After watching a fantastic film called ‘Whiplash’ I feel almost obliged to inflame a topic that is wide open for debate in many modern day performance arenas. How do we push people beyond their limits?
The film brilliantly depicts the relationship between an ambitious student jazz musician and an abusive, yet highly respected instructor. The student, Teller, is seeking to be more than just a great drummer, but ‘one of the greats’. His teacher, Simmons, equally is only looking to shape and mould the next musical genius. Simmons methods of coaching are outrageous and would send most psychologists into red alert, as his abusive conduct produces heart-broken and dysfunctional teenagers.
His position as Head of Music for the most prestigious school in the country is undoubtedly the reason these students remain in his class despite being physically, mentally and emotional abused in the hope that one day they will graduate as a name to remember. Teller’s remarkable talent is questionably furthered by Simmons who pushes him to his limits and in the process opens up much food for thought and topics for debate surrounding performance.
His methods of gutting their confidence, and putting their heads under the guillotine every time they play installs a fear induced motivation that ironically leaves the musicians driven to train harder and faster than they have before. Simmons uses his power to great effect and yields nothing but exceptional results, yet causes the musicians a life of discontent, isolation, and madness. Simmons power-plays back Teller into a corner where he is either forced to perform or crack. Teller like most of us does both over time but at the end his anguish and determination ignites a mind-blowing peak performance just when he needs it most.
The story is fitting with much of the training that we associate happening decades ago and is still publicly rife in places like China, as they arguably abuse young athletes until they reach a level of perfection. The obvious commentary is that these methods are not only inhumane but also unsustainable – the performers are the ones who have to live inside their twisted minds and bodies long after the lights go out.
This approach leaves behind many broken minds and bodies that given alternative training may have blossomed into something quite unique and amazing. However, Simmons argues the point in the film, that anything else will simply not produce the next genius that will be remembered for generations. This strategy of work harder, faster, until you drop, at a lesser extent is undoubtedly a typical go to response for most coaches, even today. I see it on tennis courts, in fitness instructors, and corporations reminiscing a hangover from World War II that never went away. Although coaches have adopted the social norms and limits that counteract these extreme teachings the underpinning philosophy still bubbles underneath the surface – I see fear installed in many students and workers all around me.
As performers or coaches it forces us to answer the question: How do we go about pushing our limits and of those around us? Do we use fear as a motivator, which always seems to get short-term results but continuously fails to generate lasting desire. Telling ourselves to pull our socks up and do better for the fear of looking like a fool or being somehow belittled is no doubt one of our go-to strategies. One that many of us have been brought up with and use on a day-to-day basis. If we are to not use this strategy, and change a lifetime of conditioning, then what do we use?
With flow as our central ethos there is another method, one that produces self-generated motivation, fulfilled performers and doesn’t reduce the bar of excellence that is needed to be ‘one of the greats’. When our focus is 100% committed on being the best version of ourselves, do we expect anything less than hard work, determination and resilience? Absolutely not. If we do then I would question whether we are seeking flow or an excuse to go easy on ourselves.
Being in an intense state of flow requires our mind and body to be completely congruent. That means every fabric of our body being aligned to achieve the same goal. In this space there is no room for conflict, fear or separation, instead we are completely immersed and at one with the task at hand. To attain this state repeatedly, it would seem logical we need to have our minds and body congruently primed in our training and life as a whole. If otherwise, these conflicts no matter how small will act like splinters, which will undoubtedly lead to cracks in the system and when the pressure mounts most likely cause us to crumble.
We can reach flow through fear or hatred by erupting to a point where we snap and either find our true magnificence or a road to destruction. This snapping point tips us into a place where we transcend out of our body and into the zone that is ironically free from fear and anger. The fear can increase our arousal to a point where we are forced to plug into the moment and let go or be crippled by it and fight, fly or freeze. Although this strategy is possible, dare I say, still commonplace, an alternative more sustainable, fun, and contagious option is readily available flow.