Lake Greeley Camp - The Zone and Optimal Performance

Continuing our theme of personal performance and how we can find ways to do better ourselves. What we want to focus on in this article is the ability to focus our mind on something and not allow ego or judgment to cloud our perception of what we are doing. When we allow our ego in, we take our awareness out.

In continuing on our theme of personal performance from the prior blog entry, we are going to be talking more about what is going on inside your head when you are attempting to do something like in a sporting event or performance, etc. For this entry, I will be referring to a wonderful book named "The Inner Game of Tennis" by W. Timothy Gallwey. It is a great book that deals with a kind of sports psychology that any kind of athlete, artist, musician, etc. would benefit from. It attempts to answer the question of what kind of method should people be using in order to attain that state of optimal performance, and it goes about it in very interesting ways that may deviate from what you would normally expect. Now, let’s get started!

So what is optimal performance?

That is a very good question that people, I believe, have been trying to answer for a long time because it has many different facets each according to the person trying to apply it and in what sport or performance they are trying to obtain it in. The basis of the answer lies in “The Zone” or flow psychology. You would probably recognize this when people are saying “I was playing out of my mind” or “It just kind of happened.” In other terms, The Zone is a state of mind where consciousness is so absorbed in the activity that is going on that no other thought is happening at that moment. There are no distractions to make note of, nothing happening around you that is getting in your way. You are simply in the moment, and your full attention is on this one thing that you are doing.

Now, that sounds all well and good, especially in this time that we are living in. I alluded to that in the last posting, about how there are so many things that we need to balance and get to, schedules to keep that make us move around so much. Wouldn’t it be wonderful to be in the Zone at a moment’s notice, able to perform at optimal performance, being completely absorbed in an activity whenever you choose. Of course, it is not that easy. It is almost cruel as it appears that the more you WANT to be in the Zone, the further AWAY you are from getting in the Zone. It is a state that kind of creeps up on you when you are least aware of it, and only after the fact do you find yourself saying “I was playing out of my mind.” “If this state of being is so good, but so difficult to enter into, then what can I do about it? Obviously, I would love to be able to enter into it whenever I wish, but that doesn’t sound possible. How can I do it, or at least practice at being able to do it?” Those are very good concerns and common questions of people who are interested in this kind of thing (as yours truly is). What we are going to be working on in this post is a kind of “Mind Hack,” using the “Inner Game of Tennis,” to circumvent the mind and get into the optimal state.

The Mind – A Tale of Two Selves

So we know what The Zone is and we have an idea of the state the mind is in when we are in the Zone, but what can we actively do to pursue that kind of state? Didn’t I say in the previous paragraph that the Zone is something that sneaks up on people when they are doing something, and they are unaware of the Zone until some time later when they reflect on it? How can we pursue the Zone without actively pursuing the Zone?

The mind is an incredible tool, and we are constantly learning new attributes it possesses all the time. It is interesting, however, how quickly we are to diminish our minds and bodies when something is not going “our” way. For example, using tennis as a medium, when you are watching a match in person or on TV, or even playing yourself, you can hear the players complimenting or berating themselves over how they made that last shot or how they missed that volley or how slow they are moving around the court. Who is the player speaking to? Hopefully, not their double’s partner because then that will just be awkward. No, they are speaking to themselves or some kind of inner self that seems to be focal point of these statements, both good and bad. Who or what is this inner self, then? If the players are speaking to it, then what could they be referring to?

Mr. Gallwey identifies this entity as “Self 2,” the inner conscious or subconscious that is controlling bodily functions without your outer conscious being really aware of what is happening. For example, make a note of your breathing right now. Now that you are attending to your breathing, is it more constricted, tight? When you weren’t thinking of your breathing before I made that statement, it was free-flowing, loose, just there I bet. Your conscious mind makes many demands on your body resulting in that tightness and stress. It inhibits the “flow” of action, so to speak. This is when you’ll find many people say, “Just take a deep breath and relax.” It doesn’t have to be limited to your breathing, either. You can test yourself in many different mediums such as playing a game, working out at the gym, running on the treadmill, rehearsing lines for a play, and so on.

