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October 14, 2009

Human history is a continuing story of accommodation and adaptation to change. How humans perceived and reacted to change guided the development of societies and shaped the world in which we now live. Perception itself — the ability to recognize and analyze change — became the fundamental tool in human relations with the forces of nature, upon which mankind’s survival depended.

As human history progressed and the development of modern creature comforts like secure housing and continuous food supplies insulated us from the day–to–day vagaries of life in the wild, the need for the highest levels of perception were eroded away bit by bit. The average human could get through a day, a month, a year, yes — even a lifetime — without the need for high levels of perception and split–second decision–making.

The comfort zone that humans created for themselves led inevitably to an erosion of the very survival skills that allowed them to thrive in the first place. However, select fields of human endeavor still depended on higher states of perception. With life or death on the line, those in the military, firefighters, policemen, mountain climbers, deep sea divers and the like retained the need to be ever–vigilant; to perceive and react to constantly changing situations.

At the same time, those who chose to pursue higher planes of activity in the arts and athletics were compelled to nurture their perceptive abilities. Even as a master wine taster can tell you the grape, the vintage, the country of origin and the type of soil — blindfolded — an accomplished ballerina or pianist can recognize and shape the finest nuance of a performance, making corrections to flaws most of us would never notice.

In sports, as well, the most accomplished athletes are guided by an elevated level of perception, understanding intuitively each deviation from perfect form and constantly working to correct flaws that detract from their performances. By contrast, most weekend warriors and mediocre athletes concern themselves very little with perception and are content just to put in time at their favored activity.

The many definitions of perception underscore its vital role in human activity:
  • “awareness of the elements of environment through physical sensation” (1);
  • “a single unified awareness derived from sensory process while a stimulus is present”;
  • “the act or faculty of apprehending by means of senses or of the mind; cognition; understanding”;
  • “immediate or intuitive recognition, as a moral or aesthetic qualities; an artist of rare perception” (2);
  • “a complex process of receiving and interpreting of information, providing for the organism ability to reflect the existing reality and orientation in surrounding world” (3).

These definitions demonstrate that perception incorporates all senses, feelings and mental activity during human interaction with surrounding nature. In others words, without acutely developed perceptive abilities, we’re unlikely to do anything truly well.

The main organ of the perception is the brain. How the brain functions was beautifully described in Lawrence Gonzales’ “Deep Survival” (4): “(the brain) receives images from receptors in the body and from the sense organs that take in the outside world. (The images can be smells, sights, sounds, or feelings (Fig.4.1)). At the same time, the brain provides a stream of outputs that shape the body’s reactions to the environment and itself, from adjusting blood pressure to mating. So the brain reads the state of the body and makes fine adjustments, even while it reads the environment and directs the body in reacting to it. In addition, that process continually reshapes the brain by making new connections. All of this is aimed at one thing only: adaptation, which is another word for survival.”

Another aspect of survival is how quickly we learn to do everything that we need to survive. Gregory Bateson (Fig.4.2), a great American scientist, wrote (5) that learning, and “science is a way of perceiving… But perception operates only upon difference. All receipt of information is necessarily the receipt of news of difference (Fig.4.3), and all perception of difference is limited by threshold. Differences that are too slight or too slowly presented are not perceivable. They are not food for perception. Knowledge at any given moment will be a function of the thresholds of our available means of perception”

This important part of learning has an intrinsic relationship with the development of our biomechanical abilities and skill development in sports training and performance.

Our progress will only be as good as our ability to differentiate one movement from another, one effort from another. Our success in taking in and processing all the signals, all the information about our body position in space, the timing of our movements and the level of efforts exerted will determine our success in the given sport.

Examples of highly developed perceptive abilities abound in sport. World–class high jumpers are reputed to be able to “feel” the difference when one support for the bar is a mere half–centimeter higher than the other support. Olympic weight lifters can recognize the difference when the weights on one side of the bar are but a few ounces heavier than those on the other side. Professional basketball players have been known to stop a game to point out that the back of the rim is a half–inch lower than the front.

While this list could go on indefinitely, the essence of it is that perception is the cornerstone of skill development. Assuming that skill is the ability to use all available sources of information and feedback to reach the desired goal, then it follows that those sources are only available through the highest levels of perception. With acute perceptive abilities, we recognize signals, evaluate deviations from the desired standard, and make the necessary corrections. Everything is based on perception: the guideline for our development in technique, mental and psychological condition or the physical attributes of strength, speed, endurance and flexibility.

In order to raise our athletic performances to a higher level, we must develop the ability to perceive and shape all the movements and variables in our chosen sport. Just as a ballerina’s virtuoso performance is refined by the development of high levels of perception development, so to be the efforts of runners, swimmers and cyclists.

Exerpt from Chapter 4: The Perception Concept, from "The Pose Method of Triathlon Techniques".

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