Flow (Part 1) examined several components of the peak performance state known as “flow.” In particular:
1. Challenge – Skills Balance
2. Clear goals
3. Unambiguous feedback
4. Total concentration on task at hand
We also discussed how Step 1 of the Parallel Mode Process allows you to experience these components of flow.
Step 1 involves a simple task in which you concentrate on using your strokes to keep oncoming balls from getting past an imaginary window that you visualize spanning the court in front of you at a comfortable arm’s length.
This concentrative task causes you to shift from a Serial Mode of operation to a Parallel Mode of operation, which is your most efficient and accurate operating mode.
When you shift to a Parallel Mode not only do you perform at a much higher level, but the different flow components are fused into a unified flow state and you immediately begin to feel it.
The challenge of maintaining a flow state is the challenge of maintaining your Parallel Mode of operation. The Steps of the PMP are designed to help you learn how to shift from a Serial Mode to a Parallel Mode, and then how to maintain your Parallel Mode and the flow state that accompanies it.
This page discusses the next two components of flow:
5. Action-awareness merging
6. Sense of control
According to Jackson and Csikszentmihaly: “when you feel at one with the movements you are making, you are experiencing…the merging of action and awareness. Instead of the mind looking at the body from the outside, as it were, the mind and body fuse into one.”
This is action-awareness merging. The fusion of mind and body. Think of it as going on automatic pilot.
The authors go on to say: “Athletes in flow feel that their actions are effortless and spontaneous.”“Things happening automatically…”“Reactions are quicker – things just seem to happen.”“Everything feels very smooth and fluent.”
Wow! Sounds pretty good to me! When is the last time your actions felt effortless and spontaneous? How about the last time things happened automatically and everything felt smooth and fluent? Wouldn’t it be great to stop thinking so much and simply go on automatic pilot?
How does that happen? How can you stop thinking about all the things you’re supposed to think about out there on the court and switch over to automatic pilot?
The age-old answer to the problem of overthinking is to think about only one thing, to concentrate on one thing and one thing only. And the one thing you are told to concentrate on is the ball.
Logically, by concentrating only on the ball you will be able to keep your mind from thinking about all the other things that interfere with your performance and you will go on automatic pilot.
Here’s a question for you: how often have you been able to concentrate on the ball and nothing else while you play?
Concentrating on the ball is not as easy as it sounds, mostly because the ball doesn’t sit still and let you keep it in focus. That would make it much easier to think about only the ball. One object of focus – the ball – remaining in one location.
Concentrating on the ball while it remains in the same focal location is fairly easy compared to concentrating on the ball as it moves back and forth across the net. And the fact that the ball often moves faster than you can keep it in focus means that one thing is bound to happen. You are going to lose your focus on the ball, and when you lose your focus on the ball, you also lose your concentration on the ball.
Thinking only about the ball sounds like the most logical approach to going on automatic pilot, but because you can’t keep the ball in focus at higher speeds you face a dilemma every time you play the game.
You have been told time and time again to focus on the ball, but when the ball starts moving at higher speeds you can’t keep it in focus, and there’s the dilemma. If you can’t keep the ball in focus, then what should you focus on when you play tennis?
For those of you who insist on watching the ball, I would suggest the most efficient and accurate Variable-Depth of Focus (VDF) input pattern available. The hit-bounce-hit pattern first introduced by Timothy Gallwey in the mid-70’s.
This visual input pattern still requires you to refocus your eyes, but it suggests that you refocus your eyes to specific fixation points along the ball’s flight line. Those fixation points being your opponent’s hit, the bounce of the ball on your side of the net, and your hit.
This visual inpug pattern is much more efficient than trying to keep the ball in focus along its entire flight line. It is also visually doable.
But for those of you who want to try a different approach to the game; and approach that does not involve focusing on the ball, then I would point you toward a Fixed-Depth of Focus (FDF) input pattern. (See Step 4)
First of all, FDF is not only visually possible at the higher speeds we see in tennis, it is also more efficient and accurate than any VDF input strategy, even the hit-bounce-hit strategy.
And FDF has an additional benefit. It is the visual input strategy you use to shift from a Serial Mode to a Parallel Mode of operation, and when you shift to a Parallel Mode, you will immediately experience what it feels like to go on automatic pilot.
You see, the underlying operating mode of action-awareness merging is a Parallel Mode. In other words, when you switch on your Parallel Mode, you switch on automatic pilot.
Beneath flow, beneath each of the components of flow (such as action-awareness merging), beneath playing in the zone, is your Eye/Brain/Body operating system and its perpetual interface with the tennis environment.
