Today’s Topic: Improving Flow as an Athlete
Monday night Q&A with Coach Rebecca live session. I am here, as usual, live on Facebook on Mondays to answer your questions and help you figure out what’s standing between you and peak performance. If it’s our first time meeting, I’m Rebecca Smith. I’m a high performance coach. I specialize in working with athletes age 8 to 18 on all kinds of performance issues ranging from fear and mental blocks through confidence building. And then, once we’ve got that foundation down we go into finding flow. That’s the experience of taking you from good to incredible.
Even if you are not experiencing a mental block or a lack of confidence, flow training is something that professional athletes are all doing now, so that’s what I’ve been embracing ever since I started working with kids.
Today’s question has a lot to do with flow. Now if you want to get more from me, I offer one-on-one coaching through Skype or FaceTime, and I also have a complete online mental toughness training facility that is building and growing at performhappy.com. We would love to have you.
Improve Flow Anywhere, Improve it Everywhere
Today our question comes from a swimmer, so that’s why I brought up flow although I just got an amazing email from a member today that said that her daughter is finding flow in gymnastics. So flow is not something that you only get if you are in water. This is something that you get while playing chess or while giving a speech or while taking a test, or while playing your sport. Obviously if you guys are here, you’re looking probably to improve your sport. Just know that if you’re improving flow anywhere, you’re improving flow everywhere.
Here’s our first question of the day. Swimming is going to probably be our topic today, but of course you guys can always apply this to any other sport where there’s pressure to perform. Of course, if you’re in a timed sport like track and field or competitive shooting this will definitely apply.
When somebody signs up to get on my email list. I always ask: What is your biggest struggle right now, because I want to make sure that I am creating content that’s actually helping people who are following me. This was a response I got recently… this swimmer said:
Q: “Honestly, my biggest problem is a pretty big one. It’s being confident in my races and overthinking the race right before it.”
I’m guessing what this means is that you lack confidence in your races. Even though you train a crazy amount of hours, you still, for some reason, are like, “I don’t know if I’m going to come through under pressure.” You probably have trouble focusing on what’s important in the moment. Because you’re so worried.
Maybe you’re worried about:
- what happened in the last race
- what your coach is going to think
- who you’re racing next to
- what your teammates would say
Meanwhile you’re burning up all this extra energy. When you are trying to beat a time by a hundredth of a second, do you think a tiny bit of energy matters? Yes! It matters so much. You have to make sure that you’re conserving all of your energy by not focusing on all these other things. Really you just get in the water and swim.
Wouldn’t it be cool if it was that easy?
A Flow Experience
Some coaches are like, “Come on, just swim. What’s your problem?” If it was that easy, I would not have a job. So here’s how you get yourself to just get in the water and swim without all this negative self-talk, self-doubt or lack of focus. It’s through what has been called by scientists, a flow experience. Flow is one of those moments where all of your training clicks and it all falls into place. Your focus is 100% energized and locked in on exactly what you’re supposed to be focusing on in the moment. That’s probably not the score, and not your last race or your next race, but it’s literally the breath you’re taking (or not taking). It’s the stroke or kick. It’s your body and what your body is doing.
If you can become completely immersed in that, you no longer are aware that there’s a clock. You’re not aware that anyone is watching you. You are swimming. You are flowing through the water, and it feels incredible. Flow is the perform happy mindset I talk about. It is one of the most inherently good feeling experiences you can ever have. You put out all of the energy you possibly can and then it results in a great performance that doesn’t even feel hard. You don’t feel tense. You just feel amazing.
Basically that’s my prescription to you, swimmer:
You need some flow.
How Do you Get Flow?
I’m going to give you guys a quick overview because flow is not a complicated topic but there are some specific characteristics that go into it. I’ll give you an overview and then I’ll let you know how you can find more flow if you want it.
Over my time working with hundreds of swimmers and studying flow, I figured out the requirements for it, the characteristics of it and how to get more of it. Flow is kind of this vague concept, but if you’ve had it, you’ll know it. The good thing about it is that it’s contagious.
Think back to a practice when it was really hard. It was a really hard set and it was an interval that you never thought you would make, but for some reason you made it.
Flow usually doesn’t happens on the easy sets where you’re just warming up. This is during the set where you’re like, “My coach is insane. I can’t do that. What does he expect? I’ve never made that interval.” Of course you’re not having those negative thoughts, but that’s the type of set that’s really difficult. Maybe a conditioning set where you tell yourself “I don’t know if I’m going to survive this, but here goes nothing.”
The thing about it is that the challenge itself is high up, and your skill level is maybe just below it. But when you lock in your focus and your motivation on that one thing like making that one interval, something gets unlocked in you that allows you to do it. It’s a peak performance moment.
The Characteristics of Flow – Complete Focus and Control
The first characteristic of flow is: complete focus on the task at hand. You feel in control of your thoughts and emotions. You’re not self-conscious. For some it feels like you’re in slow motion. It’s because of the way that the brain is operating, the time function is kind of switched off so time feels weird.
There’s a complete absence of strain or tension. You have this heightened sense of awareness of your body so maybe you’re tingling or warm. Time actually warps. For some people time speeds up. You’re working really hard, but it feels good. Yeah, it’s such a cool experience, and I hope you guys get more of it.
What Influences the State of Flow?
How do you find it? Here are the factors that influence the state of flow. These are the things that you need to train in order to get more of this. The first one is preparation.
