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Home » Featured Sports Performance Articles » On FLOW, Willpower, and Peak Human Performance. What Lights Athletes Up and Creates the Ultimate Training Response?

On FLOW, Willpower, and Peak Human Performance. What Lights Athletes Up and Creates the Ultimate Training Response?

Key Points:

  • FLOW is a defining feature of not only competitive sport, but also training processes and life in general
  • Willpower/Grinding and FLOW have a inverse relationship in many ways, but balance is an important consideration, and FLOW itself balances present and future mindedness
  • Knowing how to enter FLOW in competition (and prep for competition) and training is key to success

What is it that determines that pro athlete from the amateur; the success from the failure?  It is something that goes beyond training, sets, and reps, and even the famous 10,000 hours spent working on one’s craft?

Beyond this, what determines the most effective training for an athlete, vs. “amateur” training?

If we were to simplify the key to success, I would say it is this:

Physical qualities being equal (or even unequal), athletic success hinges on the ability to get into FLOW, and do so more often in competition, and training, than one’s competitors.

On a simple level of a definition, FLOW is “A subject’s complete immersion in creative activity, typified by focused self-motivation, positive emotional valence, and loss of self-consciousness”.

Basically, FLOW is being totally lost and immersed in the moment of something you are passionate about.

Vince didn’t remember most of what happened in this dunk… this is the EPITOME of FLOW in sport.  Jumping over a 7 footer is a creative alternative to any other move in history

FLOW, or “the zone”, is often talked about, especially in the realm of skill based team sports, such as basketball.  When a player just can’t miss 3 pointers, they are “on fire”, or better yet, “unconscious”.

An “unconscious” player is, in many ways, just that.  They aren’t using their higher order thought functions in playing, but rather, just “letting it happen”.  An elite musician in the midst of improvisational play is actually de-activating their dorsolateral pre-frontal cortex, which is connected to planning, inhibition and self-censorship.
Flow comes from DEactivation of sections of the brain

Flow comes from DEactivation of sections of the brain

As any experienced sport-psychologist will tell you, the key to winning isn’t just going out and “trying harder”, because, while discipline is important, this paradigm of “always grinding” sets an athlete backwards from letting their subconscious brain (which is a multitude more powerful than any modern supercomputer) wire movement for them. 

I’ve been reading “The Rise of Superman”, which I can’t recommend enough, and the book goes into detail on FLOW states, extreme sports, and the heights of human performance.

The Rise of SupermanIn the book, FLOW is described through the eyes of various extreme athletes, showing phenomenon of time dilation, disappearance of the self, and even a connection to the universe of a “psychic” level.  The intuition and connection with the rock that a free-solist climbing a 2000 foot sheer face, or a big wave surfer riding a 50 foot wave seems almost alien when described, yet it is one of the most primal aspects of our own humanity.

A skateboarder, Danny Way to be exact, jumping over the Great Wall of China on a broken ankle and torn ACL brings considerations of extreme human capabilities.

In reading “The Rise of Superman”, I may have gained more respect for Danny Way than any athlete out there.  His ability to overcome fear is truly “superhuman”

It is in this place, the “zone”, where fear retreats, and sensitivity to the core functioning of the body in reaction to its environment skyrockets.

Some of the best athletes of our time had an intimate relation with “the zone”.  NBA great Bill Russell had talked about higher levels of perception he would reach in heated games, where he could sense where the next play was headed, or shot would be taken before the ball was even in-bounded.

Ultimate performance is impossible without FLOW, as well as without it, we leave our human potential on the table.

As important as FLOW is for more than extreme sports, or high-wire in the moment dunks, it has massive training implications, and we should all be familiar with it as coaches and athletes.

First, let’s find a further definition of FLOW by comparing it to willpower.

FLOW, Willpower, and Performance

As far as training and competing is concerned, in many ways, using “willpower” and FLOW are inversely related.

For one thing, we only have a limited supply of willpower, which is essentially used for delayed gratification purposes.  Delayed gratification in life (doing something you don’t like now to be rewarded later on) comes from willpower (and the more you have, the more successful in life you tend to be).

The more willpower we use up in life, and even training, the more it effects us on a psychological, and physiological level.  To help understand the limits of willpower supply, look at how doing complex math problems (which takes some dedicated focus and willpower) hurts our ability to resist eating junk food when presented director after.

In a sense, FLOW exists opposite to willpower, and the traditional things that make us successful via delayed gratification.

Being in the zone is NOT about willpower or toughness, although those are certainly good things.

As Ph.D and coach Robert Fagan has written:

Our culture has long championed grit, grinding, and second-efforts in athletics and beyond. In contrast, there are those in other cultures that achieve superhuman physical and mental feats using just the opposite approach of stillness, simplicity, clarity and ease.”

