The Parallel Mode Process and Flow
In this section we’ll look at these four components of flow and how they are reproduced and synthesized using the PMP.
- Challenge-Skills Balance
2. Clear Goals
3. Unambiguous Feedback
4. Concentration on the Task at Hand
Challenge – Skills Balance
The first characteristic of flow is called the “Challenge-Skills Balance,” which states that the challenge of the task you are performing must match your skills, otherwise you won’t be able to create a flow state.
In tennis this means that if you’re a 3.0 level player matched against a 5.0 level player, your chances of experiencing a flow state are negligible. The 5.0 level challenge is too great for your 3.0 level skills, and that lack of balance between skill level and challenge makes the creation of a flow state virtually impossible.
When I teach people how to play tennis in the zone, I usually match up players of similar ability levels so as not to impede the challenge-skills balance.
But the real challenge of playing tennis in the zone has nothing to do with the physical challenge of tennis. Rather it has to do with the visual and mental challenge of maintaining a fixed-focus state while you’re in the middle of all the action on the court. It’s the challenge of keeping your focus fixed on your contact zone while you play the game of tennis.
You start off by maintaining a fixed-focus state during the controlled, non-competitive drills of Step 1. Then you progress to maintaining a fixed-focus state during real competition.
It takes practice, patience, and a willingness to take on a very different challenge. The challenge of controlling your own focus.
The visual and mental skills you will need to meet the challenge of playing tennis in the zone will develop rapidly as you go through the Steps of the Parallel Mode Process.
Jackson and Csikszentmihaly suggest that: “Goals direct action and provide focus, and by setting clear goals in advance the athlete will know exactly what to do.”
The primary goal of Step 1 is very clear: use your strokes to prevent oncoming balls from getting past your imaginary window.
That’s your goal; nothing more, nothing less.
Your eyes, your mind, and your body are focused on achieving this very specific goal every time the ball comes toward your imaginary window. You’re no longer using your strokes to hit the ball back over the net with your racquet. That’s not your goal. Rather you’re using your racquet to keep every ball from getting past your window.
A different goal and a different perspective on what you are trying to do out there on the court.
What happens when you change your goals, however, is that you also change from your outcome-based, normal performance state to your process-based, peak performance state.
Once again, the primary goal of the PMP is very clear: use your strokes to prevent oncoming balls from getting past your imaginary window.
Quoting once again from Flow in Sports: “feedback describes the knowledge about performance that athletes receive, allowing for continuity in pursuit of their goals.”
In learning how to play tennis in the zone you use immediate “Yes/No” feedback to determine whether or not you are defending your imaginary window with your strokes. By audibly saying “yes” if you are successful in preventing the ball from getting past your window, and “no” if you are not, you give your brain immediate and unambiguous feedback as to your performance.
“Yes” is you are successful. “No” if you are not. About as unambiguous as you can get, and you will find that as you successfully defend your window with your strokes, the contact events you are creating will take care of hitting the ball back over the net.
Remember, the ball does not go over the net because you are trying to hit the ball over the net. The ball goes over the net because you create a positive contact event between the ball and your racquet. Movement and Countermovement. And the chances of creating positive contact are greater if your contact occurs at a consistently positive depth of contact.
Another important aspect of feedback is that you do it contiuously, just as you have a continuous goal of defending your imaginary window. In order to maintain the zone, you must maintain a Fixed-Focus State, and by continuously giving yourself feedback on the task of defending your imaginary window, you will find that the maintenance of that Fixed-Focus State is also continuous.
Remember that your default playing state is a Variable-Focus State, and unless you pay attention to maintaining your Fixed-Focus State, you will revert back to your default state, which causes you to immediately come out of the zone.
The biggest challenge of staying in the zone is maintaining a fixed visual and mental focus on your contact zone instead of focusing on the ball or your opponent or your target. Maintaining your focus requires just as much practice as any other part of your game, and the use of immediate and unambiguous “yes/no” feedback improves your ability to maintain the zone.
Unambiguous feedback: “yes” is you keep the ball from getting past your imaginary window, “no” if you don’t.
