By Matt Long, M.A., M.Ed.
When you type, “staying in the moment” into any search engine, the first things that show up are articles and websites of the self-help and wellness variety. You will find suggestions for the path to enlightenment and happiness, as well as tips to reduce the stress in your life. What you won’t find is anything related to sport. However, athletes and performers have much to learn from these resources, particularly with respect to performing at your best when the stakes are highest. In fact, listen to any athlete describe what it feels like to perform at their absolute best and you will likely hear them talk about being “in a zone” or “in the flow”. And this state of mind is exactly where psychology professor Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi has made his mark as a researcher. His theory is that people are happiest when in a state of flow – when they are totally absorbed in the task at hand, and the challenge of the situation is equal to (or just above) their skill level. It is in this state that we are most likely to achieve peak performance. Have a look at Csikszentmihalyi on the flow state (if you only have a few minutes, skip to the 14:00 mark for a concise explanation):
So, why is achieving this flow state important as an athlete? Let’s take it from a couple people who know a bit about performing at their best when it matters most.
Barry Zito, 2002 AL Cy Young winner and member of the World Champion 2012 San Francisco Giants, when asked how he found a higher level of focus during the 2012 playoffs (where he went 2-0 with a 1.69 ERA):
“I think it was holding myself accountable on a moment-by-moment basis, asking myself, Am I giving everything in the tank right now?”
R.A. Dickey, 2012 NL Cy Young winner and NL leader in strikeouts:
“In the past five years, I made the discovery that I’m much better trying to live in the next five minutes well. And that goes for my career as a pitcher, too. I try to break down each pitch. I throw 120 pitches in a game. That’s 120 separate commitments that I need to make over the course of the game. If I’m able to do that, I don’t have any regrets.”
What these two accomplished athletes allude to is the ability to:
- Stay in the moment
- Focus on the process you are trying to carry out in that moment
- Devote 100% of your attention to the task at hand
Think of these three skills in contrast with focusing your attention on the outcome of the game, what happened last game, what is at stake, or even worse, the consequences if you lose. Any of these can easily lead to fear and doubt in our mind, which then causes excess tension in our muscles due to our body’s natural “fight or flight” response. And the result of tension is usually less-than-optimal performance.
Need more evidence – how about this? One of the leaders in sport psychology research, Dr. Joan Duda, separated athletes at the 2000 Olympic Games in Sydney into two groups, according to their approach to competition. One group was focused primarily on gaining a particular outcome (winning), while the other was focused on mastery (giving maximum effort, striving for continual development, learning from mistakes). Which of these groups would you put Zito and Dickey in? And which of the groups do you think won more medals? You can probably guess where this is going – the mastery group won more medals in Sydney. So it turns out a sole focus on winning can actually work against you, for the reasons I alluded to earlier.
A mastery focus is a focus on the process (see #2 above), and it is highlighted by an ability to stay in the moment, committing your attention to the task at hand. As an athlete striving for peak performance, this is the orientation you should strive to develop. Unfortunately, it is an outcome orientation with a focus on winning at all costs that is so often instilled in today’s competitive young athlete.
So if a process focus is the goal, then how can we move toward it? The following are some practical techniques to help you develop your ability to stay in the moment, focus on the process, and devote your attention to the task at hand:
1. Process Goals
These are goals designed with the sole purpose of keeping you in the moment, focused on the task at hand. They are often technique-related. Process goals are 100% within your control, and they are NOT outcome goals like winning a game, running a certain time, or finishing with a certain amount of points, hits, goals, etc.
- Perform my pre-shot/pre-pitch routine the same way every time
- Stay in a defensive stance throughout the entire possession
- Focus on my technique whenever the ball is in my possession
Your self-talk is exactly what it sounds like – the things you say to yourself, either in your head or out loud. Self-talk is a great way to keep your attention exactly where it needs to be, which is in the moment. Take a look at how Gabby Douglas, the women’s all-around gold medalist gymnast in London, used self-talk as a tool during the Olympics:
“Of course I still got nervous during the Olympics, but each day I just visualized the perfect routine, had little conversations with myself: Okay, watch the corners, keep your feet together. I didn’t think about winning. I thought about how great I could be that particular day.”
Be aware of how your self-talk is affecting you, and use it to help you stay in the process.
3. Focus Cues
These are little verbal, visual, or kinesthetic triggers that help remind you to stay in the process.
- A verbal cue of “commit” that you say to yourself before each shot that reminds you to make this swing a positive, committed, trusting one (and at the same time helps you avoid thinking about the result)
- A visual cue like a stop sign on your batting glove that reminds you to pause in between pitches and stay in the moment
- A kinesthetic cue like pressing a pretend “reset” button to help you bounce back from a mistake, avoid dwelling on it, devote all you attention to the next play.
As Csikszentmihalyi showed, there is a connection between achieving a “flow” state and peak performance. These three techniques will help you develop your ability to stay in the moment, even when the stakes are high. While winning is important to any competitive athlete, the perspective shown by Zito, Dickey, and Douglas is that winning is often a byproduct of developing a process focus and an ability to stay in the moment.