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Performance without a performer

May 8, 2009

Most of us have experienced what is commonly referred to as “the Zone,” “flow,” or “peak experience.” Whether playing sports, playing an instrument, selling, presenting, or executing some other task, we’ve likely had those special streaks of great yet struggle-free performances. Flow has been examined in many studies found in sport and performance psychology literature. Athletes, performing artists, executives, surgeons, and other performers frequently describe the experience as a top performance in which maximal output and concentration are achieved with minimal effort. There is often a sense of absorption in the activity, as if the “self” or sense of “I” melts away and only the performance is left. The experience may feel like a “performance without a performer,” to play on Mark Epstein’s, MD, book title, “Thoughts Without A Thinker.” Some people even describe the performance as a mystical experience.

In contrast, many self-help books and performance interventions have a disproportionate focus on building up the “self”: self-esteem, self-confidence, and self-control through, for example, the use of self-talk. These interventions definitely have a valid and effective use, but a subtle shift in thinking may also be of great value. A sport psychology professor of mine frequently quipped, “Drop the ‘self’ in self-esteem and self-confidence and focus instead on esteem and confidence” …in other words, how we feel in general, not just how feel about ourselves.

Let me give you a few basic performance examples. If you’re a golfer, and your concentration during your swing is split between swing mechanics (or some other task related cue) and the words you are speaking in your mind (whether positive or negative self-talk), part of your attention is arguably off-task. Your shot may suffer. If you’re an entrepreneur or sales executive, and your concentration during a presentation is split between feelings of insecurity (e.g., you’re still trying to sell yourself in your mind) and the audience’s particular questions or reactions (e.g., a smile, a lean forward), you may miss important opportunities to capitalize on their interests. In sport and performance psychology collaboration, mental strategies and skills like these are integrated and practiced like physical skills in sport.

A number of other fascinating observations have been made about common flow traits such as an adequate challenge level of the task, the tendency of the task to match the performer’s belief in his or her ability to execute that task, and more. I will revisit “the Zone” in future posts. In the mean time, you may be interested in a classic book examining peak performances across a variety of activities called, Flow, by Dr. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (frequently referred to as Dr. C.). You can browse related books on my recommended reading lists (books I’ve read, with commentary) and my Amazon hodgepodge reading list (books that have piqued my interests but I haven’t read). You can also register for the AllWorld.Newsletter (email) or AllWorld.ActionWire (sms) to be notified of new selections, including the publication date of my chapter.

I’d love to hear about your experiences of flow. Please leave a comment telling us about your peak performance!

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. Alex Vaenberg permalink
    March 26, 2010 6:08 am

    Nice touch! I enjoyed this entry very much 🙂

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