In our last session we briefly touched on the concepts of “flow” and present moment awareness. Let’s expand a little on this.
It should be self-explanatory why ‘present moment awareness’ is essential in sport. Maybe it is not completely clear though what this means and how to get there if you are not fully aware. Or are you?
In a way one could say that everyone is always living in the present moment. Hard not to. Even Wayne who is still angry at the referee 10 minutes after the red card was lifted is living in the present moment, isn’t he?
Sort of. One could argue that Wayne’s thoughts about the past are thoughts that he is experiencing in the here and now, so they are part of his present moment awareness.
The distinction we would like to make, and we believe it is a useful distinction, is one about the direct experience and awareness of the present moment versus getting caught up in thinking about an experience in the present moment, which is often located in the past or the future. When our judging and evaluating mind gets in the way, then we don’t experience things directly. The experiences we have are filtered, narrowed down, or out of our awareness because we are having a lot of our attention thrown on the content of our mind’s inner workings.
“Our mind cannot know life in itself, but only facts and information about life. The mind holds labels, judgments, facts and opinions about life.
Or in other words, when we learn the skill of being able to observe thoughts without commenting or engaging with them, we have a wider band of attention available for what is actually happening in the physical world. We can do this the same way we might look at a tree, hear the sounds around us, notice the smells, or feel our feet on the ground without engaging in any extra internal judgement or dialogue. When we do all of this, we shift towards the present moment end of the continuum from “in our head” to “in our life”. This has the added benefit of taking us away from self-reference, the constant judging of how everything relates to us, and our self-esteem.
Mastering this skill is very helpful for dealing with performance anxiety.
When we suggest mindfulness exercises, then these serve the purpose of practising exactly this; learning to experience what is. This means not trying to exclude aspects of (or parts of) your experience, but to fully encounter or have what is there while not being dragged in to some additional story about it.
As we discussed, going directly through our senses is often a useful way to do this.
Mindfulness moves you away from a tendency to respond to your own evaluations, and puts you more directly in touch with experiences.
There is another concept in psychology that is related to present moment awareness and offers some additional cues about the usefulness of present moment awareness. The concept of “Flow”.
“Flow is an experiential state of being, when extraordinary concentration, commitment, effort, interest and enjoyment are being experienced simultaneously, yet a state seemingly void of time, emotion and effort, it is complete engagement with a present complex task”
(M. Csikszentmihalyi, 1991)
Flow is also described as a merging of awarenesss and action and a “loss of self consciousness” .
Yes that’s somewhat wordy. Maybe you want to read it slowly, mindfully, two or three times.
Mr Csikszentmihalyi has spent a lot of his life exploring this concept. He has studied when Flow occurs, when it doesn’t occur, and derived some ideas that can help us to make it happen more often. Or help us to get more into a state of Flow in everyday activities, – because this too is not a ‘on or off’ phenomenon, but one you can imagine on a continuum from less to more Flow.
Flow most easily occurs when a person encounters a very challenging situation that she has just enough skill to master. Because this challenge is at the edge of her utmost abilities, she has to be fully engaged in what she is doing. And she has to perceive a balance between her skills and the demands of the situation. The activity has a clear set of goals and provides feedback on progress. The feedback helps you to adjust to changing demands, and to stay in this state of flow.
So this is not a state you are achieving watching TV with a bag of chips. According to Csikszentmihalyi Flow requires active engagement with a task.
And of course, – in sport this occurs very often. And the more extremely challenging the sport, the more this can occur: When you are hanging of a cliff face and there are no ropes attached, – then you have no alternative to being in the present moment,- so a setup like this helps a lot. And indeed, freestyle rock-climbers are one of the groups that experiences ‘flow’ the most often.
Easy for this guy to be fully present!
Eckart Tolle summarised this well again:
“In dangerous situations people tend to shift into a strong presence of Now. Time seems as if it stops. A sense of stillness and alert comes over us.
This is why some people enjoy dangerous activities, such as extreme sports. It forces them into the Now, where they can feel free of time, free of any problems, free of thinking and even free of personality.”
Csikszentmihalyi though found that even conveyor belt workers experience flow. The ‘problem’ you would have doing conveyor belt work is that it is often very mundane, repetitive, low skill required and a lot of time and opportunity to think about what’s for lunch and what was on TV yesterday.
So the skill you require here to bring you back into the moment is to structure your task in a way that makes it a high challenge requiring the most of your skill in order to meet it. Simple example: To work very fast, exceed your past times on certain tasks and do them skilfully and well! Focusing on any of this takes your attention automatically away from concern about the self and to the job at hand.
And you can probably easily translate this yourself into what it means for a training session or a match you are playing.
In essence, most tasks can be structured in ways that can shift us towards more flow, by making them challenging. It helps to remove distraction, to have clear goals, and clear feedback, and to structure a task so that it challenges you, but matches your skills. I.e. in a similar way that a rockclimber always seeks the next grip or tiny step she has to take, and knows immediately if she was successful, you could seek and find feedback for every next little step required.
It is important to take note of the fact that there is no flow-on or no-flow button. Like present moment awareness, there is simply a more or less of it around.
As an athlete you have already one big additional advantage over many other people: Neuroimaging studies have shown that sporting activity increases neuronal activities in motor, sensory cortex, thus reducing cognitive resources for other activities such as higher cognitive and emotional processing.
In other words: Remember how we said the brain is small? If it ‘s busy doing one thing, such as processing your swimming, diving and the input from the game you are playing, there is simply not enough to go around to also think about how work sucks and what a headache your parents are at the moment.
These brain processes have also been thought to explain some typical Flow phenomena such as pain reduction and perception of space and time.
Any comments or questions welcome!