Mental Cross-training: A Different Approach to Getting in The Zone
Whether we like it or not, the mental side of sport/performance is often times just as important, if not more so, than the physical athleticism or skill sides. Everyone knows somebody who has been able to overcome deficits in athleticism or skill by being the toughest mentally.
It also becomes apparent, when studying the greatest athletes at anything discipline, that what separates them from the good and the great is that they have the mental edge. They somehow step up when the game or race is on the line and perform some sort of act of brilliance, leading to victory. This is why we revere the work of Michael Phelps, Michael Jordan, and Roger Federer so much.
Knowing the importance of the mental aspect, it’s surprising that we often don’t specifically train it, figuring instead that it’ll take care of itself while we work on the physical or the skill aspects. Worse yet, we think that it’s something that we naturally either have or don’t have and there isn’t any way to train it. These ways of thinking are simply wrong and set us up for falling short of our true potential. That being said, it’s much tougher work to break poor mental habits than it is to run another wind-sprint or do another pushup. Doing so however can give us an invaluable edge over our competition, making it more than worth pursuing.
The Flow State
Almost anyone who’s played any game or sport for any period of time understands and has experienced being in “The Zone” or “The Flow”. For athletes it’s mental Nirvana. Every shot goes in, every move is the correct one, and there is a resounding feeling that we can’t be stopped by anyone or anything. We do things that we didn’t even know were possible for us. It’s a state in which all of our physical and mental energy is focused on simply completing the task at hand. All other thoughts and emotions are blocked out including even our perception of self. If we aren’t aware of self then we cannot have self-doubt, which just so happens to be the most common mental roadblock to achievement.
I wish that I had more hard science as to how to get into this state or why we go into it. Unfortunately, nobody does as of yet. The research that is out there shows that when in this state, we aren’t activating more areas of our brain, but instead we shut down major parts of the brain, particularly the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex. This brain region is responsible for higher cognitive functions including our sense of Self and our ability to analyze and critique ourselves. This is incredibly important to have for self improvement and training, but when it comes to performing, it only gets in the way.
While this is happening, our overall brain waves slow down from the normal Beta waves to the slower Alpha and Theta waves. Our brainwave profile begins to resemble that of someone in deep meditation or in REM sleep. We also get jumps from Alpha/Theta waves up to Gamma, the highest brain waves and the equivalent to the red zone of RPMs for your car. This allows us to be calm and in a hyperfocused state while also getting every bit of mental juice from our brain. Finally, research shows that in this state we get a rush of dopamine, serotonin, norepinephrine, and endorphins, ensuring a state of bliss while also allowing maximal performance. Sounds pretty awesome, right?
Self-Doubt as the Flow Killer
Most of us have had the experience of starting a game or competition performing at a high level and then the self-doubt creeps in. It can start as simply as your mind thinking “Wow, I’m playing better than I usually do.” This sounds harmless enough, but for most of us, the next thought is “I hope I can keep this up.” We can usually brush this off with the positive momentum that we have going, but the seed of self-doubt has been planted.
At the first mistake that we make, the mind gives us an “I knew it was too good to be true” or an “I knew it wouldn’t last”. If we’re really good mentally we can shake that off and keep playing well. Unfortunately, that dorsolateral prefrontal cortex is now really firing and the mental battle is heating up between confidence and self-doubt. We end up in a mental game of Whac-A-Mole and the self-doubt moles are coming at us quickly and from everywhere. Sometimes we bash them all down with our confidence mallet and continue to play well but many times they win and we end up with a poor performance.
The truly great athletes like Phelps, Jordan, and Federer are different in a couple ways. First, they usually don’t even let that seed of self-doubt get planted. Their self-doubt moles are permanently set on the slowest setting, making them no real threat. Second, if they ever do find themselves in a mental battle with self-doubt, their confidence is such a strong force that it usually wins. Some people are naturally gifted with this ability, while for the rest of us it’s a much tougher battle.
Training Away From Your Sport
So then how do we train ourselves so that we’re more likely to go into the flow state during competition? I think the answer lies in consciously training ourselves to silence the self-doubt. I also think that the easiest way to do this is outside of our chosen sport or activity. Most of the common sports psychology practices revolve around behaviors and exercises that are directly related to our sport. Visualization, positive self-talk, and goal setting are almost always implemented in relation to our specific sport.
