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Coach’s Note By Lance Watson: Greater Performance Via Association And Flow

  • By Lance Watson
  • Published Feb 28, 2014
  • Updated Feb 28, 2014 at 6:42 PM UTC
Photo: Delly Carr/Triathlon.org

LifeSport head coach Lance Watson writes about achieving greater athletic results by learning to control mental processes.

Have you ever had one of those days where everything clicked? You ran a personal best, felt strong the whole way, felt in tune with your body, had a positive mindset, all while working really hard? The chances are you were “associated” mentally and perhaps even experienced a state of “flow.”

As a high-performance coach, attaining flow is the optimal performance state I mentor my athletes to strive for. It typically results from repetitive practice of relevant skills and thorough mental preparation. This preparation includes achieving your optimal activation level (not too stressed, not too relaxed), mental rehearsal of the skills and physical exertion required and primarily, preparing yourself for the emotional state most conducive to performance – i.e. not overly angry, aggressive, stressed or passive.

Studies show that “association” to the task at hand results in improved performance levels for higher intensity efforts.  Associative thoughts are based on connecting to the body and the race performance itself.  Elite runners associate to their breathing rate, cadence, posture, hill stride technique and lactic acid levels. They learn to run as economically as possible at the hardest sustainable effort: lactic threshold.

Associative thoughts can also include internal commands or instructions, such as “push past that next person”; “open lungs, light feet, relax the shoulders”; “lock into 6:00 miles.. Elite performers associate by pre-determining their emotional state as well and rehearsing their self talk. They repeat this self talk to themselves on the course: “This is my kind of course.” “I am fit and deserve to do well.” “I like this technical section.”

While all performers may dissociate at times, amateur or novice performers tend to use dissociation more often as a primary mental strategy. It includes turning up the iPod, looking at the view and fantasizing about what’s for breakfast after workout. There is nothing wrong with these strategies. Whatever gets you out the door is valid. It may sometimes be more enjoyable to smell the roses or work out problems of the day on a run, but if you are concerned about performing at your peak in a race, learn to associate in training.

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How Does it Feel to Experience Flow?

Mihaly Csíkszentmihályi is best-known for his theory of flow, which he outlined in his seminal 1990 book Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience.

According to Csíkszentmihályi, there are ten factors that accompany the experience of flow. While many of these components may be present, it is not necessary to experience all of them for flow to occur:

  1. Clear goals that, while challenging, are still attainable.
  2. Strong concentration and focused attention.
  3. The activity is intrinsically rewarding.
  4. Feelings of serenity; a loss of feelings of self-consciousness.
  5. Timelessness; a distorted sense of time; feeling so focused on the present that you lose track of time passing.
  6. Immediate feedback.
  7. Knowing that the task is doable; a balance between skill level and the challenge presented.
  8. Feelings of personal control over the situation and the outcome.
  9. Lack of awareness of physical needs.
  10. Complete focus on the activity itself.

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Examples of Flow

Athletes seeking personal excellence strive for flow in sports. Athletes have commented to me following breakthrough races that they can’t remember much of what happened out there on the course. The movements and focus were so well rehearsed that come race day, they simply immersed themselves in that performance without consciously striving for it.

In understanding flow in sport, it is interesting to contemplate flow in different areas of life as we can learn from our own experiences there. Have you given a presentation at work where you were completely immersed? Have you watched your child dance and move to the music without thought or self consciousness? Have you ever written an exam in an area of your expertise, simply executing it from start to finish without any clouding thoughts or self doubts?

While flow experiences can happen as part of everyday life, there are also important practical applications in various areas including education, sports and the workplace.

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In his book, Csíkszentmihályi presents the following examples:

Examples of Flow in Education: Csíkszentmihályi has suggested that over learning a skill or concept can help people experience flow. Another critical concept in his theory is the idea of slightly extending oneself beyond one’s current ability level. This slight stretching of one’s current skills can help the individual experience flow.

Examples of Flow in Sports: Just like in educational settings, engaging in a challenging athletic activity that is doable but presents a slight stretching of one’s abilities is a good way to achieve flow. Sometimes described by being “in the zone,” reaching this state of flow allows an athlete to experience a loss of self-consciousness and a sense of complete mastery of the performance.

Examples of Flow in the Workplace: Flow can also occur when workers are engaged in tasks where they are able to focus entirely on the project at hand. For example, a writer might experience this while working on a novel or a graphic designer might achieve flow while working on a website illustration.

In summary, the first step towards increasing mental and subsequently physical performances is in gaining awareness on what you do focus on, what kind of conversations you have with yourself in training and in racing and understanding that you have a level of control over these mental processes which can be refined through repetitive practice and pre-race rehearsal.

LifeSport head coach Lance Watson has coached a number of Ironman, Olympic and age-group Champions over the past 25 years. He enjoys coaching athletes of all levels. Join Lance to tackle your first triathlon or perform at a higher level. 

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