It's quite a conceptual twist to compare healers in World of Warcraft to elite athletes. After all, the image of healers is that of somewhat effete, scholarly individuals in robes (bafflingly, even mail- and plate-wearing healers often get robe-like garments) who worry over injuries. The clinical term for this image is "sissies." But, in fact, healers perform the most like elite athletes and, hey, it's a good self-image to foster, so let's go with it.
Since WoW is not a physical game (outside of dextrous fingers, perhaps), it is really the mental side of things that I'm discussing. I'm a fairly big fan of watching great athletes perform and one trait has become clear to me as common among all top athletes and that trait is crucial for top healers. That trait is how to think in the heat of the moment.
Thinking Is Bad
I know, I know. You've always been told that it's good to think. When it comes to the mental side of life, you won't find many people who are anti-thinking (opportunity for political joke purposely passed up). But honestly, where has it gotten you? If you're an athlete or healer, the answer is "Not far." At least, not while you're in the midst (opportunity for sexual joke purposely passed up).
You see, athletes struggle when they fall into the thinking trap. Professional sports moves at far too quick a pace to be pondering your next move. If you get the ball, turn to face the defense and think about what you're going to do next...chances are, by the time you decide, the ball has already been taken from you and scored on the other end. That's too slow. The state you have to be in is having encoded a high level pattern-matching into your neural pathways such that you can see the defense and instantly transform what you see into an action. We could call that instinct, but that connotes a born-in nature that is not necessarily the case. You can acquire some or all of this from massive amounts of practice and experience. In some sense, you're completely bypassing the conscious thought center of the brain and operating on a subconscious level. This level is woefully inadequate to handle life in general, but can possess specialized synapses for transforming a scene in front of you, in a specialized situation (like a basketball game), into a series of commands to your muscles. By the time your conscious mind catches up, it's only to realize what you've already done...the play is over.
That kind of read-and-react magic is instrumental for healing in a raid, for anyone who's not a dedicated tank healer. A dedicated tank healer is much like a DPS...they don't have to process as quickly (though, quicker processing is always helpful) because they tend to fall into a more reptitive rhythm with much tighter constraints. DPS, these days, is no longer the purely reptitive "rotation," but even with a priority-and-proc based system, the range of possible situations is quite a bit lower than is faced by healers. This is in no way meant to diminish the difficulty of DPS...great DPS is just as difficult as healing, but in a different way. A way that I'm not concerning myself with here (but, if I were to use a metaphor for it, I'd use a great musician, not an athlete).
As a healer who has multiple people to keep alive, you simply cannot be operating at the relatively slow speed of: "Okay, what heal should I cast now? Let's see, four people are hurt, but they're not all in the same party...further, one is especially hurt...but a different person is more important to keep alive...maybe I should cast..." Even at the speed that the mind can go through all those conditions (much faster than it took to write or read those words), it is still too slow. You can't consciously be breaking down the situation every GCD in order to make a decision. Damage goes out far too quickly for that, especially in certain stages of the fight.
No, you have to be Michael Jordan or Gale Sayer or Barry Sanders (yes, that was an awfully American-centric list of great athletes; I'm American, that's how it goes. Okay, okay, I'll throw in Pelé for the international crowd). You have to be moving before your conscious brain has processed what you're doing. It has to be pure pattern-matching automatic reaction. Developed instinct.
How do you develop that instinct? Lots and lots and lots of practice. You have to heal a massive amount of fights. And the fights that will help you the most are the hard ones...the ones that make you think healing is a shitty, thankless job of keeping stupid people alive despite all their stupid mistakes. The more damage that is happening, the more you have to do in every moment, the more you're burning in patterns by a very natural and biological process of automatically connecting actions with results. In this situation you cast a Prayer of Healing and it did a laughably bad job of saving anyone. In this situation you used a Greater Healing Wave followed by a Riptide followed by a Chain Heal and kept everyone alive when you thought they'd die. The process of successes and failure creates patterns of neural activity that are then better equipped to match an action to the next scene of healing it sees...which reinforces and refines those patterns of neural activity that are then better equipped to match an action to...well, rinse and repeat. It's the feedback loop of learning. But it takes a lot of exposure to what you're learning.
The more you refine those neural patterns, though, the less your conscious mind will interfere with your ability to "feel" the situation and fire out the right action, moment by moment. Just like Jordan attacking three defenders near the basket, or Barry Sanders encircled by five defenders all intent on doing him harm. They don't "know" how they get through those defenders...they just do get through the defenders and they do it automatically. Later, maybe they or an outside analyst could break down what they did...but it was all by the magic of pattern matching at the time. They saw the defenders, their neural circuits transformed the vision into actions and their muscles carried it out. That is how you heal Magmaw or Chimaeron or Lady Sinestra. See the damage in your Grid, see the fail spot that may be under your feet and let your neural circuits transform it into actions.
Thinking Is Good
Wait, but isn't thinking bad? Didn't I just write an obscene amount about that very topic? Yes, yes I did. But I changed my mind and didn't want to delete everything I just wrote.
Well, not really. There are different levels of thinking. There's the short-term "What do I do next?" thinking and then there's the long-term big picture thinking. This second sort of thinking goes more like: "Where are we in this fight? How should we be deploying our resources for the next phase of the fight? Why were we put here on this Earth? What does it all mean?"
Those last two questions are beyond the scope of this piece. But, hopefully, you get the idea. Not having to consciously think about what you are doing moment to moment does not mean you should zone out and dream about winning the lottery. You could do that, but what a waste...what, then, would you think about when zoning out in work meetings? No, what freeing up your conscious mind does for you is allow you to monitor the fight overall, figure out how it's going and start determining your personal strategy for later on in the fight.
After all, there are cooldowns to be employed and possibly large scale positioning changes to be made and maybe you'll want to hand off a healing target to another healer, or take on theirs, for one reason or another. All these things are good things to be pondering while your fingers are busy doing what they do (opportunity for masturbation joke bypassed). Your subconscious mind is hard at work pattern-matching while your conscious mind is hard at work monitoring and strategizing. You see, contrary to popular legend, we use all of our brains...we're just consciously aware of only a part of it.
I Think I'm Done Here (The Big Finish)
Healing and DPS are as different, as I alluded to before, as being a great athlete is from being a great musician. They are both exceedingly difficult, but in different ways. For DPS, it's about muscle memory and establishing a dynamic rhythm. For healers, though, it's about creating specialized patterns of neurons that have "learned" what patterns of damage visible in your raid frames result in what actions. There are an infinite amount of patterns of damage, so these neurons don't work like a list of damage->action rule pairs. They see the damage as overlapping courses of action, with one of those courses of actions winning out at any given time.
So be like Mike, as our corporate overlords urge. Develop these instincts and free your conscious mind for wondering why you're even in that raid, healing a bunch of losers who stand in fire. It's a much better question to be pondering than what healing spell to cast next.