Of course you need to be physically prepared. You need to be training. I mean, if you’ve only ever swam a 00:59 and you’re going for a 00:32, you’re not ready for that. You have to be physically prepared. That’s your physical coaching, your dry land.
Mental Preparation and Confidence
Then there’s the mental preparation, and that’s where I come in. You’ve got to train your mind to be ready for these situations. One of the most important things to train is confidence. That comes from:
- past experiences that are successful
- the way you talk to yourself
- feedback you get from other people
- the way that you imagine yourself doing the performance
- what you expect to happen
- how your peers are performing
All of that is combined into building up confidence.
Focus Through Meditation
Also, focus. Now, I know our swimmer here definitely mentioned focus. Focus is a tricky thing to train, but it is absolutely possible to do it. One of my favorite ways to train focus is through meditation. It’s mindfulness practice. Basically it’s being still, being present, noticing thoughts that come and go, and coming back to breathing. I’ve got tons of meditations on the PerformHappy app and in the PerformHappy community that help you start to practice that and train your brain to be present, especially in this time of Smart Phones and instant gratification.
These days, there is no waiting. There is no just being and wondering. We actually have to practice that.
If you think about top NBA teams, NFL teams, they all have sports psychologists and they all meditate. Some of them do yoga which is a form of meditation, because it’s being present and being with your breath. Some of them literally sit on the gym floor with their eyes closed and breathe. It might sound crazy to some of you guys, but the reason that they do it is because it works. It actually changes the structure of your brain to allow you to focus better and manage your emotions and manage your thoughts. I can’t say enough about meditation.
Thoughts and emotions have to be under control too. There are tons of ways to train your mind to think more positively or at least to let go of the negatives and bring back your focus to something useful.
Know how the Performance is Progressing
Another key element of flow is knowing how the performance is progressing. So if you’re on lap one of four, and you’re feeling like “Okay my pace is good. Yep, I think I’m on track here,” and then you hit the wall and you’re like “yep, that felt good.” That means that you’re aware. You’re in the moment instead of being like “I hope I get the time, I hope I get the time. Oh my gosh, that guy is beating me.” Instead you’re going “yes, this feels right. Okay, uh-huh, yep, I got it.”
That feeling like you’re getting instant feedback from your own focus on whether or not it’s going well is critical. You have to be able to go “ooh, no I’m not on track. I have to adjust this and kick more or I got to pull more.” Or you have to go “whoa, I’m going on a little fast. I have to pull it back.” So in the moment you must be able to change course when necessary and that will allow you to drop into flow.
Have your Motivation Present
I mentioned also mindfulness training, and the final couple of things is motivation. Your motivation has to be there. You have to want to reach that interval. You really have to want it. Want it bad, and you got to want it for a good reason, not because you’re going to be punished by your coach but because it’s going to be awesome.
Then the other one is energizing. Some people perform really well when they are bouncing off the walls energized and they need to listen to music and they need to jump around. And some people perform better when they’re fully relaxed. They’re super calm, they’re completely zen. You’ve got to know for yourself what that ideal state is so that you can get there and all of those things combined increase your chances of finding flow.
That’s a super quick crash course in finding flow. I have a 16-session overview of flow. That’s the complete flow formula in the Perform Happy community. So if this resonates, if you’re like, yes, this is what I need, then go check out the Perform Happy community and get into the flow course because that will change your life.
Now, I’m going to give you a quick example of a swimmer who sounds similar to the swimmer who asked the question. I’m going to call this guy Evan. His name is not actually Evan, because I value client confidentiality, but Evan came to me because he was showing a lot of talent but kept melting down before races. He kept over-thinking. He was this incredibly smart guy, and most of the swimmers I work with get nervous. They’re super smart, super talented and capable, but they think so much that it actually shuts their bodies down and zaps their energy.
So here’s what I did with Evan. We figured out a way to overthink the heck out of the race before the day, so that when he got there he was like, “Okay, I have already thought so much about this race, there’s nothing more to think.” He literally just jumped in and swam and then he qualified for Junior Nationals that day after we had worked together. So I know this stuff really works.
Mapping out the Entire Race
What we did was I had him break down exactly everything that he needed to do at every single point during his race. All of the details, the way that his feet felt when they were leaving the blocks. The way everything felt and looked and the taste of chlorine in his mouth, and exactly the cuts, and he basically designed his perfect race.
Then we broke it down into the very most critical things, and I had him actually record it and this is another training I have in the flow series in the Perform Happy community. It’s how to create a custom imagery script. He created this whole script. He read it to himself on his voice memo on his phone and then he played it back to himself whenever he just needed a confidence boost. It was exactly to the time that he wanted to create. It was perfectly perfect from beginning to end. He listened to it, and listened to it and listened to it.
When he got there that day, he knew that it was in there. He trusted his mental preparation and his physical preparation. He dove in, hit flow and got his cut. Then he sent me a thank you which was awesome. That’s what I want you guys to do, is figure out exactly what you want to create and then decide what it will look like.
I actually do this too for my personal goals. I record a script, come up with a custom imagery script of exactly what I’m looking to create. Then I listen to it, and listen to it, and listen to it. Then I just trust that my brain is on board and I don’t have to force it.
So that’s our session for today. If you have any questions, feel free to reach out to me, firstname.lastname@example.org. If you want more, feel free to reach out and let me know what you need and if you have any specific questions.
I have a free pre-performance race strategy planner for swimmers or for anybody really. If you want a pre-performance strategy that you lock you in, get your mind tight, then there’s a link in the description. Go ahead and click that, download it, enjoy, and I will see you guys again next week.
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