A few weeks ago I was a guest on the ‘Age grouper for life podcast’ – the ultimate source for living the triathlon lifestyle, where USAT certified coaches Collin Cook and Elliot Kawa-oka discuss the most optimal training techniques to get athletes you where they want to be mentally and physically.
An interesting takeaway from the discussion we had on mental skills training was when Collin could not pass up the opportunity to bust Elliot’s chaps for leaving him hanging when he tried to high five him as they crossed the line on a lap during the 2014 Ironman Canada.
Elliot responded by simply saying……”I was in the zone man.”
He was so ‘locked in’ so focused that he did not even realize his good friend was trying to exchange pleasantries with him while he was running by.
This mental state is called ‘Flow’, also known colloquially as being ‘in the zone’ or ‘on a roll’.
It is the mental state of operation in which a person performing an activity is fully immersed in a feeling of energized focus, full involvement, and enjoyment in the process of the activity. In essence, it’s characterized by a complete absorption in what one does, and a resulting loss in one’s sense of space and time, an air of invincibility.
Remember that epic scene in the movie ‘The Matrix’ where the character Neo is dodging a barrage of bullets being shot at him?
To Neo, the bullets appear to be moving in slow motion, enabling him to dodge them effortlessly because he can see them coming far in advance.
Yeah, that is super cool no matter how many times you watch it.
But the concept of flow is very relevant to sports and is used interchangeably with the popular sports term “in the zone” according to a study by Young and Pain (1999).
The authors describes flow as “a state in which an athlete performs to the best of his or her ability. It’s a special, magical place where performance is exceptional and consistent, automatic and flowing where an athlete is able to ignore all the pressures and let his or her body deliver the performance that has been learned so well (Murphy, 1996, p. 4)”.
Getting into the Flow
Imagine that moment before running a race where not even deep breaths can keep your nervousness and anxiety at bay, and every second seems to be an eternity. Yet, as soon as the starting gun sounds and your feet hit the track, every thought slides from your mind.
You are focused and sure, challenging yourself to achieve something you know is right within your reach and before you know it, time has flown past, the race is over, and you barely even notice that you are exhausted.
Elliot felt something similar in his breakout performance in 2014.
“I’m always trying to chase that feeling that I had on the run where I’m sure it was my body was tired and I was pushing myself hard but it felt like I was running on air. And lately, when I’m racing, I always trying to be like alright I don’t feel like that anymore, like on the run and it’s just, it’s kind of gets into my head….”
At the end of that statement, Elliot proves how difficult it’s for athletes to enter the flow state at will.
But Claremont Graduate University psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, who popularized the term in his 1990 book Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience, alluded that with a better understanding of what the flow experience consists of, one can make the conscious decision to enter flow whenever they please.
“When a person is able to organize his or her consciousness so as to experience flow as often as possible, the quality of life is inevitably going to improve, because even the usually boring routines of work become more purposeful and enjoyable.” – excerpt from Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience.
This potential to achieve flow that Csikszentmihalyi mentioned, can be compared to the potential of controlling our thoughts or bodies through practices like meditation or yoga. But like every skill, it’s going to take intent and practice to master.
How to get into the Flow
So what can you do to increase your chances of achieving flow?
There are several things athletes can do to help them get into that state.
In another of his books ‘Finding Flow,’ Csíkszentmihályi explains that pushing ourselves outside of our comfort zone, stretching to accomplish a set goal and working toward that goal with focus, determination, and little distraction expands our minds and teaches us to be creative and develop skills that increase the quality of both the work you do and the life you live.
It has also been proven that athletes can get into that flow state faster and faster through mental skills training.
First, let’s examine the factors that can facilitate the state of flow:
- Having clear goals about what you want to achieve as well as the process to achieve those goals. Connecting to MY clear purpose!
- Concentration and focus on the present moment. What is most important now?
- Participating in an intrinsically rewarding activity. Doing what I LOVE to do!
- Knowing that your skills align with the goals of the task. You go this!
- Feeling control over the situation. Attending to the controllable.
- Optimized body and mind energy states prior to performance. I Am Ready!
Re-entering the Flow
Essentially, the flow state is the moment in sports that athletes are all striving to accomplish. But unfortunately, it’s for most, just a fleeting moment in time that is not only challenging to enter but also to re-enter at will.
As Elliot mentioned, since being in the flow state in 2014 he has always been “trying to chase that feeling” – to regain that amazingly high state of running he experienced in Canada that brought him one of the highlights of his career.
But Csíkszentmihályi’s belief is that it’s our own appraisal of the challenges we face that, not only define our athletic performance but our entire lives.
As we have already explained, the Flow state of mind has been linked with directly influencing significantly increased performance in sports, but research done by Harvard professor Teresa Amabile shows that people who have experienced this state of mind report higher levels of productivity, creativity, and happiness for up to three days after experiencing flow state.
“Flow also happens when a person’s skills are fully involved in overcoming a challenge that is just about manageable, so it acts as a magnet for learning new skills and increasing challenges…….If challenges are too low, one gets back to flow by increasing them. If challenges are too great, one can return to the flow state by learning new skills” – excerpt from the book ‘Finding Flow’
In fact, there is a systematic and empirically researched method, known as the Experience Sampling Method (ESM) that has provided results that suggest we can all find the Flow state of mind in many different settings, and that the challenging situations we encounter are actually just opportunities for us to flourish. If we don’t perceive these life challenges in such a positive appraisal we will most likely become bored, uninterested, apathetic, and more importantly, more likely to perform below our true potential.
When the overall reward extends beyond athletic performance into facilitating increased self-confidence and a clearer sense of purpose, can you really afford not to invest in flow?
We at MentalGrit can help you to achieve it.
While we can’t help you to literally dodge bullets like Neo, with our mental skills training you can learn how to experience your own matrix – to achieve that optimal state of consciousness where you feel your best and perform at your best before and during competition….at will.
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