1. Challenge – Skills Balance
2. Clear goals
3. Unambiguous feedback
4. Total concentration on task at hand
5. Action-awareness merging
6. Sense of control
This section concludes the series by describing the final components of this peak experience and how shifting to a Parallel Mode of operation causes these characteristics to occur simultaneously with the others:
7. Loss of Self-Consciousness
8. Time transcendence
9. Autotelic Experience
Sounds pretty good; doesn’t it? Wouldn’t it be great to play your matches without any worries or negative thoughts? And just imagine how well could you play if you were free from any self-concerns and self-doubts? We all have plenty of those!
Is it possible to actually play a match free from the problems of self-consciousness? A match with no negative thoughts?
Sounds like you’re asking too much of yourself. Even touring pros have negative thoughts, so how can it be possible for recreational players to play the game without negative thoughts or without being self-conscious? How can a recreational player expect to accomplish something even professionals find difficult?
But here’s an important fact about flow. You don’t have to be a professional to get into a flow state. You don’t even have to have sound biomechanical strokes to experience flow.
You do, however, have to detach from what prevents you from experiencing flow, and that means you have to detach from self-consciousness.
You have to let go self.
So the question becomes: how do you detach from self-consciousness when you play tennis? For that matter, what is self-consciousness?
Merriam Webster’s Online Dictionary defines self-consciousness as:
a: conscious of one’s own acts or states as belonging to or originating in oneself: aware of oneself as an individual;
b: intensely aware of oneself.
Self-consciousness is appropriate when you are working on the parts of your game that require self-analysis. In other words, it is appropriate during the practice and learning phases of your game to be intensely aware of yourself.
But during the performance phase of your game, self-consciousness is not appropriate. Being intensely aware of yourself while you are competing only acts to inhibit your on-court performance.
Self-consciousness can also mean:
c: uncomfortably conscious of oneself as an object of the observation of others.
Take for example how uncomfortable you feel when you miss an easy put-away volley in doubles and your partner looks at you like you’ve got the plague. Or what you feel like when you tell your friends whether you won/lost your match that day.
Playing tennis “in the norm” is playing tennis in a conscious state that involves constantly analyzing what you are doing. How often have you missed a shot and then gone over what you did wrong with your stoke? How often have you over-analyzed your mistakes during a match and found yourself spiraling down from self-criticism? How many times have tightened up because you are worried about how you look to others?
This is the normal state of affairs when you are playing tennis in the norm. Self-consciousness is part and parcel of your normal performance state.
Self-consciousness is also part and parcel of your Serial Mode of operation.
In your Serial Mode you are continuously refocusing from your opponent to your target to the ball, continuously comparing yourself to your opponent, your target, and the outcome of your shots.
By contrast, playing tennis in the zone is different in every way. To play tennis in the zone is to play tennis in a flow state, and the underlying operating mode of a flow state is the same operating mode required for the creation of the various flow components discussed earlier in this series.
That mode of operation is a Parallel Mode.
By shifting from your normal, Serial Mode of operation to your more efficient and accurate Parallel Mode of operation, you also shift from your self-conscious state to the selfless state of flow.
Furthermore, self-consciousness happens automatically if you are focused on the ball as it moves back and forth across the net because half the time you are focused on the outcome of your shots. When you hit a good shot, you feel good about yourself, but when you hit a bad shot, your sense of self can go downhill in a hurry, and with a few bad shots, you can get more and more negative and critical of yourself.
This doesn’t mean that focusing on the ball will cause low self-esteem, but the very nature of focusing on the ball takes you into the outcome of whether or not your shot goes in. And once you become attached to the outcome, you are bound to become more self-conscious.
The refocusing strategy of a Serial Mode automatically promotes self-consciousness through focusing on the outcome.
By contrast, the visual strategy of your Parallel Mode (FDF) involves keeping your focus continuously fixed on your contact zone, which causes two immediate changes:
1. FDF defocuses you from the outcome by keeping you continuously focused on your contact zone instead of the ball.
2. FDF requires total concentration to stay visually and mentally focused on your contact zone as you locate the primary contact point.
And when you are focused on the future, you cannot be focused on the past. Which means you won’t waste any time replaying past outcomes in your mind. In other words, you cannot become self-conscious about your past if you are focused on your future.
