Subconscious competence

Mark Cavendish is probably the greatest cycling sprinter of my lifetime, if not ever. When you see video of him in a sprint finish, it seems clear his superiority is a function of incredible physical gifts, he flies past other sprinters as if they're towing a cement block. 

But this interview suggests part of his dominance owes to a near photographic memory. 

“If I do a circuit,” he assures me, “then after three laps I could tell you where all the potholes were.”

Cavendish cannot say when or how he developed his photographic memory. All he knows is that he possesses an extraordinary gift for absorbing his surroundings. All cyclists reconnoitre the courses they will ride, learning the cambers, getting a feel for the twists. For Cavendish, knowledge comes more naturally. When he first applied to join the British Cycling academy as a teenager, coach Rod Ellingworth asked him to describe his journey.

Cavendish was able to describe his trip from the Isle of Man to Manchester in minute detail: the road numbers, the towns he went through, the times he went through them. Ellingworth realised he had an unusual talent on his hands.


Is he a genius? “Last time I did an IQ test I was, yeah.” But a very particular sort of genius. “You called it conscious subconscious competence,” Cavendish’s agent Simon Bayliff pipes up from the back of the room. “You know when an athlete is in the zone? There’s actually a stage beyond that, where you are actually conscious of your subconscious. There’s a ladder: conscious incompetence, then conscious competence, then subconscious competence, which is the zone.”

“Now I have no f------ idea what he’s talking about,” Cavendish says, and we all laugh.

Another sport in which spatial perception and pattern recognition is critical is football, especially for the quarterback. A huge part of Peyton Manning or Tom Brady's performance is their ability to deliver a football accurately, but before the play even starts, they're already looking at the position of opposing defensive players like an array of opponent chess pieces and making some decisions as to first, second, and third options for that play.

Elite point guards in the NBA also seem to have an instinctive ability to read the alignment of players on a court and make the optimal decision as to how to get the ball to the right player at the right point in space to optimize expected shot outcomes. 

Perhaps the reason world class athletes sound so uninteresting when describing great plays they've made is that they've reached this level of “subconscious competence”; after all, if what you did was “subconscious” it may be beyond your own ability to verbalize.