Have you ever had a performance where everything just clicked? When you were completely absorbed in the moment, like nothing else existed. Many athletes have experienced being “in the zone” during competition. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi studied intrinsic motivation and coined the term “flow”. (And in case you’re curious, here is how you pronounce his name!) Flow is that moment when your performance feels effortless and you move on pure instinct. Time seems to play tricks on you – feeling faster or slower. There isn’t anything you can’t do – every move you want to execute you are able to do it flawlessly. It’s the golden moment.
The interesting thing about this concept of “flow” is that it is based on the pleasure of “play”. Flow is the ultimate state of intrinsic motivation; participation for the sake of participating. Participating because it is fun. Because it makes you feel good and you love the challenge. Participating because it brings you joy. Csikszentmihalyi was not studying how to be mentally tough – he was studying the act of play and the pure joy that can come from participating. Through his research he found that many athletes experienced their best performances while they were “in the zone”; when they were at the peak of intrinsic motivation.
For many athletes, whether you are recreational or elite, there comes a time when your sport shifts from feeling like play, to feeling like something a little more serious. When you make this mindset shift from playing to training, sometimes it creates a shift that moves you further away from having a peak performance. Instead of going out to push yourself and see what your made of, you’re dragging your feet out the door. You’re putting pressure on yourself to perform and feeling like a failure when you don’t.
Enjoying your sport doesn’t mean that you take out the competitive element or the desire to win. Competition allows you to elevate your game and push yourself harder than if you were alone. However, when you add in the competitive factor, your ego suddenly doesn’t want you to “just go out and play”. Your ego can sometimes be an obstacle and end up sabotaging your training and competitive performance. Your ego wants you to compare yourself to the person next to you and see how you size up instead of focusing on your own goals. It makes you get down on yourself when you can’t get your training in, or panic if you have a bad training day. Your ego is sucking all of the joy out of your sport.
I’ve had countless athletes share their best sport experiences with me and one major theme that pops up is that during their best performances, they weren’t feeling any pressure to win. For various reasons, they went into competition feeling complete freedom from pressure to perform well. Then they went out and had the performance of a lifetime. When your ego gets wrapped up in winning and losing, you put pressure on yourself and it shifts where you choose to focus. Pressure makes you tighten up and hold back. It makes you see what could go wrong, instead of staying absorbed in the moment.
It’s such a mind-bender – stop fixating on the outcome and you are more likely to get the result you want. When your ego starts to get loud, it has you focusing on getting excited that you might win or freaking out that you might lose, instead of staying in the present moment and focused on what you need to do next. Ego is not bad. You want your ego to push you, to drive you to do better, but not to sabotage your performance. You take your head out of the game when your thoughts go internal to worrying about whether you’re going to win or lose.
If the evolution of you and your sport has brought you to the competitive arena – ask yourself this: does my participation add to the quality of my life? Sports are meant to add to your life. Competing and training won’t always be “fun” per se; sacrifices and pain are a part of the package, but it has to be a little fun otherwise what’s the point? Motivation comes from enjoyment. If you enjoy your sport, you’ll want to do it more so if you want to do it more – go out and ENJOY it! Life is too short. Remember what brought you to your sport in the first place. Remember what you love about it. Then put your ego in check and go out and play!