If you’ve signed up for a big race, or aiming to reach a significant goal, you most likely will dedicate months of training to preparing yourself physically. But if you want to perform to the best of your ability, you should prepare mentally too. To win, you have to be in control of your mind even more than your body.
Changing to the realm of canoe slalom I had to start out at the bottom, as a beginner. If you want to reach your athletic dreams the one thing you will have to do is fail. Failures, mistakes and losses provide you with valuable feedback. Learn what you did wrong and what not to do next time. Failing is an important part of the process. It’s what you have to do to get to success.
If you want to be physically strong and on top of your game, you will need mental fortitude and resilience. If you are worried about losing or messing up, then chances are high that you will perform badly. Most athletes choke when they get too focused on the results. You will always do your best when you have absolutely nothing to lose. It’s all about being competitive and not the competition.
So forget failing. It’s not the end of the world! Stop tying your ego up with the outcome of your game, match or race. Failure is not your enemy! Instead, failure is a very important training partner.
We will fall over and over, we will make poor choices but how we deal and respond to these is what determines our success.
Mistakes are attempts that haven’t yet worked. Adding the word ‘yet’ to any utterance of defeat completely reframes it.
It’s not working … yet
I can’t do this … yet
I didn’t succeed … yet
Treat your setbacks this way and learn from them!
There is a big difference in failing in whitewater and in slalom. In many situation in whitewater you cannot afford to fail a test which is a matter of injury or death. But you can still apply this to (gym) work-outs, technical learnings and race results.
Flow is a state of mind – achieved when athletes feel completely engaged in their performance, fully immersed in a feeling of focus, full involvement and undistracted. In sport, flow sits at the heart of most great athletic performances. Flow is a rather elusive state, and the more you strive for it, the harder it becomes to cultivate. Even if you haven’t experienced flow on the pitch or the treadmill, you’d have felt it at some point in your life. It’s that feeling when you’re so lost in a task that time flies, whether you’re engrossed in a book, immersed in the latest Netflix boxset or absorbed in work.
Having a competitive goal is not the secret to unlocking flow – because forces outside of ourselves (known as extrinsic motivation) are the main pull in competition. Instead, doing something for the sheer love of it (intrinsic motivation) is a bigger driver of happiness and success. For many athletes, there’s much more extrinsic motivation: you don’t want to look stupid by coming last, you don’t want to be judged by other people; you don’t want to fall over in front of people; you would like to get that medal at the end.
So how do we find flow when pressure knocks?
The first reframe you need to do, is to invite and embrace the physical stress during your challenges. Welcome it, allow it to prime your body for action. This will help you rise above your average performances and thrive through the stress. In doing so, you may start to notice that it will feel different. Instead of leading to shaky arms and muscle tension, it will make you feel light, present and alert. Practice over and over that start-line tension and find a release in the struggle – a sense of effortless in the effort.
Tips to get into flow
1. Push yourself out of your comfort zone
First, the activity must be challenging but one must also possess great skill. By its very nature, flow is fluid and the boundaries to get into the flow change. Dr. Csikszentmihalyi identified the ‘arousal’ area as the point most people could learn from; it’s the point when you are pushed out of your comfort zone and forced to develop new skills if you want to improve and have a chance of finding flow again. To keep attaining flow, you need to keep learning and pushing yourself to improve in order to maintain that balance between skill and challege.
The task has to be active and engaging. It’s possible to lose track of time and feel joy when watching a movie or taking a shower, but the brain is coasting on autopilot rather than being fully engaged. With your ability and training as building blocks, getting this balance right will ensure you begin to find ease and enjoyment in your workout, while still finding enough of a challenge to prevent you becoming complacent or bored.
2. Keep a diary
Secondly, the activity has to have clear parameters for success. These clear parameters help to enter and maintain a flow state as they indicate progress and quality. You can learn to recognise patterns that brought on flow in order to try and replicate those conditions another time.
When you experience what felt like flow during a workout or training, write down what was going on. What was the environment you were in like – was it windy, cold, hot? Were you on the beach, indoors, at altitude? What was going on in your life at that time? Maybe you are just back from injury and are happy to be running the way you wanted to, rather than being held back?
3. Love what you do
To become fully absorbed in a sport or activity, you need to be what psychologists call ‘intrinsically motivated’, basically you’re doing it for its own sake, not for any reward. If you are competing or training because you want to win something, you end up just focusing on the outcome which won’t help your flow, or your performance. But if you have an internal reason to do your sport, that you love the feeling of mastering new skills or enjoy the movement, then you are far more likely to feel the flow.
Goal setting can also release some of the pressure by only setting goals around what you can control. You cannot control how others perform, you can try and affect them but you can’t control them. The goal should always be to prepare and perform to your best for yourself. The result will always be a by-product of your preparation.