Fagan goes on to say:

“Willpower is the polar opposite of playing in the zone. “Still-power” will trump willpower (strength over will) every time whether you are working on weight loss or your golf game. Freedom allows us to imagine and adjust, to observe without fear and proceed.

Surely willpower may have some very visible short term benefits like getting people doing their “should’s,” but in the long run quiet clarity coming from a place of passion and joy overcomes forced strength time and again.”

The keys here are “clarity coming from a place of passion and joy”, as well as long term implications of it all.

FLOW is the “anti-grind”, in a sense.  It is the Tony Holler sprint school mentality.  It’s the Easy Strength mentality.   I’m not saying that mastering details, discipline and structure aren’t critical to a team’s success, but I am saying that losing the autonomy and free-flowing abilities of the athlete in the process won’t help in the winning department.

Perhaps there is something admirable about running an extra 400’s for the sake of life lessons (given the proper intent directed from the coach), but at the same time, we must pay the utmost respect to the flow state capabilities of the human body across a wide swath of sporting activities.

We know that the group that “ate the marshmallow” early in life, and therefore lacked willpower, fared worse in the career track, but they did better in the track that didn’t get over-stressed and burned out.  It is the balance of selective willpower and FLOW (work hard, play hard) that is a huge key to life happiness.   

According to “The Rise of Superman”, FLOW is actually what can draw present minded individuals to practice towards their future, and future minded “willpower specialists” to live in the present.  This balance is also true in athletics, and training as we will discuss below in how to approach FLOW in competition and training.

How to Enter FLOW in Competition

Now that we have a good idea of what FLOW is and why it is important, how do we get there?

There are a few ideas, such as can be found on mykrothum.com and on themindunleashed.com.  These articles have common themes of focus, visualization, meditation, breathing, etc.

I also have a few cents to add on this ideal.

FLOW is like falling asleep.  You can prepare for it, but you can’t force yourself into it.  You must let it happen, and to let it happen, there also must be the element of “slightly not caring”.  How many times, trying to fall asleep (where you clearly cared a lot about getting some shuteye), you were unable to?

In the realm of “not trying”, it’s all about the preparation.  Here is my take on some aspects of it.

1. Know your fear (or your athletes fears), and conquer it

In my opinion, fear is the biggest thing holding athletes back from performing their best.  In the “Rise of Superman” extreme athletes talk about intimidation holding them out of FLOW.  This intimidation is much less life-threatening, but none-the-less real, in regular sporting events.

This happened to me particularly in basketball.  My fear always revolved around being the guy to take the shot or make the big play, and screwing it up, or being labeled as a selfish player.  It also hinged on not being the most athletic guy on the court (something I invested a huge portion of my life to ensure I was).  Therefore, in big games against a very good opponent, or when the other team was very athletic, I would crumble.

In situations where our team was already losing so bad it didn’t matter, or where I was given full reign to shoot the basketball with no consequences (such as a practice situation where I was emulating a high scorer from the other team), I would dominate, even if other players were way off their game.  Against un-athletic teams, I would dismantle opponents, even if it didn’t mean I was using my athleticism; I just had confidence, and it filtered into everything I did.

I was probably the most “up and down” player (and perhaps frustrating in that regard) my coach had dealt with.  I knew it at the time, but had no idea why.

The biggest thing to start with here is awarenessKnow what you are afraid of and why, and then utilize visualization or meditative processes, as well as self-affirmation to prepare yourself ahead of time for what you may face.

Also reminders that your fears are challenges to be conquered is extremely important.

2. Be familiar with how to shut off (or minimize) your conscious mind. Think less, and feel

To be your best, you must be “unconscious”.  Simply put, in many cases in competition, you must do things to keep a cool focus, and not overthink (much of which revolves around one’s fears and negative self-talk).  This doesn’t mean don’t be aware of the plays or technique, but understand that the more you can connect with the feeling of the game, the less your pre-frontal cortex will bring you down. 

Just like motivator Tony Robbins will say: “If you are in your head, you’re dead”. 

The philosopher Osho has said:  “Get out of your head and into your heart.  Think less, feel more” which has resonated with so many, and for good reason.  It also stands true for athletes.

Being in FLOW, however, goes even beyond consciousness and emotion.

According to psychologist Martin Seligman, “Consciousness and emotion are there to correct your trajectory; when you are doing is seamlessly perfect, you don’t need them”. 

As Timothy Gallwey has stated in the Inner Game of Tennis, athletes should draw their focus towards things that enhance their feeling of what they are doing, such as auditory or visual cues.  How does the ball feel as it hits your racket.  What does the rhythm of the ball bouncing sound likeHow does the ball “feel” as it leaves your hand?

Feeling is the key to getting out of your own head, and emotion.  Feeling can also tune you into the complexity of your sport that is a precursor to getting in FLOW.

