In my sophomore year of school at Warren Wilson College, I took a Sports Psychology class with Dr. Bob Swoap. I found the class to be absolutely fascinating, and the material definitely left a lasting impression, helping me immensely in how I viewed competition.
Dr. Swoap got in touch with me recently, and I was honored and excited to be invited back to speak from the opposite side of the classroom about my experiences with whitewater kayaking and how they related to real life and tapping your potential in any pursuit. As the day approached, I was admittedly a bit hesitant about getting in front of the class. I knew that it was a Freshman Seminar, and I dreaded the possibility of blank stares and awkward silences following my attempts to engage them.
What I was met with, however, was completely the opposite! These young adults came from all walks of life… amongst them were writers, competitive mountain bikers, varsity basketball players, musicians, and everything in between. They were amazing, and the hour and a half literally flew by before I knew it. I walked back to my car that day thinking that Dr. Swoap was a pretty lucky guy to be able to hang out with people like that as his job.
Our discussion ran the gamut in the field of Sports Psychology and elsewhere, but one thing that we focused on was the search for that feeling of flow in which everything seems effortless and perfect. Often referred to as “the zone,” this state of mind is as incredible as it is elusive. It is something that you can recognize when you see it, and something that feels incredible when you are experiencing it.
I shared with the class one of the most poignant representations of an athlete in the zone that I have ever seen. To preface this video, Danny is a young biker on the scene, competing in the biggest race of the season, on the steepest, gnarliest course, and in the worst possible conditions! Watch him rise to the occasion…
Before I had time to flash my own slide up on the screen to frame how I approach my search for the zone, the students had already listed off most of my strategies plus some even better ones! Everyone has a different way of doing this, but I focus on a couple of things:
1) WORK HARD. I believe that the biggest advantage in the world is knowing that you are prepared for an event. All sports carry with them a huge amount of mental challenge as well, but the physical foundation needs to be there.
2) Self-Affirmation Statements. There is a huge difference between athletes who can persevere through hardships/unexpected incidents and continue to perform well, and those who can’t. These statements are things that you say to yourself when you don’t think you can go any further, or you feel things unraveling. Repetition of a few simple words or a phrase can center you and bring you back to what you know you are capable of. One of my favorites is “strong, fast, focused.”
3) Metronome Analogy. I have always loved music. It gives me motivation and provides a soundtrack to my life. I compare the physiological functions of my body to a musical metronome… pulse, breath, paddle strokes, etc. I have my best races when I tune into that metronome and pace myself perfectly based on what I know about the race course. Too rushed or too lax and I will not compete to my potential.
These are a few of the tricks that help me, but once you’ve done all of the preparation you can possibly do and have gotten yourself into that optimal state of mind, it’s time to put your head down and give ‘er hell!
Nobody ever said it was going to be easy…
(Author’s note: After all the great insights offered up by the class, I’m very interested to know what our readers find is most helpful to achieve that optimal mental zone? Feel free to comment here or on the BRO Facebook Page.)