If our conscious mind creates stress and makes doing activities more difficult, how can we improve it?

The Practice - Methods You Can Use

The first point I want to mention is that I have read in several places that people have tried to stop thinking as a result of being so convinced their conscious mind is so bad. To be honest, I don’t think that this is even possible, but I wouldn’t suggest it even if it were because it sounds dangerous and thinking is something that we, as humans, have been gifted with. The problem is what we are thinking about, and that is where the practice comes into play.

A. It's all about R-E-S-P-E-C-T

The first thing to address is the need to comment on your own performance in whatever you are doing. This is a Zen-like approach that tries to shift your perspective from something that is good or bad to just is. Instead of thinking, "I run like a bear who just got out of a Dunkin Donuts," shift to a more neutral point of view like "I move my body too much while running." We want to make a simple observation because from that observation we are able to make progress and improve more quickly than if we are putting ourselves down and making ourselves feel worse. Our body can and does amazing things all the time, and we want to develop more Respect for it, so it will work with us.

B. Focus on one point

Respecting our bodies and its computer (the subconscious mind) is one thing, but what can you do while you are involved with an activity? If there isn’t something else to focus on, we would probably fall back into the habit of using our conscious mind to make demands, getting tense and nervous, becoming upset and angry when we fail, etc. So what are we supposed to do with our conscious mind, then?

Have you ever heard the phrase, “getting out of your own way?” It’s based in that idea that we make things more difficult for ourselves and, if we could just let go, things would improve. Our method for letting go is to focus on one aspect of the activity you are engaged in to the point where everything else melts away, and your body will engage in the activity without your conscious interference. If that’s tennis, then focus on the seams of the ball. If that’s basketball, focus on the black lines going across the ball. If that’s running, focus on the moments when your feet land on the ground. It can be a multitude of different roads, but the destination is still the same. We want to use that focus to get out of our own way and allow our body to act.

As a side note, this takes trust that you believe your body will act without your involvement, and that is something that might take some time to develop. Regardless of the time, I still believe it is an important point to work on for the simple achievement of obtaining a harmony between your conscious and subconscious selves.

C. Visualize and Attack

When focusing on a specific aspect isn’t possible or you are finding it difficult, another method you can use is visualizations. Visualizations are those pictures that you formulate in your own mind with your imagination to show some kind of desired outcome in this case. I have to admit that I have a very bad imagination. I am not able to create those kinds of pictures in my head in order to reach a goal. Unfortunately, I can’t really “see” in this way, so this is the more difficult road for me, but for people like artists or musicians, those who are more left-brain oriented, this is a method that may work very well. After all, if you can see it, you can achieve it.

In Closing

The zone and optimal performance is a topic of discussion that can excite you for what is possible with your own methods of doing things, and how we can reflect on those methods to continually make ourselves better. And it goes even deeper than that because this is questioning how we approach doing things, not even the things that we do. It is looking at the fundamental ways we think with regards to action. It can be applied in many aspects. If this kind of topic interests you, there are a couple of resources that you can check out for more information.

The first is The Inner Game of Tennis again. I absolutely suggest reading this book. Mr. Gallwey even has a series that he applies to other areas such as the Inner Game of Golf.

The second is Flow Psychology. The Wikipedia page for it has some fascinating information and references that you can follow for even more information.

It is my hope that you enjoyed this posting, and really consider trying out some of these changes in how you think. It doesn’t have to be anything ground breaking or like having an epiphany. Simply try to focus on a certain aspect of an activity for several minutes and see how you feel. If you fail, try again and if you succeed, try for more time. Best of luck to you!

By Matthew Buynak Jr. (4/25/14)
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