What lies behind Peak Performance?
Five-time NBA champion Kobe Bryant, renowned not only for his outstanding physical ability and basketball prowess but for his absolute focus and “Mamba mentality”, had reported on his experience with Flow on several occasions.
“It’s hard to describe. You just feel so confident. You get your feet set and get a good look at the basket—it’s going in. Even the ones I missed I thought were going in.”
He went on to share that…
“everything becomes one noise” and that “you don’t think about the surroundings”.
An expert on extreme focus and optimum mindset, Kobe had excelled in increasing his propensity to achieve Flow. Therefore, he frequently achieved moments of peak performance, more so than his opponents. However, even Kobe Bryant struggled to maintain it, stating that “you can lose it in a second”.
In elite sport, the difference between winning and losing is often dependent on whether the athlete can reach their peak physical and technical performance when they need to, and under immense pressure. At the pinnacle of the sport, athletes train at their maximum ability day in and day out. They have access to the latest technology and training based on biomechanical perfection. These are undoubtedly advantages, but they do not define whether one becomes a champion or chokes.
The factor which truly defines athletic performance is often the ability to remain absolutely focused, and limit the mental barriers in between your ability and execution. An ability to focus on performance when distractions want to inhibit your execution.
When you can control your racing thoughts and attain absolute psychological absorption on the task at hand, your performance is ultimately greatly enhanced because there is more available attentional bandwidth in which to make decisions and execute.
During heightened states of contreation , you may also experience an effortless ease in your movements and an intrinsically rewarding sensation throughout the activity, regardless of the outcome of your performance. When these elements of deep concentration and a fluidity of action come together, it is highly rewarding, highly memorable. Indeed, many people refer to this mental state as being in the “zone”, however, in the scientific world it is referred to as the ‘Flow’ state.
When we take a look at our physiology, optimal functioning in Flow seems to be inevitable.
In flow, our mind and body display a rare state of internal synchronicity. In our brain, vital areas responsible for attentional and cognitive control amp up and sync up. Not only do functions relevant to the task power-up, brain areas which induce conflict and self-doubt such as, “Can I do this?” and “What are others thinking of me?” become increasingly inhibited. This synchronicity results in extreme focus and limited distractions by our inner and outer critics. Brain systems which ordinarily fire when our comfort or competence is threatened become down-regulated enabling further energy to be expended towards the task at hand.
That’s not all, in Flow, we can consistently and continuously make and execute effective decisions and perform confidently, despite the rising pressure. This is because parts of the brain which emotionally bias our cognition and distract our decision-making processes cease to have the same impact. This frees the mind to think clearly and make faster decisions.
In essence, Flow allows us to bypass our usual stumbling blocks, allowing our previous hard work or training to be reproduced undistracted without hesitation. This is an undeniable and very tangible advantage in competitive sports. Just imagine an F1 driver who hesitates on a bend due to emotional bias and self-doubt, compared to one in Flow.
The advantages of Flow in our performances are not just limited to the effortless replication of learnt behaviour. In Flow, we often find another gear or utilize our skills unexpectedly and creatively. Once the shackles are unlocked, the brain naturally utilizes the optimal system for the task, moment to moment, and the conflicting parts of our brain are bypassed. The brain becomes free to maximise the best of our innate biology, and the net result is that our decision-making abilities and capacity to perform jump through the roof.
Flow is surely the state responsible for the pinnacle of one’s performance, yet the current adoption and prioritization of Flow is rarely present in performing circles. We only need to look past the podiums of the world’s performance arenas to see a plethora of anxiety-driven, demotivated, burnt out, choking, and frustrated performers in need of restorative psychologists.
Flow needs the attention it deserves, so we can harness its power and perform better than we ever thought possible.
In understanding what permits you into the Flow state, we must first dissolve the delusion that our optimal performances are an act of talent (full stop). An act exclusive to the beholders of natural talent.
To the contrary, we’ve all felt Flow before; whether you were a child helplessly absorbed in a puzzle or a writer whose pen is flowing effortlessly. It is a very natural state that is attainable for all. A state that has been scientifically studied for decades.
When purposefully seeking the state of peak performance, however, it is incredibly hard to find and even harder to maintain. Which is why we exist, to help everyone find and sustain Flow in their lives.
If you are interested in cultivating Flow into your life experiences, we have an excellent team of experts who have dedicated their lives to understanding and teaching flow in others. We offer one-to-one coaching as well as evidence-based online courses updated constantly based on cutting edge flow research. Join our community and become a Flow Seeker.
Think less, be more.