I recently discovered a show on the National Geographic Channel called “Brain Games”. In one particular episode the producers challenge the audience to be a good witness to a crime. That is – witness a crime in progress and then try to recall as many pertinent details as you can accurately. The TV audience gets to play along with individuals who were present for the staged crime, a pickpocket incident. It was disturbing to see how easily details were forgotten and supplanted with new ones, how conflicting the eyewitness accounts were, and how many people grossly misremembered what actually happened. The narrator explains this phenomenon by discussing our active memory and its limitations. Our active memory is designed to hold a few pieces of information (like what you wanted from the refrigerator when you got off the couch or where you put your car keys) for a very short time. Problems arise when you try to recall many minute details, like what a suspect was wearing or the names of each person in a new group, long after seeing the person or meeting those individuals.
As it happens those tasks are not difficult at all for Ron White, a two time USA Memory Champion. During the course of the show we see White memorize the serial numbers of four one dollar bills in one pass, remember the names of twenty strangers walking into a theater, and accurately recall the order of an entire deck of cards after scanning the deck only once. To outsiders these tasks seem incredible, née almost impossible. So how does he do it? With strategy and lots and lots of practice. Remembering the serial numbers on a bill? Ron will chunk that string of numbers into smaller two digit numbers that each correspond to a predetermined picture in Ron’s head. “94” would have its own distinct image, just like “12”, “78” and “49”. He then “places” those pictures in a memory map of his house. As he “walks though” his house in his minds eye he sees the figures sitting on pieces of furniture and he can recall the corresponding numbers in order. Remembering the names of twenty strangers? Easy… (with practice). He assigns common names a picture. “Gary” might be a garage; “Chris” might be Santa Claus. Once he sees the person he takes that picture and combines it with some feature on the person that stands out. If Gary has a big nose, White might picture a garage falling on Gary’s nose. When the veil is pulled back and we get a glimpse into Ron White’s process, the incredible things he does seem a little more achievable. Not easy by any stretch of the imagination, but certainly not magic and something we mere mortals could replicate on some small scale with some time and focus.
During this episode of “Brain Games” Ron White likened himself to a mental athlete. He practices every day just like Lebron James or Missy Franklin. The only difference? His is a sport of the mind. As cool as it was to see him pull off theses amazing feats, my favorite thing that he said? “With a little practice, anyone can do it.”
When I tell people outside of the running and triathlon worlds what I do with regards to training and racing I usually get two responses in the following order… One: A look of wonder and awe sweeps over the individual’s face. This look is quickly followed up with response number two: a phrase that sounds something like “Wow! I could never EVER do that.” I’m not quite sure what to say when I hear this, but over the past year or two my retort has been very similar to White’s: “Sure you can. It just takes some training.” There is no magic involved in endurance sports. If you want to succeed, you have to endure. If you want to endure, you have to practice enduring. A lot. And consistency is everything. Swimming, cycling, running, recovering, stretching, and eating right are not optional. You have to practice every day – no skipped workouts or excuses allowed. If you can do that… Voila! Sweet sweet success.