But there’s more to FDF than first meets the eye. As you are focusing on your contact zone (future), you are still seeing the ball (past) as it moves toward your contact zone. That means you are aware of the past and the future equally and simultaneously.
This combination acts to create the temporal and spatial reality of the Present, and when you are in the present, there is no self-consciousness for one simple reason: the is no time to be self-conscious.
In short, you can’t be in the present and self-conscious at the same time.
You can only be in the present.
Finally, players who come off the court after playing in the zone often comment on how great they feel about themselves and about their game, which bring up one of the paradoxes of flow:
The selfless state experienced when you are in the zone enhances your sense of self when you come out of the zone.
According to Jackson and Csikszentmihalyi, “Loss of self-consciousness is an empowering characteristic: after the flow experience, the perception of self is stronger and more positive.”
There are two types of time transformation: temporal contraction and temporal expansion. With temporal contraction it seems like time is shortened; an hour has passed and it seems like only minutes.
It’s not uncommon for my students to comment on how fast time seems to pass when they are in the zone. The saying: “time flies when you’re having a good time” could be changed to: “time contracts when you are in the zone.” That’s temporal contraction.
The other type of time transformation is the exact opposite of temporal contraction and it’s called temporal expansion and it feels like everything is moving in slow motion. It’s has even been called “slow-motion seeing”, but whatever its name, one of the most compelling characteristics of the zone is temporal expansion.
Temporal contraction and temporal expansion: opposite sides of the coin of Time.
Your brain separates visual information into two visual pathways – the what pathway and the where pathway.
Your primary visual pathway (what pathway) specializes in object identification. For instance, your what pathway recognizes that the round yellow object moving back and forth across the net is a tennis ball. That’s what it does best – object recognition. Unfortunately, the what pathway is slower to recognize and respond to motion than the where pathway.
The “What Pathway” is designed for object recognition (face and chair). The “Where Pathway” is designed for motion recognition (leopard).
Your secondary visual pathway (where pathway) specializes in object location and motion recognition. In other words, your where pathway specializes in recognizing and responding to the motion of the tennis ball.
And best of all, visual research shows that your where pathway is much faster at recognizing and responding to motion than your what pathway.
What pathway = object recognition – slower visual pathway
Where pathway = motion recognition – faster visual pathway
When you are playing tennis in the norm, your dominant visual pathway is the detail-oriented what pathway. The slower of the two visual pathways. And your perception of the ball’s motion is the perception you get from the what pathway. This is your normal perception of motion.
When your are playing tennis in the zone, your dominant visual pathway changes to the faster, motion oriented where pathway, and this change to a faster processing pathway accounts for the perception of everything moving slower than normal.
What pathway = slower pathway = normal perception of motion
Where pathway = faster pathway = altered perception of motion (slow motion)
In other words, you do the activity for the sake of the activity. You play the game to play the game, not to win or lose.
Flow is an autotelic experience just like playing tennis in the zone is an autotelic experience. And because your Parallel Mode of operation is the operating mode for flow, it is also the operating mode for an autotelic experience.
Think of it this way: any experience, whether on the tennis court or off, is an experience in which your visual/cognitive/motor operating system is connected to and interfacing with that particular environment.
If you interface in a Serial Mode, you will only be connecting to the material elements of the game: your opponent, the court, the ball, etc.
But if you interface in a Parallel Mode, you will be connecting to both the material and non/material dimensions of the game equally and simultaneously.
In short, your Serial Mode connects you to only the material half of the game, while your Parallel Mode connects you to the unified reality of the whole game.
The peak performance experience of playing tennis in the zone is created when your operating system connects to and interfaces with the unified whole of the tennis environment, and that full-potential interface requires the full-potential interface of your Parallel Mode.
Your operating system has the innate ability to connect to the whole of the tennis environment, but in order to connect to the whole you must first disconnect from the individual parts, which means you have to defocus your eyes from the parts and fix your focus on the whole.
How do you fix your focus on the whole? By fixing your focus on your Contact Zone.
And when you keep your focus fixed on your contact zone as you locate the primary contact point, you will remain connected to both the parts and the whole.
Keep your focus on the only the ball and you will remain connected to only the ball. But the ball is NOT the unified whole of the game.
The Parallel Mode Process is a step-by-step model for synthesizing the parts of flow into a unified flow experience.
Jackson, S.A., Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1999) Flow in Sports. Champaign,IL: Human Kinetics.