How to Hardwire Joy Into Your Training

Start to shift your goals to align with enjoying the journey of training instead of only focusing on the desired outcomes. In this article, Scott Carney gives us insight into his new book The Wedge. How to hardwire joy into your training, how to use your conscious mind to alter or delay subconscious reactions, and more.

Scott Carney

Scott Carney

Investigative journalist and anthropologist Scott Carney has worked in some of the most dangerous and unlikely corners of the world. His work blends narrative non-fiction with ethnography. What Doesn’t Kill Us was a New York Times bestseller; other works include The Red Market and A Death on Diamond Mountain and The Wedge. Carney was a contributing editor at Wired for five years and his writing also appears in Mother Jones, Men’s Journal, Playboy, Foreign Policy, Discover, Outside and Fast Company. His work has been the subject of a variety of radio and television programs, including on NPR and National Geographic TV.

// Getting into Group Flow, a New Way to Set Goals, and Other Performance Lessons from Scott Carney’s “The Wedge”

The brain and nervous system are two of the most underserved areas of human performance, but yet might well hold the key to better physical and cognitive outputs that elevate you above your competition. 

In the first segment of this two-part interview, New York Times bestselling author/award-winning investigative reporter Scott Carney (who you might know from his book What Doesn’t Kill Us) explained how to insert a pause between stimulus and response, use your breath to control pre-game nerves, and get started with contrast therapy (heat + cold). 

Now, we turn our attention to how to hardwire joy into your training, what to do to get your training partners into a group flow state, how to use your conscious mind to alter or delay subconscious reactions, and more.

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In your book, you talk about how kettlebell passing slams you and your partner into group flow. What can sports teams do to access that state of deep embodiment?

The thing about the wedge is that there are many ways to do it – it’s not just one technique. 

To set up wedge training, you should expose your group to an external threat or stress. 

Then create an environment in which everyone’s focus is on this external thing, and they’re all working on that object together, not so much paying attention to each other’s movement. 

That’s how you get into flow very quickly.

In a way, a good soccer game is ideally a flow state, where everyone’s following the soccer ball, and their eyes are on the ball. 

That’s the threat. That’s the stress. That’s where everyone’s in concert. 

If the whole team knows where the ball is, they’re also intuitively aware of where the other players are on the field. That’s when you’re in flow. 

You break out of flow when you start putting your attention on other objects. When the roar of the crowd becomes the object that you pay attention to, for example, that’s what distracts you.

In one of my favorite passages in The Wedge, you write something like, “If we work out with a purpose, the sheer joy of the experience, that positive association hardwired joy into our nervous system.” Can you explain this?

Sure. 

If you’re feeling a little tubby, maybe you set a goal of losing five or ten pounds. 

Then the entire goal of each workout is losing that weight, which is essentially born out of telling yourself, “I’m fat.” You’re hardwiring the goal of losing weight with anxiety, and when you’re training, you are working for your anxiety. 

For me, that’d be a terrible thing. But it’s one of the most common goals that people have in gyms around the world.

They’re performing physical movements out of a space of self hate, or at least self reduction. 

Whereas if you did the same exercises, and said to yourself, “I’m doing this workout because I love it,” I believe you’d see better results. 

This is because you’d be hardwiring joy into what you’re doing, rather than letting the desired outcome and the motivation behind it dictate everything. 

Don’t go to a gym if you don’t like gyms. 

Find something physical that you like doing. I really love cycling, doing yoga, and throwing kettlebells. 

These are the things that actively bring me joy, because I like doing them. Once you find that thing you love, pursue it, do it often, and try to excel at it. 

Can you expand on the topic of goal setting a little?

There’s nothing wrong with wanting to win a race, but only one person can achieve that. 

What about everyone else in the field? 

They should still be able to get something positive out of the experience. You need to do things like running because they make you a fuller person. In the future, nobody will remember who won that race, unless it’s an Olympic final. 

For the rest of us – the 99 percent – there needs to be a different motivation. You should want to run that race or play on a team because you love it. If not, what’s the point? 

I also believe that top performers probably fall into two camps. 

They’re either in flow states the whole time because they find fulfillment in what they’re doing. They are in the moment and this is who they were meant to be. Or they fall into the other camp, where they are grinding and breaking themselves to get that last two tenths of a second off their race time, and it’s killing them.

We are too focused on winning and not focused enough on living.

What you said about hardwiring joy into training and competing also relates to the topic of neural symbols, which is a key tenet of your book. Can you riff on this subject a little?

The more time we spend acting out of positive associations, the more these bond with whatever the ambient conditions are. 

You’re literally hardwiring your brain, which is creating these things called neural symbols that inform absolutely every way in which you perceive the world around you. It can also work the other way, and negative past experiences can color future ones. 

For example, when one person watches a fireworks display, they think it’s the best thing ever. But when someone who’s traumatized with PTSD from their time in the military sees the flashes and hears the bangs, they want to run and hide. 

They’re seeing and hearing the same thing, but their context is very different. 

The first person who enjoys the fireworks has only positive associations between past experiences and the emotions they elicited. But for the former soldier, it’s not the same. And it might not only be loud noises and bright lights that trigger them. 

Perhaps they were walking through a market in Afghanistan on the day of their traumatic experience. 

They smelled tea wafting from one stall and heard children singing, and felt the warmth of the sunshine on their back. Then everything got blown to hell.

That explosion and the trauma and violence of that explosion are now wired in with the smell of tea, the children’s songs, and even the sunshine. 

The next time they experience these sensory stimuli, it could trigger a panic response and bring them back to that emotional moment of trauma, violence, and death.

Could deprivation or isolation tanks help someone who is dealing with such PTSD, or maybe even less severe negative associations?

In some cases. 

These tanks remove external stimuli, so all you’re left with is what’s going on inside you. 

The research shows that putting someone who is hypervigilant and overreacting to everything in a sensory deprivation tank for just an hour can break the negative cycle. 

So you find a lot of people who go into a tank coming out with significantly reduced anxiety because they’ve interrupted that cycle of emotion and sensation and stopped reinforcing it. 

PTSD is an extreme example, but everything we experience in the world is a combination of sensation and emotion. That’s what creates a neural symbol. These symbols are the bits and bytes of all human cognition of everything you’ve ever done in your entire life. 

Every thought, every book you’ve ever written, every book you’ve ever read, it’s all encoded in that little core kernel of information, emotion, sensation, and experience. And then that kicks it up to the higher brain functions. 

With techniques like breath work, contrast therapy, and getting into a sensory deprivation tank, you can start to replace a negative neural symbol with a more beneficial association by attaching new, positive emotions to stimuli you used to perceive as stressful. 

That doesn’t happen overnight, but if you can get in between stimulus and response and insert a moment of conscious choice or action, that’s a start.

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