The difference between a Serial Mode and a Parallel Mode is that you don’t experience flow in a Serial Mode. Instead, you experience playing tennis “in the norm.” But when you shift to your Parallel Mode, you experience playing tennis “in the zone,” and flow is intrinsic to the zone.
The most important thing about shifting to a Parallel Mode is that it creates a Parallel Interface between you and the tennis environment.
A Parallel Interface occurs when you interface with the ball (past) and your contact zone (future) equally and simultaneously. That fusion of equal parts past and future acts to create the temporal and spatial dimension of the present. So when you are creating a Parallel Interface on the tennis court, you are actively playing tennis “in the present.” And when you are playing tennis in the present, you will experience action-awareness merging.
The two go together. Action-awareness merging, automatic-pilot, is a characteristic of flow, and the flow experience itself is a characteristic of being in the present.
The sense of being in control is a component of the flow state, but what exactly does that mean? Does it mean you are in control of the ball? Are you in control of your opponent? Do you control the court, the baseline, the net? Are you in control of yourself? What exactly does it mean to have a sense of control while you are playing the game?
Jackson and Csikszentmihalyi comment on control: “Ultimately, control in sport is not about opponents or external obstacles. It is about learning to discipline a wandering mind, fluttering emotions, an unsteady will.”
So how do you go about getting this sense of control, which is such a common characteristic of playing tennis in the zone?
The very nature of tennis is that it is an outcome-based game. You have to hit the ball back over the net and into the court, otherwise you lose the point. Pretty simple: create a positive outcome or go home a loser. (Sounds awful; doesn’t it?)
So the first control issue you face comes right after you make contact with the ball. Positive contact creates a positive outcome, an outcome wherein the ball goes back over the net and into the court.
Negative contact, on the other hand, creates a negative outcome, an outcome wherein the ball does not go back over the net or land inside the court.
Here’s a question to ask yourself: what is your main objective out there on the court? Is your objective to hit the ball over the net and into the court? If it is, then you are unconsciously attaching an outcome to the process of making contact.
That’s all fine and dandy if that outcome is positive. A positive outcome will give you a sense of control, but if that outcome is negative, then you will feel like you have lost control. Start piling up negative outcomes and you pretty soon you will totally lose any sense of control you might have had when you were hitting the ball over the net and into the court.
In short, if your objective involves an outcome, then your attachment to that outcome is directly related to your sense of control.
In other words, if you use your eyes to focus on the ball as it goes back and forth across the net, then half of the time you are focused on the process portion of the contact sequence, while the other half of the time you are focused on the outcome portion of the contact sequence.
Here’s another question for you: How can you ”stay in the process” when half of the time you are focused on the outcome?
When you’re in a Parallel Mode, you stay visually and mentally focused on your contact zone before, during, and after contact. Again, focusing on your contact zone as the ball comes toward you means you are in a fixed-focus state during the process half of the contact sequence. And staying focused on your contact zone as the ball goes back over the net defocusesyou from the outcome while it simultaneously prefocuses you for the next process.
But the most important aspect of fixing your focus on your contact zone is that YOU are in control of your own focus, both visually and mentally.
When you’re in a Serial Mode, you’re always trying to keep the ball in focus, which means you are actually giving over control of your focus to the ball. Wherever the ball goes, you follow it with your focus, and that means you are not in control of your focus, the ball is.
The same is true when you focus on your opponent. In that case, your opponent is in control of your focus, not you. Seldom will you feel a sense of control when you are giving over control of your visual and mental focus to your opponent, to the ball, and to the outcome of your performance.
But when you’re in a Parallel mode, with your focus firmly fixed on your contact zone, you are, by definition, in control of your visual and mental focus. So instead of your focus being controlled by your opponent, the ball, your target, or the outcome, YOU are in control of your own visual and mental focus.
And with that focal control comes the overall sense of control that is one of the main components of a flow state.
But the nature of control is paradoxical. In order to feel this sense of control of the whole tennis environment, you must first release control of the individual parts of the tennis environment.
In other words, you must defocus (release control) from the ball, your opponent, your target, and the outcome.
Q: How do you defocus from the parts?
A: By focusing on the whole.
Q: How do you focus on the whole?
A: By fixing your focus on your contact zone.
Focus on nothing, see everything.
Your contact zone is not only the future depth of contact; it is also the future depth of movement and the future depth of countermovement.
1. Contact Zone = Future depth of Movement
2. Contact Zone = Future depth of Countermovement
3. Contact Zone = Future depth of Contact
This means that when your focus is fixed on your contact zone, you are actually focusing on three futures in one. And by taking focal control your contact zone, you are actually taking focal control of three futures simultaneously.
The sense of control is immediate and powerful.