied, “I don’t know; I just go to where the puck is going to be” (Berliner, 1994, p. 167). After the 2019 NBA finals Kawhi Leonard was interviewed by Issah Thomas about the strategies he used in the game. His reply was this, “You have to stay in the moment when you start thinking too much you don’t play well. It’s about reaching and reading and using my instinct to play basketball. I feel that’s how you get into the zone. That’s how you can hit ten shots in a row or your team does” (14th June 2019). Additionally, in a private conversation with Gabriel Batistuta, Argentina’s all-time leading goal scorer told me this. “When coaches give me instructions on how to play, I cannot score goals because the information they provide me stops me from reacting quickly enough to get rid of the defenders. I score goals when I use memories of how I play as a child. As a child I would not think about strategies or tactics, I would just run into spaces based on my intuition and gut feelings. I just knew exactly where I should run when I followed my feelings, I would then score for fun because I would always find myself a step ahead of the defenders”.

Based upon anecdotal evidence, it is reasonable to assume the intellect of an athlete can be understood by appreciating its dependence upon the intuitional wisdom of the inner self. Unfortunately, empirical data supporting this proposition is absent from the sport psychology literature. Intuitions, close association with psi phenomena and paranormal experiences have meant intuition has been overlooked by sport psychology as a construct of interest. I aimed to address this problem by examining the intuitive abilities (precognitions) of professional golfers and professional football players.

In a project that included athletes from the European Ryder Cup team and athletes from a professional football team, I examined the subjective experience of precognitions (the ability to sense the future), purported by four elite golfers and 4 elite football players. An open-ended, semi-structured phenomenological interview (Kvale, 1983) was used to gain a description of their experiences. Thematic analysis of transcripts describing their experiences (Braun & Clarke, 2006) resulted in the identification of five major themes associated with intuition in this context. These were ‘clutch situations,’ emotionally arousing stimuli,’ ‘pre-feeling,’ ‘self-talk,’ and ‘prospective imagery’ (see Pates and Kingston, 2020; Pope and Pates, in review).

The findings of this study suggest precognitions transpire when elite golfers have to make a putt or a shot or an elite football player has to score a goal or make a tackle, in an emotionally arousing situation, such as when the consequences of failure are high. In other words, precognitions occur when a golfer or football player is exposed to a clutch situation similar to those described by Hibbs (2010). Self-talk also appeared to be coupled with the precognition effect. In this study, self-talk appears to help the athlete’s ‘psych’’ themselves up, control arousal, direct effort, and focus their attention on the task in hand. In other words’ self-talk has both a motivational and instructional function (see Hardy, Hall & Hardy, 2004; Van Raalte, Vincent & Brewer, 2016). The presence of self-talk during precognition experiences suggests attention, intention, and emotions appear to be importa mediators of the precognition effect. Experiments reported by Radin (2011) and Bem (2011) also support this view.

The athletes also reported a positive prospective image (future-orientated image). Specifically, the golfers reported they had an image of the ball going into the hole and a pre-feeling of something improbable is about to happen. The football players reported an image of scoring a goal, making a tackle, and a pre-feeling that was described as strange and unique. Both prospective imagery and pre-feelings (Gut Feelings) were involuntary, suggesting these automatic thoughts are emerging from the unconscious mind.

According to Radin and Borgos (2009) ‘pre-feelings’ are strongly linked to our anticipatory systems of motor control (see: Radin and Borgos, 2009). Anticipation is one of the principal characteristics of human performance (Aglioti, Cesari, Romani, & Urgesi, 2008). Indeed, the ability to anticipate a future event separates the good athletes from the elite. In basketball, for example, anticipation in the form of a pre-feeling is needed to predict when it is the right time to ‘reach and jump' to block the opponent's shot. Anticipation in the form of a pre-feelings also allows basketball athletes to hit and catch objects moving faster than they can see. This infers athletes need a pre-feeling to predict ‘what will happen next' to know, "what to do next'.

More, research is required to understand where pre-feelings come from. Are pre-feelings anticipatory responses that originate from our memory or do they involve genuine influences from the future? The possibility that pre-feelings derive from information that comes from the future appears to many as absurd. However, discoveries in quantum physics and human consciousness suggest this proposition may be possible (see Meijer & Geesink, 2017; Penrose & Hameroff, 2011; Smythies, 2009). Indeed, we now know that the world is not simply a deterministic mechanism; foundational equations of quantum physics not only support the common-sense notion that time flows forwards, but it also highlights the possibility that time may also go backward. In other words, in quantum theory, the future and the past may affect the present and information from the past, present and future coexist (see Shoup, 2011). Einstein's famous quantum equations support this proposition. “People like us, who believe in physics, know that the distinction between past, present, and future is only a stubbornly persistent illusion”. -- Albert Einstein, 1955

If the unconscious works like quantum theory predicts it is possible an athlete can receive information from the future without the need for any psi abilities. I believe expert athletes receive information from the future because they shut down the conscious mind and utilize the unconscious/quantum mind to process information. The act of shutting-down conscious processing gives athletes access to what Carl Jung called the collective unconscious, which is a storehouse of absolute knowledge.

According to Jung, the collective unconscious is dominated by non-linear temporality. The lack of non- linear time means knowledge from the past, present, and future coexist and can be accessed simultaneously. I suggest that during optimal performance athletes enter a trance-like state known as flow and at some stage inflow, the athlete has temporary access to absolute knowledge which emerges from the mind as it interacts with the collective unconscious. This produces a situation where the limits of time and space are transcended. In this realm, information can materialize from the past, present, or the future enabling athletes to initiate creative acts and respond to sensory information with superfast thinking known as parallel processing. This enables athletes to think faster, adapt faster, and be in the right place at the right time. For confirmation of this proposition Let’s go back to Wayne Gretsky’s statement. “I just go to where the puck is going to be” (Berliner, 1994). Gretsky knows where the puck is going to be because he is receiving information about the future.

The overall findings of my studies are interesting because they support the idea precognitions are real events and that elite athletes may unconsciously respond to information beyond the reach of their normal senses. The results of my findings also suggest intuition requires greater attention and investigation from the sports psychology community. It is my sincere wish that this study will inspire other researchers to investigate the role of intuition in sport.

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Pates, J., & Kingston, K. (2020). I Got a Feeling: Exploring Precognitions in Elite Golfers. Journal of Athletic Enhancement, 9(1).

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