Why expert writing is like elite athletic performance

Expert writing is like working as a professional athlete

Table of Contents

Expert writing is more than placing the right word one after the other. Translating domain knowledge and communicating new insight in a language everyone can understand requires skill and effort. The process of doing so can be remarkable and, in many ways, akin to elite athletic performance.

‘Expert’ is a word that gets thrown around often. Various media channels and sources offer bite-size content by so-called experts with click-bait titles. The result is invariably disappointment, when the reader discovers they have fallen for the trap again, with nothing useful to show for their time.

Undoubtedly there is skill of a sort to creating this kind of superficially eye catching content. But increasingly it backfires, devaluing and discrediting the source. Like fast food, it is as quick to make as it is to consume, and usually leaves a bad taste in the mouth.

There are no short cuts to creating content that is truly both valuable and valued.

Days, months, and years of deliberate and goal-oriented training leads to elite writing performance. Movements and keystrokes become more efficient and assured. As writers mature from novice to expert, they master essential skills, acquire experience, and begin to write with autonomy. 

Expert brain activity is efficient

Suppose you ask a novice to play a piano piece. More brain regions will become active compared to professionals (1).  Think Christmas tree versus corner reading lamp. 

At first, this result may seem perplexing. You might expect the expert to register more complex brain activity. However, the scientific findings reflect years of goal-oriented training and may explain why elite athletes perform complex movements effortlessly.

Professional piano players and elite athletes undergo massive brain changes during years of training. The brain reorganizes to create efficient neuronal connections.

In fact, much of today’s understanding of elite or expert performance stems from scientific studies of piano players (2). Scientists used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to measure brain activity during imagined piano playing and compare the activity between professionals and novices. 

A novice, one could say, must exert more cognitive effort. Hence, more thinking is involved, and their brain lights up like a pinball machine when performing the same piano piece as an expert.

Expert writers spend years cultivating their craft. They master domain knowledge and skills with the same professional attitude as elite basketball and baseball players.  These expert writers create efficient neural networks related to their profession and skill during that time. 

Reading, writing, and evaluating scientific and authoritative sources are essential skills to master.  Once achieved, these expert writers have the foundation to take advantage of ‘writers’ flow’. 

Yet many expert writers fail to achieve writer’s flow and, like elite athletes, choke when pressure and deadlines loom. 

Similarities between writer’s block and choking

Some of the best writing occurs when writers experience flow and may be the same psychological state as when an athlete is in ‘the zone’. What may appear as effortless writing to others reflects years of experience digesting and translating complex science and authority sources.

So why do some writers experience writer’s block?

Overthinking leads to underperformance

According to sports science literature, many elite athletes underperform or choke due to self-doubt and overthinking (2).

Asking an elite athlete to explain how to perform a movement in slow motion is actually a difficult task for them. Explaining the task becomes difficult because they need to think about the sequence of movements.

Just like teaching a child how to tie their shoelaces, the automaticity disappears once you start thinking about the movement. Thus, choking often occurs when an athlete starts overthinking every movement. Thinking interferes with the autonomy of the movement and leads to poor performance.

In the case of writers, that could be every word. Overthinking may result from self-doubt or external pressure, such as a deadline, that sneaks into thought. These sneaky thoughts challenge what our otherwise non-thinking selves would do.

What it means to be in the expert writing zone

In the mid-to-late 2000s, scientists discovered that athletic performance was poor when athletes correctly reported the preciseness of their actions when a sound chimed. In contrast, athletes who gave imprecise answers performed much better (3).  Again, the results seem perplexing at first. 

An interpretation is that when athletes are in the zone, they do not attend to irrelevant stimuli, like the chime, or think about what they are doing. 

When in the zone, there is no room for self-doubt. Instead, athletes are focused on achieving the goal and not on individual actions per se. 

The secret to becoming a baseball star

This research study revealed expert baseball players focus only on hitting the baseball, they do not question whether they should swing or where the bat head will be located after the pitch. Questioning what they are doing would interfere with the autonomy they trained for many years to achieve. 

Knowing where the location of the bat head is after a pitch places attention on their movements and not the goal. Going back to the scientific study, elite athletes who focused on the movement rather than the goal answered the research question correctly. In contrast, those answering incorrectly had a better batting average (4).

But what’s that got to do with writing?

Just like with the most successful elite athletes, being in the zone may underpin a writer’s flow. Allowing self-doubt to enter can interfere with the creative process and lead to writer’s block. 

Thus, if you are experiencing flow, follow that lead and trust your training and domain knowledge. And if you are working with a writer, focus on creating an environment that supports the writer’s flow.  You can even guide them to our elite writing tips here

The moment we start writing to win

Expert content writers and the companies they help compete for attention. Accepting and acknowledging we are playing a competitive game is the moment we start playing and writing to win – and we should, as there is a lot at stake.

Writing without authoritative sources and domain knowledge is merely an opinion. As more opinions and disinformation flood the feeds of our audiences, the noisier the feed and the harder it becomes for our audiences to truly listen.

Many businesses and organizations have valuable products, services, and information. And many purchasing decisions could offer significant benefits to us and the world around us – reducing climate change, encouraging healthy lifestyles, making sustainability happen, and helping us overcome adversity. But the noise and competition make it hard for these messages to break through. 

Viewing the work expert writers bring to your content marketing strategy in the same way we view an elite athlete’s win is a game-changing mindset. So the question becomes: what kind of writer do you want to have on your team? 

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Not to worry, we’re here to provide access to plenty of original content, vetted and backed by trustworthy sources for your content marketing efforts.

At ContentAvenue, we believe in the power of originality, quality, and integrity to help you engage your audiences and exceed your goals.

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  1. Krings, T., Topper, R., Foltys, H., Erberich, S., Sparing, R., Willmes, K., & Thron, A. (2000). Cortical activation patterns during complex motor tasks in piano players and control subjects. A functional magnetic resonance imaging study. Neuroscience Letters, 278(3), 189-193.
  2. Münte, T. F., Altenmüller, E., & Jäncke, L. (2002). The musician’s brain as a model of neuroplasticity. Nature Reviews Neuroscience, 3(6), 473-478. doi:10.1038/nrn843
  3. Gray, R. (2004). Attending to the execution of a complex sensorimotor skill: Expertise differences, choking, and slumps. Journal of Experimental Psychology. Applied, 10(1), 42-54. doi:10.1037/1076-898X.10.1.42
  4. Castaneda, B., & Gray, R. (2007). Effects of focus of attention on baseball batting performance in players of differing skill levels. Journal of Sport & Exercise Psychology, 29(1), 60-77. doi:10.1123/jsep.29.1.60
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