Flow represents a peak experience that most athletes rarely experience and some never quite experience. A flow experience will enrich your life and make you want to persist at your chosen discipline with even greater intensity. To reach this seemingly elusive state of being, you must switch off from all peripheral distractions and focus solely upon mastery and enjoyment of the task at hand. In particular, what anybody else might be thinking or saying about you is completely irrelevant to your performance. More important still is that being successful is about being completely happy with your performance even if somebody else does better. Flow equates with happiness.
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Sit down in a place where you are unlikely to be disturbed. Close your eyes and take a few long, slow deep breaths until you feel completely relaxed. Recall a time when you were performing at the very peak of your ability, a time when everything just seemed to click into place. Spend a few minutes recalling every detail about that experience. When the experience feels really lifelike, open your eyes and write down everything that characterised it: How you felt inside, what you were thinking, how other people were reacting to your movements, how you were control-ing the environment, etc. It is very likely that your mind was completely clear and that you were focussed entirely on the task at hand. Using your checklist, it will be possible for you to recall the feelings associated with peak performance and flow just prior to your next performance. Engaging in this process will greatly enhance the likelihood of you entering flow.
We noted earlier how important it is to have clear goals. It is now widely recognised that the most effective way to set goals is to have some overarching objectives (e.g., winning an Olympic medal or getting down to 15% body fat) that are underscored by numerous medium-term and short-term process goals. It is no coincidence that the secret to entering flow is to immerse yourself in the process of your activity while, over time, persistent focus on processes brings about successful outcomes such as winning Olympic gold medals. By process, I am referring to the nuts and bolts of your discipline – mastering the skills, working on your mental toughness and attaining appropriate fitness levels. I suggest that you keep a training/activity diary in which your major goals are listed on the first page while on subsequent stages you strategise, review and monitor your progress from day-to-day, week-to-week and month-to-month. Be sure to adjust your initial goals if they turn out to be either unrealistic or too easy. Personally, I like to tick off achieved goals as I progress through each week as this gives me a real sense of accomplishment. The next time you go into a training session or an exercise routine, be sure to have recorded in advance exactly what you expect to achieve.
This is a means by which you can ease anxiety and stimulate the alpha brain wave activity that is so often associated with peak functioning. A simple way in which to induce self-hypnosis is to sit comfortably and focus on a spot on the ceiling until your eyelids become heavy and tired. Slowly close your eyelids and notice a warm feeling of relaxation spreading from your chest and shoulders out through your entire body. Once you feel relaxed, warm and heavy you can give yourself repeated positive suggestions in your mind’s ear such as, “I will feel calm and agile in competition”, or “I will give my utmost in training”. Always keep your autosuggestions very positive and focus on what is to be accomplished rather than dwelling on things you might wish to eliminate. The key principles are to make yourself feel extremely relaxed, and to repeat positive suggestions to yourself. I find that a backdrop of slow but inspiring music such as Whitney Houston’s “One Moment in Time” enhances this exercise. Further, if you wish to practise heterohypnosis (hypnosis induced by somebody else), there are dozens of excellent audiocassettes commercially available. Remember that all hypnosis is in fact self-hypnosis, as a hypnotic trance cannot be induced without total volition.
This is one of the most tried and tested strategies in the pantheon of sport psychology interventions. Positive self-talk is used to maintain concentration and to induce optimal arousal. I use three types of self-talk in my applied work and I will illustrate each with an example to assist you in coming up with your own. The first type is known as task-relevant self-talk and as the name suggests, this will focus your attention on the task at hand. A professional boxer that I worked with recently uses the statement “Guard up -chin down” to reinforce his posture. The second type is known as mood-related self-talk which should impact on the way you feel. A club-level rugby player came up with “Wham bam thank you ma’am!” to encapsulate the ease with which she would dispossess her opponents of the ball. The third type is known as a positive self-affirmation statement and the most famous exponent of these was the great Mohammed All who told himself “I am the greatest” so many times that even his opponents began to believe him.
I have left my top tip until last. Every great achiever in the history of mankind is characterised by having a clear vision of what they wanted to achieve; as the great political philosopher Isaiah Berlin put it, “There exists a great chasm between those, on one side, who relate everything to a central vision …and, on the other side, those who pursue many ends, often unrelated and even contradictory.” If you wish to turn your dreams into reality, then structured imagery is the key that will unlock your potential. Imagery allows you to see in your mind’s eye the outcomes you wish to bring about. By recreating these outcomes using multi-sensory images, you greatly increase the chance of attaining superior performance because images programme muscles. The more vividly you can create images and the better you engage each of your senses, the more effectively you will prime your muscles for superior performance and this holds true in all spheres of human achievement. I suggest that you set 5 minutes aside EVERY DAY to mentally rehearse peak performance in your activity. See things happening in real time through your own eyes and take total control over the scenario. Vary the circumstances so that you practise overcoming different types of adversity (e.g., bad weather, superior opponents, time delays, etc.); that way, you will have a blueprint for dealing with a wide variety of circumstances.