One of the reasons I got into coaching was because of my teenage obsession with performance psychology. While most people think sports when they hear that, my medium was the board game of Go. When I was still playing competitively, I came across a book that kicked off the journey I’m still on today: The Art of Learning by Josh Waitzkin.
Because I was progressing through the ranks of Go, I could really relate to what Waitzkin went through when he learned chess.Just like him, there were many games that I lost because I was in a “downward spiral”, a seemingly endless chain of low performance. And I also had games where I got into the “zone” and defeated opponents that I had a low chance of winning against. Why did these happen?
All of my experiences were due the same reason: my mental state was an unknown variable in my gameplay. And judging from the wide spectrum of results I would get, it was a big one.
If you ever experienced anything like this, you may be wondering: how do you control this?
Filters In Your Brain
When you got your first car, did you suddenly start seeing it everywhere? It’s not like there was a sudden surge of people buying that car. They were always there. You just never noticed them. This is a common effect called the Baader-Meinhof phenomenon.
The main reason is because your brain can only pay attention to a limited amount of events. So it selectively filters out anything that isn’t relevant to you. But when you remove that filter for a new interest, it suddenly shows up everywhere.
What does this have to do with controlling your performance level? Well, what if you could choose the right filters to boost your performance?
If you ever run across positive affirmations, you may have said them to yourself while looking at a mirror and felt weird about it. However, this phenomenon supports why affirmations work. The universe may not be sending you more good vibes; instead you’re more receptive to anything already being sent your way.
Additionally your filters can determine how you feel about an event.
When you “lose” at something, it’s easy to get hung up on it. You might have thought you deserved to win. Or you beat yourself up for making a stupid mistake. This puts you in the past, even though time keeps flowing on.
In context, if you lost a huge investor while raising money for your company, you might get stuck and obsessing over why that had to happen. Then through the Baader-Meinhof phenomenon, you might miss another possible investor’s interest because you kept thinking about the previous loss. This is the “downward spiral” mentioned above.
How do you make sure you don’t find yourself here?
Patience and Process
You can take another route instead of being hung up on a loss. This has many names, the most famous being learning from your mistakes. This isn’t new; many people know that’s what they should be doing.
But how do you really get over a setback? If you were passed up for a promotion, lost a huge client or have a day where everything goes to hell, how do you find it in you to focus on what you learned?
First let’s talk about what happens to those who can never get over their setbacks. In short, they stop improving. Then they give up.
The reason is eventually, they get burned out by these setbacks. They feel like they’re not meant to achieve that goal or they feel too embarrassed to keep going. They find something to blame, like the system, talent or being sabotaged.
If that doesn’t sound like an attractive destination, then make sure you’re not using your ego to guide you.
Competitors know that their scariest competition isn’t the most talented of their peers; it’s the most humble. These are the people who don’t let ego get in the way of long and hard training, day after day, no matter how basic or fundamental they have to go.
When they lose, they don’t care about the loss; they care about what they did wrong. They go after their weaknesses like maniacs to turn them into strengths. If they get dirty, injured or made to look like a weakling in the process, they don’t mind.
Often behind this humility and drive is a purpose that no setback can bury. If you really love the game, you will keep going. If you really believe in this company, you’ll keep fighting for it. That’s a topic for another day but an interesting one for your mind to chew on.
Triggering the Zone
At the pinnacle of performance psychology is the zone, also known as the state of flow. This is an otherworldly experience where you feel like you can do no wrong while performing. You also lose track of time and self. Intuition seems to take over.
Scientists and psychologists are still conducting studies on this topic but there are some well researched ways to get into it.
One prerequisite is experience. You cannot get into flow at something you have never done before. Instinct and intuition come from practice and experience. As mentioned before, investing into the process and getting feedback from it is very important.
Another condition to triggering flow is the level of skill involved. If you feel completely outmatched, you won’t be able to get into the zone. If you are the one doing the outmatching, you would likely be bored. Neither state is conducive to flow. But if you get to continually stretch yourself to the next level, you’ll be getting close to flow.
To break down whether or not you’ll find something challenging or not, there must be a clear goal and you must be able to get quick feedback from how you’re doing in reaching it. That will then tell you how well you are doing.
People have also trained themselves to reach a state of flow consciously. This involves finding a set pattern of actions, a ritual of sorts, that puts you in a flow like state. Then you compress it to a shorter ritual with a clear trigger. As you associate that trigger with your flow state, the chances of you getting into it rise.
Athletes use a similar method as a “reset” after a point to make sure they don’t get into a downward spiral. This is using that method in a slightly different manner.
Interesting, isn’t this? And my friends wonder why I’m in love with this…
The idea that your mind can have a huge effect on your progress is an endlessly fascinating topic.
What are you currently doing to be in your best mental state when it matters most?