Being in the Zone Through Mindfulness

George Mumford, Mindfulness and Performance Expert, recently presented during the Embodiment@Work online conference coordinated by the mindful leader organisation, a not-for-profit organisation dedicated to encouraging and supporting mindfulness and compassion in the workplace. George works with elite sports teams and individual elite athletes, business leaders and academics to help them to achieve their very best. He is the author of The Mindful Athlete: The Secrets to Pure Performance.

Flow requires integration of body, mind and emotion

George argues that athletes, leaders and academics only achieve flow when they have achieved integration of their body, mind and emotions. What often stops people achieving their potential is what goes on in their minds which, in turn, negatively impacts their emotions. He gave the example of a young elite basketballer who can achieve a 90% success rate for three-points shots in practice, yet in a game situation her success rate drops to 33%.

We have previously discussed why it is so hard to serve out a match in tennis and how even top tennis players (men and women) often have difficulty with this feature of playing tennis. In both these examples, it is what goes on inside someone’s head that makes the difference – a difference in mindset from a positive outlook to negative anticipation.

Once people can achieve an alignment of body, mind and emotions they are open to the insight, wisdom and high performance that epitomises “being in the zone”. George argues that you can’t wish yourself there, but you can develop mindfulness so that the chances of being in the zone are increased. He maintains that it requires being present in the moment and being in control of your mind and emotions – traits that develop through mindfulness practice.

Once you are in the zone, all that is required is to let it happen. You are typically not in control – things happen spontaneously. You make the right choices, execute perfectly and achieve success. I recall being in the zone on one occasion when playing tennis against a a very good player – everything I attempted worked, stroke play was effortless and choices of shot and strategy were made without conscious intervention. At the time, I said to myself, “Just enjoy the moment while it lasts”. It lasted two sets – after which time my opponent gave up, not having won a game.

George reinforces the fact that there exists a space between stimulus and response and we can learn to use that space to make conscious choices rather than act out habituated, reactive behaviour. This form of self-regulation is achieved through sustained mindfulness practice.

Developing a mindfulness mindset

George contends that is not enough to sit, be still and maintain silence. Mindfulness must become a way of life – a sustained mindset. This can be achieved, in part, by adopting a variety of mindfulness practices in different settings as illustrated in the pausing approach described earlier or making conscious efforts to incorporate practices such as mindful walking, intention forming, open awareness or mindful eating.

George suggests that these regular practices help to develop a mindfulness mindset, but they are insufficient of themselves. He argues that we need to attempt to be fully conscious in the moment by asking ourselves a set of questions as we engage in any activity:

  • What is going on for me bodily, in my mind and with my emotions?
  • How aligned are my words and actions with my goal, my overall purpose and who I want to be?
  • Have I got the right balance of energy and effort, or am I over-exerting myself and being so energetic that it is counter-productive?
  • Do I have a firm belief in my ability to achieve the outcome I am seeking?
  • Am I distracted by negative emotions (fear, anxiety) or the inability to concentrate because of a lack of focus in the situation?

Performance growth through discomfort and mistakes

Being in the zone is more likely to occur when we are in a learning mode – open to alternative ways of doing things and to the vulnerability that comes with making mistakes. Jacob Ham argues that to overcome fear and anxiety in the face of uncertainty and ambiguity, we need to develop a “learning brain” and to quiet our “survival brain”.

George suggests that there is no growth without mistakes – we have to try out innovative ways of doing things but this requires being “comfortable with discomfort” and being ready to be self-forgiving for our mistakes (which are a part of every sport or leadership role). It also entails a readiness to be vulnerable and a willingness to learn from the mistakes we make and adapt to new situations we encounter.

As we grow in mindfulness through various forms of meditation, different mindfulness practices and conscious questioning and curiosity about our mind in the present moment, we can achieve “innovative action” and approach the unique reward of being in the zone (whatever our endeavour).

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Image by Erich Westendarp from Pixabay 

By Ron Passfield – Copyright (Creative Commons license, Attribution–Non Commercial–No Derivatives)

Disclosure: If you purchase a product through this site, I may earn a commission which will help to pay for the site, the associated Meetup group and the resources to support the blog.

Mindfulness and Meditation for Elite Athletes

Patrick Chan used mindfulness to excel at the 2018 Winter Olympic Games.  His first round performance for the team figure skating event was badly hampered by nerves and he did not score well.  However by talking to himself, confronting the expectations of his team and his own debilitating emotions, he was able to achieve the top score in his next round and help Canada win the Olympic Gold medal for the event.

Jon Kabat-Zinn taught meditation to the 1984 US Olympic rowing team – a team that went on to win 2 gold medals, 5 silver and 1 bronze.   Jon maintains that to get into the “zone” of peak performance on a regular basis you need to meditate to train yourself mentally.

Richmond Football Club – AFL Premiership Winners through Mindfulness and Meditation

Mindfulness and meditation training helped Richmond win the 2017 AFL premiership.   The initiative started in 2015 with Dylan Grimes, Richmond defender, who was very frustrated and dissatisfied with his ability to maintain his performance at an elite level.  He read a number of books about mindfulness and how it could enhance performance.  In particular, he was impressed with the idea of achieving “flow” proposed by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, author of Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience.

People who experience flow in their endeavours achieve optimal performance, increase their creativity and experience real joy and happiness.   The Richmond Football Club engaged Emma Murray, high performance and mindfulness coach, to help all team members achieve their optimal level.  She was able to help players develop self-awareness, build focus and concentration and to help each other when one of the team was becoming distracted or unfocused.  She successfully established new norms such as individual players openly admitting the impact of their thoughts on their performance, sharing doubts and concerns and, overall, being vulnerable – a counter-cultural position.

Richmond players readily acknowledged the role of Emma’s teaching in mindfulness and meditation in helping them win the premiership.  For example, Dean Martin, winner of the Brownlow Medal, mentioned Emma’s contribution to Richmond’s performance after the game.

Konrad Marshall, author of Yellow & Black: A Season with Richmond, also provided a detailed description of Emma’s work with the football players and the effectiveness of her mindfulness and meditation approach.

NBA Athletes

Laura Chang in an article for mindfulnessmuse.com reminds us of the mindfulness practice of top NBA athletes who before the start of a game focus internally to “get into the zone” and build attention and concentration.  She suggests that we can all learn from these elite athletes to increase our own focus and productivity and proposes a mindfulness practice for improved performance.

Mindfulness Exercise for Improved Performance

Laura offers a 5-step mindfulness exercise that is designed to improve attention during physical activities.  The process, explained in detail in her article, is discussed in terms of the acronym, B.A.S.I.C. :

  • Body – body awareness
  • Arousal Level – notice the nature of your arousal
  • Self-Talk – what are you saying to yourself and what impact is it having on your performance?
  • Imagery – what images are you entertaining and do they reinforce excellent performance?
  • Concentration – notice the nature and quality of your concentration and focus and its impact on your performance.

This process is designed to enhance self-awareness and self-management and, in the process, build the capacity to maintain attention and focus at a high level.

As elite athletes grow in mindfulness they are better able to manage their negative thoughts and images, to maintain concentration and focus, to be creative and to achieve optimal performance.

By Ron Passfield – Copyright (Creative Commons license, Attribution–Non Commercial–No Derivatives)

Image source: courtesy of xusenru on Pixabay

Disclosure: If you purchase a product through this site, I may earn a commission which will help to pay for the site, the associated Meetup group and the resources to support the blog.