3. Practice visualization and meditation

These are common, but vital, skills to help athletes get “out of their head”, and put themselves into the feeling of their body.  They also help an athlete with basic control of breathing and the stress-response.

Once you become aware of your breathing, you can become aware of what happens when you are stressed and overthinking.

Playing in a slightly “meditative” state as a result of breathing patternings can be one of the most simple and helpful things that athletes who need the enhancements of the zone can do.

4. Don’t criticize yourself

This one may be the biggest.  A huge give-away that an athlete is not even close to FLOW is big grunts, sighs, and cussing for making a bad play.  Think of yourself having two brains.  When you criticize yourself, your conscious brain is basically telling your unconscious brain (the unconscious being responsible for FLOW and actually playing well) that it’s no good.

Positive self-talk on the individual and team level is an absolute must for entering FLOW.

5. Be grateful and view everything as an asset

The more gratitude we can have for competition, the more we can view everything within it as an uplifting tool, which strikes down fear.  This may not be far off from the Zen or Stoic mentalities towards life.

How to create FLOW in your training

Although FLOW is vital for competing, it is also important to address in training.

The longer I’ve been coaching, the more I realize that, despite my thirst for knowledge, and whatever exercise methods out there will give my athletes that 1-2% advantage over their competitors are, I must prioritize laying the groundwork training environment. 

A simple training scheme done in FLOW beats a “science backed”, complex system any day of the week.  As I grow older, learning to synthesize these two worlds… disseminating higher-order training means through a funnel that would still leave athletes highly motivated and encouraged is a blend I’m always looking to achieve

1. Competition and Play

The act of competing is different from the act of training on one major level:

Emotion.

Emotion in sport

Competing is emotionally different than “training” and draws movement from our body in a different manner.  Because of this, turning something “mundane” into some sort of challenge or competition is one of the best things you can do.  For example, take the “2 minute drill” that coach Jeremy Fischer does with his jumpers, taking something fairly ordinary (one’s specific jumping event), and turning it into a difficult FLOW based challenge (one’s specific jumping event done for 2 minutes straight, maintaining technique, or seeing how many jumps you can get given a particular baseline distance or height).

There are other aspects of the 2-minute drill, such as extended An-2 bracket ideas, skill-endurance and motor learning thoughts (ISO-extreme principle), or workload efficiency, but dissecting these would be beyond the scope of this article.

Always finding a challenge to add on to common exercises and drills can also prove useful, such as jumping over a unique barrier as shown below:

A post shared by Joel Smith (@justflysports) on

2. Be mindful of the numbers and the limits

A huge, and massively underappreciated aspect of training is this: don’t make training so much about numbers (such as how much you lifted or how high you jumped) that getting to the point where you start to “fail” in terms of not jumping any farther or sprinting any faster, or even starting to overly analyze and tag the spot you are in that day interferes with FLOW and enjoying the training process.

In other words, don’t create quantifiable opportunities for athletes to not reach a goal when you know failure, or a poor performance is likely. 

The simplest solution here is to plan training progress appropriately and send athletes home when you know they won’t be ready to unleash a solid performance on a given day.  Outside of this, a good knowledge of how to frame training from a psychological perspective is massive.

It is no wonder that Charles Poliquin would utilize mixed pound and kilogram weight sets so his clients didn’t know what they were lifting.  When you just know “this weight is heavier than the last set”, but have no idea to the exact weight (which brings up the subconscious processes how strong you were compared to last week, and what if you are regressing?).  It helps you to enjoy the process and feel of what you are doing and ignore the numbers.

This isn’t to say you should never know what you are lifting, and if I had plates to mix, I would try to wait for days where athletes showed up looking fresh and strong to allow for a lifting day with weights the athletes could know what they are lifting! 

Riding the momentum of positive results, and enjoying what you are doing is key to entering training FLOW.  Obsessively looking at training numbers, and making multiple tries to achieve a practice mark, then self-analyzing afterwards destroys the FLOW process.  This is a reason that I think that the Inno-sport system can be great for athletes with a coach making auto-regulation decisions for them, but lousy for an athlete who is trying to figure out exercises, drop-offs, and frequency-fatigue themselves.

FLOW, Willpower, and Peak Human Performance

FLOW and buy-in, from a training perspective are synonymous.  Athletes who are second guessing their training are activating their conscious brain, and reducing the ability of their body to operate to its full innate potential.

This is also huge from a neurotransmitter perspective.  When we succeed at something, we get a dopamine “hit” from that success.  This gives us both enhanced concentration and inspiration.  Dopamine also has a strong influence on the locomotion processes of the CNS, so that “fresh and springy” feeling you get is linked to the dopamine level you currently have.