The problem with this lies in the fact that we are too attached to the result when it comes to our particular sport. For most serious athletes, the idea and awareness of Self (remember, these are the things that we are trying to turn off to get into Flow) are so dependent on the sport itself that it becomes incredibly difficult to train ourselves to shut off that portion of the brain. We can, however, negate this effect by simply doing our training with another activity that we aren’t so invested in. Once we’ve made substantial progress with reducing the self-doubt in this low-risk activity, we can slowly start to introduce the mental practices into our sport.
Bowling My Way through Self-Doubt
I recently picked up bowling as a hobby. I had never bowled much (maybe once a year and not seriously) and if I scored over 100 I was happy. Within 2 weeks and maybe 6-7 trips to the lanes I was able to average around 150 and get the occasional game up around 200. Most of the improvement came undoubtedly from the physical act of bowling regularly, but it also came from a change in my mental game.
As I was playing, I began wondering why it was that I could get 4 strikes in a row and then throw back-to-back gutter balls or leave 3 frames in a row open. So I started to analyze what was going on in my mind during these huge swings in performance. I realized that the difference was in the self-doubt. When I just picked up the ball, stepped up, decided where to throw it, and then threw it, I bowled great, way over my skill and experience level. When I did the same thing but allowed any form of negative self-talk into my head before throwing the ball, I ended up choking more times than not. Occasionally I would be able to overcome the self-doubt and still throw a good ball, but it made it much more difficult. After coming to this realization, I began trying to train myself to not allow the self-doubt into my mind.
The first step is to pick a game or sport outside of your regular one that you don’t really care about, maybe aren’t really good at and that you can experiment with. Make sure it’s something that you have fairly easy access to and can spend some time with, even if it’s only a few hours a week. I initially chose bowling but I have since become obsessed with this idea and now use tennis, pool, darts, and even video games to train. I particularly like pool and bowling because they require mental effort/intent to quickly be transformed into a gross physical act. Things like chess and video games only really have the mental so they are less likely to directly transfer over to your physical sport. I also like starting with a game where there isn’t an opponent. This allows us to only worry about what’s going on in our own minds and not what our opponent is doing/thinking. Once we get better, we can add more variables like opponents.
Once you pick the activity, start doing it. Take some time to develop a base comfort level with it without worrying about the mental side at all. This may take a few days up to a few weeks depending on how often you can do it. At this point, simply start observing what your self-talk is like. It can be good to write it down but you can also just mentally take note of it. When you’re playing great, what self-talk do you have? And conversely, what’s your self-talk like around the periods where you’re slumping? Start to look for the trends.
The act of simply identifying and labeling the negative self-talk, particularly when it’s small, gives us great power. We can choose to either go down that route and give it more of our thoughts/energy or Whac-A-Mole it right away. I’ve found that I turn it into a game and as soon as even the smallest self-doubting thought pops into my head I find myself smiling and thinking “Gotcha!” before mentally whacking the idea away before it has a chance to multiply.
The self-doubt moles start to come less frequently and they’re easier to get rid of. By lowering the volume on the self-doubting and self-judging voice, we begin to become more concerned with simply carrying out the task in front of us instead of whether or not we’re doing a good job. Eventually we can even start to remove the Self from the equation and only focus on the goal of making the basket, picking up the spare, serving the ace, or whatever we choose. This is starting to sound a bit like being in the Flow State isn’t it? Once you’ve made enough progress with these ideas you can then start doing the same thing in training for your particular sport/activity.
This all might sound weird and you might be thinking “who is this crazy guy and what kind of weird mind is he working with?” While this is certainly a valid question and one I often ask myself as well, we all have this self-talk going on in our heads almost constantly; it’s just about recognizing it and hacking it to produce a positive mental state. Instead of allowing our dorsolateral prefrontal cortex to be active during competition, we can begin to turn it down and move closer to performing in a perpetual Flow State!
If you want more information or have any questions, don’t hesitate to contact me. Below are a few links to some more interesting reading about the Flow State:
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