Focus and Flow

If only we could perform at our peak every day, every game, in everything we do. However, life happens and we must deal with many stressors that affect the way we perform. We have stressors that distract us and create chaos in our lives. In life, bad things happen that create anxiety, we have poor relationships, on the field pressures, school exams, fear of failure, fear of making mistakes, a need to impress someone. How do athletes find a way to overcome such obstacles, to put on their game face on and stay focused on the task at hand? 

I am coaching a few teams in which the kids are very distracted. As a result, our performance is inconsistent. I started asking myself, what do I need to do to create more focus? I believe we can go from average to really good with some strategies to get us dialed in; to get our minds right. 

I picked up a book called The Mindful Athlete, Secrets to Pure Performance, by George Mumford. The goal in any performance is to play “in the zone”. To play in such a way that as to be in the present with no distractions. To just be. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi says “flow (being in the zone), occurs when both challenges and skill are high and equal to each other.”  He says, “flow is the act of being completely involved in an activity for its own sake. The ego falls away, time flies. Every action, movement, and thought follows inevitably from the previous one, like playing jazz. Your whole being is involved and your using your skills to the utmost”.  Bill Russell, former NBA MVP describes the zone experience “every so often a Celtic game would heat up so that it became more than a physical or even mental game, and would become magical…” (the rest of the quote can be found in the book Mindful Athlete)

When one is in the zone these things are present: (taken out of the book as well)

1.     Focused on the present
2.     Time slowed down
3.     Intuit how next play would go without thinking about it
4.     Winning was not on the mind, enjoy the journey
5.     Everything/everyone connected in an energetic/unified way
6.     Experience transcended physical/mental; consciousness expanded and self went away.
7.     Increased performance

George Mumford states that “our monkey brain”, all the distractions and thoughts bouncing around in our heads prevent us from experiencing the flow or the zone. How do we make calm out of the storm? He contends that there is a space where calmness can exist in the chaos. He calls this “the eye of the hurricane” where the athlete who can quiet the storm can achieve optimal performance. Joseph Campbell says “performing properly” when we have not found the center within, we react to stimulus from outside with our monkey mind rather than responding to it from a quiet space that we can create between stimulus and response, thus “tension comes”. We don’t perform well. We get so swept up in what’s happening around us, notably all the reactive chatter in our minds, in our emotions, and in our bodies, that we lose touch with the present moment and disconnect from the quiet place within”..

Mumford writes about this calm place being the space between stimulus and response. The stimulus can be fear, anxiety, anger that comes from things that agitate us. For example, we can become angry by a poor call from an official. The anger now takes up space in our mind. It distracts us from playing our best. Mumford has some ideas of how to manage or learn to manage the anger, to let it go in space between stimulus and response. It seems easy, however, some of the habits or reactions to certain things have been learned and imprinted in us. In the book, Mumford provides strategies, for example, meditation, to learn to train the mind to get to this calm state of mind. I suggest you read this book to dive into this topic more deeply.  This is just a short synopsis of the book The Mindful Athlete, Secrets to Pure Performance.  I hope you enjoy it as much as I did.