Whether you think you can or you think you can’t… you’re right!

“It is the brain, not the heart or lungs that is the critical organ. It’s the brain.” So said Roger Bannister, the first person to run the mile in less than four minutes. A feat that had previously been declared humanly impossible; yet one that was repeated by many runners after Bannister showed it was possible.

The Department of Sports and Exercise at Northumbrian University just concluded a clever experiment that substantiates Bannister’s quote. A group of cyclists was repeatedly asked to pedal as hard as they could for four thousand meters on a stationary bike, effectively establishing their performance limit. They then raced against an avatar, which they were told was moving at their previous best pace. But in fact, keeping up with the avatar required 2% more power than the cyclists’ best performances. And yet, the cyclists consistently kept up with the virtual (and deceptive) self, rising to beat the avatar in the final meters! When told that the avatar would be going 2% faster than their personal bests, by comparison, the cyclists gave up early and matched their previous bests…

Two percent may not sound like much, but in the world of competitive sports it can be the difference between an also-ran and a gold medal. In Bannister’s case it would be the difference between a 4.04 mile (which had been run before) and the 3.59 performance he gave.

It begs the question: what can we do to convince ourselves we can accomplish what seems beyond our reach? Because if “it’s the brain”, another quote comes to mind, this time form Henry Ford who had already found success when Bannister was born: “Whether you think you can or you think you can’t, you’re right.”