Concentration On Task At Hand
According to Jackson and Csikszentmihaly, “When goals are clear, feedback immediate, and your abilities engaged by an appropriate challenge, you still need all the attention you can muster to attend to what must be done.”
Attending to the task at hand; total concentration on your goal and nothing else. That is what it feels like to be in the zone.“Focus in flow is complete and purposeful, with no extraneous thoughts distracting from the task at hand.”
Why visualize and defend an imaginary window?
Step One in the PMP involves the concentrative task of defending your imaginary window with your strokes. Concentrating on the task of defending an imaginary window with your strokes seems counterintuitive to players who are convinced that the only task you should concentrate on is the task of hitting the ball.
And while hitting the ball seems like the logical approach to creating contact between the ball and your racquet, there is one big problem with this traditional logic. In order to hit the ball with your racquet, you must first watch the ball, which means you must keep the ball in focus along its flight line.
Therein lies the big problem.
How can you expect to totally concentrate on an object that you can’t even keep in focus?
The reason it’s so difficult to totally concentrate on the task of hitting the ball is that you can’t keep the ball in total focus as it moves back and forth across the net. And when it’s not in focus, you’re not concentrating on it.
It is possible, however, to keep your contact zone in total focus as you concentrate on the task of defending your imaginary window with your strokes. The very act of fixing your focus on your contact zone/window takes total concentration.
And as you keep your eyes and your mind focused on your window, you will soon find yourself experiencing what it feels like to totally concentrate on the task at hand.
Moreover, when you use your strokes to defend your imaginary window, you will be creating contact at the point the ball first enters your contact zone, which means you will be hitting the ball without ever focusing or concentrating on the ball.
The end result of this shift in concentrative tasks from hitting the ball over the net to defending your imaginary window with your strokes is that you shift from a Variable-Focus State to a Fixed-Focus State, and the moment you shift from a Variable-Focus State to a Fixed-Focus State, you also shift from playing tennis “in the norm” to playing tennis “in the zone.”
Think of it as shifting into the zone.
One of the most noticeable characteristics of a Fixed-Focus State is that it allows you to see everything while focusing on nothing.
In their book, Jackson and Csikszentmihaly describe “being able to take in everything that is happening…as if seeing with a wide-angle lens, taking in a lot more than usual without even being aware of looking around.”
That’s exactly what it’s like when you are in the zone, and that’s exactly what happens when you stop focusing on the ball and start focusing on your contact zone. It looks like you’re seeing everything through a wide-angle lens.
Retraining your eyes to maintain a fixed-focus on your contact zone is requires retraining your mind to stop concentrating on so many different things: your opponent, the ball, or your target. Being aware of what your opponent is doing does not require you to focus your eyes on your opponent. You can still see what you opponent is doing while you are focused on your contact zone.
You also don’t have to be focused on the ball to see the ball. With your eyes focused on your contact zone you can still see the ball as it moves back and forth across the net. It goes out of focus after you make contact and it moves away from you. But as the ball moves toward your contact zone, it also moves into focus, which means, ironically, that you actually see the ball better by not focusing on it than you do by trying to keep it in focus.
The authors also say that “being able to exclude all the distracting events happening around your performance is not easy, but it is an important skill to master if you want to experience flow in sport.”
Events are distracting only when you focus on them. You can exclude all the distracting events on the tennis court by simply defocusing from them. If you don’t focus on them, then they won’t become a distraction and you will be able to totally concentrate on the task at hand.
It’s really very logical when you think about it. Fixing your focus on your contact zone keeps you from focusing on all the distractions in your visual field.
You still see everything, but you are focused on nothing.
Visualize an imaginary window spanning the court in front of you and use your strokes to keep every ball from getting past your window.
Immediate, unambiguous feedback:
Say “yes” if you keep the ball from getting past your window, say “no” if the ball gets past your window.
Total concentration on the task at hand:
The task of defending your imaginary window with your strokes requires total concentration and focus on your contact zone, thus you experience the total concentration and focus that is the most recognizable characteristic of the flow state.