When we fail at something, dopamine levels lower.  This is good for tactical decision making, but it can be bad for FLOW based athletic progress over time.  Again, the balance is key.

Collecting small wins is huge, so the way that coaches frame “training PR’s, such as “you set a 8 rep PR with that weight!”, is huge for creating mental victories that leads to dopamine release, through the training process.  The BFS system of “rep” PR’s leads to more frequent records, even though the athlete may not be their strongest each time they walk in the weightroom.  Even if I set an “8RM record” simply because I haven’t tested my 8RM much, it’s still a record, and I still get my dopamine release as long as I’m bought in.

Psychologists agree that it’s great to set goals, but trying to reach goals by using willpower is a bad mistake that doesn’t lead to success.  Athletes should try to hit goals in FLOW, rather than banging their head against the wall trying to improve.  I’ve never seen someone trying desperately to force results get what they were looking for.

Finally, there are many sports and situations where failure is very necessary to achieve success.  In these cases, the failure must be framed with the motivation of its necessity.

As skateboard legend Danny Way has said: “I’ll take all the failures.  As long as I know that feeling (of success) is coming, that’s enough to keep going”.

If you frame periods of intentional over-reaching as it being necessary, then it is of psychological benefit to the athlete.

3. Environmental cues and considerations

As a coach, or athlete, it is critical to be aware of the effect of the environment on the state of the athlete.  The training group, scenery (or lack there-of in a dungeon like training environment… which usually proves better for performance), music and more make a big difference in FLOW state.

Along these lines, dunking creates more FLOW than just jumping for a vertec or whatever.  No wonder low-rim dunk training has been claimed by many to increase vertical jump, even though on the outside, it makes no sense because the max vertical requirement might be lower (but the creativity element is higher).

FLOW by J Clark the Jumper on a 9’2” rim

Combining power with creativity in training can be one of the best training methods available for those wired for it (perhaps not serotonin dominant types).

As mentioned previously, complexity is a huge factor in getting in FLOW.  In this regard, training variables with randomized elements to them are helpful, such as using dice to determine sets and reps, doing sprints along a wooded trail with random rocks and roots, or doing bounding across a series of subtly different intervals.

4. Dismantle robotic controls

One of the most important pieces of coaching, as far as I’ve learned, is not over-coaching.  Over-coaching is the enemy of flow.  Watch athletes, and see if they can figure something out for a few reps before feeling the need to step in and guide their every single movement.  Their experience and results will thank you.

I’ve written about this in an article I released earlier this year.  I’m not saying, by this, that all training should be completely random and highly complex, but rather, saying that these techniques should be selectively utilized to maximize athlete engagement and enjoyment of the training process.

5. Understanding feel, effort level, and relaxation

Just as with competition, it is important to feel your training more, and quantify your training less.  This doesn’t mean you can’t, or shouldn’t quantify parts of your training, as mentioned before, but generally, the more you quantify, the more robotic you become, and this also digs into recovery times, in addition to movement “robustness”.

Having more elements in training that allow athletes to feel and process what they are doing allows for not only great learning and self-efficacy, but also ignites the system of the athlete and reduces mental recovery time.

6. Train in your typology

For optimal workout FLOW experience, look at how you or your athletes are wired.  I’ve been a long-time follower of the Braverman test (Dopamine, Acetylcholine, GABA, Serotonin types), but I believe that Christian Thibaudeau has taken all this to an even higher level in his new work on Dopamine, Adrenaline and Serotonin types.  His podcast with Robbie Bourke on All Things Strength and Wellness goes into this in good detail, and Christian Thibaudeau is one of the top coaches on my list to learn from.

In the podcast, you’ll learn that dopamine types are stimulated in the weightroom differently than adrenaline types.  Serotonin types are more likely to not even be seen in the weightroom as they crave the structure and predictability of endurance work, and are out training for a triathlon or ultramarathon.

The biggest takehome that I’ve gotten from these things over the years, is that different athletes are wired for, and attracted to different things in the weightroom, and will be in better FLOW if you feed them those challenges.  Take a look at how high of a box an athlete prefers to jump on, or how they spend their free time after the regular portion lift is over to hone in on what makes them tick.  Do they like 1×20 style training, or Triphasic?

Parting Thoughts

If I could do my life and career over again, I think being a big-wave surfer would be a cool option.

Athletes like Laird Hamilton are constantly restructuring what we view as possible.  In my mind, this is the heart of sport… pushing our limits beyond what was thought possible, and at the core of this is the subconscious.  In riding the “Millenium Wave, without split improvised decision for the right hand to grab the water, Laird may have faced certain wipeout and possibly death.

At the end of the day, sport science is sport science, and coaching is coaching, but without FLOW, our sporting system would be a sad shadow of what it is and becoming.

Getting in “The Zone” might just be the most important thing to happen to you or your athletes.

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