Sunday, December 4, 2011

Performing 'In a Flow,' 'In the Zone' - A Form of Mindfulness

In another article, I referred to the work of Eckhart Tolle, who advocates that people make spending time "in the moment" their primary mode of being. It's a spiritual message, because the failure to do so means failing to live an authentic life.

I'm a big sports fan, and one of the big fascinations for me is how the top performers do what they do on the playing field. How does a football team fall behind 0 to 10 and end up winning 42 to 10? How does a basketball player attempt a clutch 3-point shot at the end of a close game, with three defenders trying to block him - and make the shot? How does a professional golfer hit a shot to the green 200 yards away, in 30 mph swirling and gusting wind, with trees blocking his view of the pin - and land the ball within 3 feet of the hole? And on and on. This kind of achievement fascinates me.

Watching this sort of thing makes me think of what Tolle and others say about mindfulness and living in the moment. Because it's impossible to perform in competition without making a horrible, costly mistake. It happens almost every time. But the top players don't dwell on what has happened. And they don't think much about what could happen in the future. Their discipline is to focus their attention on the experience of making the play that is right in front of the present moment. Bad things happen, they react to them, and in only a few moments they stop thinking about it. In other words, they practice mindfulness in their sport.

You've heard people talk about "being in the zone," especially as it relates to sports. Broadcasters say this when a player is executing at the full capacity of his skill, making one outstanding play after another. What's really happening is that the athlete has turned off his mind and is executing automatically what he has programmed his brain to do. He may have thought about details of technique and how-to during thousands of hours or practice. But the purpose of practice is to wire the brain to execute the skill automatically. You can't do anything in an outstanding way if you have to think about how to do it while you're doing it. You have to just do it.

This "flow" is also a form of mindfulness. You have to be fully present, in the moment. You can't be thinking about anything in the past or about future consequences. These things have nothing to do with performing well in the present moment.

Things like overconfidence and loss of composure are related to failures to be present in the moment. They come from thinking too much about the future or the past.

Of course this applies to any human endeavor, not just to sports, whether playing music, speaking in public, dealing with people or writing a novel.

Do you remember a time when you were "in a flow" or "in the zone," performing at a high level? It's a wonderful thing. Top performers have learned to shift into that mode at will. If you're an ambitious, success-oriented person who wants to perform at your best, I encourage you to learn how to consciously execute that shift.

And how would you learn to do this? Why, how you get good at doing doing it more often, doing it a lot, until the doing becomes second nature and you can do it without thinking about it.

Post by Dennis E. Coates, Ph.D., Copyright 2011. Building Personal Strength . (Permission to use image purchased from

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