Article By: Nathaniel Hancock
Unconscious. The flow state. In the zone.
These terms describe how we comprehend incredible performances — in athletics, the creative arts, and elsewhere — during which the protagonist transcends the mundane to momentarily enter another dimension.
Witnessing the zone in others is powerful; experiencing it ourselves can be literally breathtaking.
We have all seen the phenomenon in the sports world: swimmer Michael Phelps winning eight gold medals in one Olympics; runner Joan Benoit Samuelson besting the field to become the first women’s Olympic marathon champion; sprinter Usain Bolt annihilating the competition in both the 100m and 200m at three consecutive Olympics. While these are inspiring examples, the zone or flow state is not limited to the Olympic Games, winning medals, or even the wide world of sports. Instead, one can “flow” in a seemingly unlimited number of realms and disciplines, to include one’s profession as well as one’s passion (which may or may not overlap).
The Flow State and the “Best Self” Concept
Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, the psychologist who first identified the flow principle, described it as follows:
“The best moments in our lives are not the passive, receptive, relaxing times… The best moments usually occur if a person’s body or mind is stretched to its limits in a voluntary effort to accomplish something difficult and worthwhile.”
Years ago, a friend pursuing an MBA at Harvard University asked me (in the context of a class assignment, the Reflected Best Self exercise) to identify times when his “best self” had emerged. I do not recall the examples I conveyed to him at the time, but this “best self” concept has stuck with me over the years. Specifically, it has caused me to repeatedly reflect upon my own “best self” moments and what I believe has led to them.
Only recently did I make the connection between this “best self” concept and Csikszentmihaly’s eight characteristics of flow, described by Mike Oppland (PositivePsychology.com) as follows:
- Complete concentration on the task;
- Clarity of goals and reward in mind and immediate feedback;
- Transformation of time (speeding up/slowing down);
- The experience is intrinsically rewarding;
- Effortlessness and ease;
- There is a balance between challenge and skills;
- Actions and awareness are merged, losing self-conscious rumination;
- There is a feeling of control over the task.
Csikszentmihaly’s traits describe both the experience of being in the zone and these “best self” occasions. In fact, the two are virtually interchangeable; they differ perhaps only by magnitude or degree. Examples in cinema include the moment Neo (played by Keanu Reeves in The Matrix) realizes he is endowed with superhuman powers and is able to dodge bullets and save lives, or the time when Paul Maclean (played by Brad Pitt in A River Runs Through It) is seen masterfully fly fishing with a self-developed technique that defies convention, or when Andy Dufresne (played by Tim Robbins in The Shawshank Redemption) plays Mozart’s “Sull’aria” over the prison’s loudspeakers in an attempt to bring hope to a desperate population. In other words, achieving the flow state is linked to “filling the measure of your creation,” to quote from a Patricia Holland speech given at Brigham Young University. (For another example of being in the zone, check out Prince’s 2004 performance of The Beatles’ “While My Guitar Gently Weeps”).
Flowing at the Gym
Those of us who train both hard and consistently recognize that some days are better than others — there is no getting around it. The longer we pursue the iron game, the more clearly we see that there is only so much we can control on our strength or fitness journey; because of this, we must choose to focus on what is in our power to change and not allow ourselves to become distracted by elements beyond our grasp.
When I consider my greatest training sessions of the last 30+ years (I began distance running at age nine before transitioning to bodybuilding and later powerlifting), the following themes emerge:
- Incredible optimism
- Personal best strength or speed
- Intense focus
- Significant feelings of accomplishment
- Effortlessness (in the sense that my body was performing automatically)
- The impression of being in control of the outcome
- BONUS: Sharing the experience with like-minded individuals
It is not difficult to see that this list closely mirrors Csikszentmihaly’s eight characteristics of flow. Indeed, as I reflect on my training highlights, I see that all eight of his traits were part of my experiences.
Is Achieving Flow in Our Power?
Now that we have described what being in the zone looks like, those of us in the trenches are likely interested in knowing whether we can influence the amount and intensity of our own “unconscious” training experiences. In short, yes and no.
Let’s start with no. We cannot completely control:
- Our health
- Our stress levels
- Our quality and amount of sleep
- Our ability to avoid injury
- Our genetics
That said, take another look at this list. With the exception of the genes our parents gave us, there is actually a lot we can do about every other item.
- Health: Are we making good food choices? Are we drinking enough water? Are we taking care of our cardiovascular needs? Are we making sure we do not overdo it in terms of total training volume and intensity?
- Stress: Are we using coping mechanisms and outlets to ensure stress levels remain low or at least manageable? Are we avoiding a reliance on caffeine and other stimulants that, when consumed in excess, might make us irritable? Do we take time out to “center” during our daily lives?
- Sleep: Are we prioritizing the amount of sleep we believe is optimal, given our training regimen and total life load? Are we careful about abusing sleep aids on the one hand and stimulants on the other? Have we — to the extent possible, given our family and life circumstances — set up the “ideal” sleep conditions in our bedroom (in terms of light, sound, temperature, etc.)?
- Injury Avoidance: Have we truly learned proper technique for the exercises we train? Do we effectively practice this technique, day in and day out? Is our programming wise and sustainable in terms of the amount and intensity? If yes, is this true both for our body as a whole and the specific muscle groups we have just worked (while related, these are two different questions we should be asking to avoid overtraining)? When feasible, do we enlist the help of professionals (coaches, physical therapists, chiropractors, general practitioners, etc.) to help inform our decision-making and guide our progress?
Once we have done all we can to optimize our efforts in each of these categories — and, it should be stated, a commitment to lifelong learning is required to understand what constitutes “optimizing” — are we guaranteed to enter the zone and to truly flow each and every training session? Of course not! But — and this is an important “but” — we can confidently put our best foot forward knowing we have done our part to have another solid session in the gym. We can also accept the fact that our strength levels will vary from day to day, and we can decide to find joy in the journey regardless of whether we are having an unconscious, PR-setting session (which may be few and far between for seasoned lifters) or rather a normal, brick-building, routine-but-satisfying lift.
Opposition in All Things
One final thought to consider: If we found ourselves in the zone in all of our training sessions (and competitions, for that matter), would they still be special to us? If we hit PRs every time we trained, would a PR remain meaningful?
Part of what makes extraordinary lifting experiences special is that, well, they are not ordinary! The contrast between these “I felt like I could lift anything that was put on the bar” moments and the daily grind is what lends luster to the otherwise commonplace. Once we embrace this fact and put all our energy behind the pursuit of the next PR, our normal sessions become more fulfilling — even exciting, at times — because we see them as necessarily leading to the next exceptional day.
As world record deadlifter Samantha Calhoun stated:
“Can you imagine training an entire year for 5 lbs.? If you can’t, this sport may not be for you.”
Stay humble. Keep learning. Keep grinding. As my high school soccer coach Bob Capener would enthusiastically proclaim before each practice: “It’s a great day for soccer!” He meant it, and he was right — carpe diem, folks, because these opportunities are all fleeting.
Before you know it, you will find yourself locked into another incredible performance. But until then, be sure to smile and to recognize the profound truth — “it’s a great day for [lifting]”!