Moving rapidly but appearing unhurried
“Be the flow.”
- JAY-Z (1969-), American rapper
“Take time to deliberate, but when the time for action has arrived, stop thinking and go in.”
– Napoleon Bonaparte (1769-1821), French military leader
Concert pianists, Olympic sprinters, professional ballet dancers, tennis champions—they all have it. They’ll be the ones shift-shaping rapidly: playing like Sergei Vasilievich Rachmaninoff, running like Usain Bolt, dancing like Margot Fonteyn, or serve-volleying like Roger Federer. So many of their movements are incredibly swift—blink and you’d miss it—but to their dazzled audience they appear unhurried, unflustered; consistently in control and impossibly elegant.
It’s a phenomenon that’s not only limited to individuals. Teams can demonstrate it, too: think of the very best in World Series baseball, at the Superbowl, in top-line NBA games, at World finals. Great sports team members like the US Women’s 2015 World Cup Soccer champions who are able to almost supernaturally anticipate each other’s actions and who appear to move as one, executing their incredible talent at a pace unimaginable to the rest of us. Remember the Dream Team at the 1992 Summer Olympics in the basketball competition in Barcelona, Spain? Unbeaten, winning matches by 44 points on average. What about world-class volleyball, or synchronized swimming? Every team member, highly drilled, supremely fit—and despite the extreme pressure of expectations, somehow remarkably chilled.
So just how do they do it? Are these elites simply gifted with particular physiological and psychological characteristics, or is this a state of being acquired by effort?
Experts at this level are typically in peak physical form and have the muscular strength and training required for their bodies to be what I call in the Goldilocks zone—extremely fit for purpose, and just right. Hypertension and cardiovascular researcher Robert Fagard pointed out that leading athletes aren’t just fitter than the rest of us in obvious ways: the rigors of training result in larger hearts that beat more slowly when resting and contract harder while the muscles learn to absorb the extra nutrients from increased blood flow.
Many athletes and performance artists train at a similar level, but the physical differences between the elites and the next-best can be minuscule. So what else is going on? Some experts suggest that ultimately success is determined not by the individual’s training or physical ability, but by their cognitive approach to their sport. In other words, you get to a point, and then it really is all in the mind.
Studies of the brains of top athletes and other experts have revealed all sorts of interesting differences. One big advantage is they are better at anticipating others’ actions. A study of the brain by Salvatore Aglioti and colleagues looked at the neural correlates of action anticipation in a group of basketball players. Read: they can figure out there-and-then what will happen next. They found that great players, when compared with other experts like the coach or other, more novice players, were better at predicting free shots to the basket. They showed that before the ball even left the hands of a player, the best basketballers were anticipating their action by reading the kinematics displayed by the other player’s body.
Another study of professional athletes found they are able to process mentally what is happening in a visual scene far more quickly than the average Samantha or Sam. Psychophysicist Jocelyn Faubert trained 308 observers on a visual task—motion tracking on a computer screen. They simply visually followed a moving image on the screen. The task was complex, but had no social context and required no motor control. The research established that professional athletes differed greatly from the amateur and from the novice in their ability to navigate and learn the stimuli. The pros were far more adept at taking on board and processing these complex, dynamic visual scenes. Faubert concluded that the results gives some clues about “what is so special about the elite athletes’ mental abilities, which allows them to express great prowess in action.”
According to Scott Grafton, Professor of Psychological and Brain Sciences at the Neuroscience Research Institute, University of California, Santa Barbara, the real trick for elites is to not think too much. In a 2007 study, Grafton and his colleagues found that experts rely on a network they call the action/observation network. The brain’s network operates in a mode a bit like the physical network—what people in this field call muscle memory. But it is maybe more like actors who learn their lines so thoroughly that on stage they can throw away the script and disappear into character—and become so believable and so accomplished as they go about their work, it convinces everyone.
Grafton says this mind network “helps us to not just remember the movement, but also to help us accomplish new goals and recognize actions in others. It also allows athletes to take more of an external focus and not overthink things.”
In an almost counter-intuitive way, just thinking about what you are doing is likely to interrupt your focus. Grafton says: “If you think about how fast things are going when you make a golf swing, or hit a baseball, or do some gymnastics, you just can’t think and expect to not interfere with your body. As soon as you think about it, and try to make adjustments on the fly, you’ll see your performance degenerate.”
There’s an old story which has been doing the rounds for years: there’s this tennis player, who’s about to be destroyed by his opponent in the fifth and final set of a major tournament. Think US, French, Australian Open, or Wimbledon. The match has been running evens, but now in the final set our guy begins to run out of steam.
As his rival prepares to serve after a critical change of ends, our guy compliments him on his serving prowess. “Tell me,” he asks disingenuously, “do you breathe in or out on your ball toss?” His opponent misses the next few first serves, makes a couple of double faults, starts to lose confidence, and our manipulative but very smart hero wins the set 7-5, and the match. It may be apocryphal, but we can all get it. The rival was taken out of the zone when he was forced to think.
This unthinking autopilot action that great elites display is referred to as “flow.” It’s actually a contemporary rendering of the Taoist and Hindu concept of “doing without doing.” This semi-transcendent state that occurs during full and exclusive (and generally joyful) absorption in an activity has been acknowledged to exist among many sporting and creative and performing arts professionals—athletes, dancers, actors, artists, writers and musicians—and can be a critical factor in success in these fields. You’ve had this feeling, too. When you have been absorbed in doing something, and time ceased to exist. Then you suddenly startle look up at the clock, and realise hours have elapsed.
In his day job, Charles Limb is a Johns Hopkins University otolaryngologist (that’s what medicine calls an ear, nose, and throat surgeon). But he’s a musician at heart. He and his colleague Allen Braun studied the minds of musicians using functional magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) to map their brains during their performances. This is a diagnostic imaging device which creates pictures of the organs in a body. They were particularly interested in what happens when their subjects were in “flow”. When jazz musicians were in that euphoric zone, Limb and Braun found that the prefrontal cortex (the bit behind your forehead; that’s the region that governs the brain, managing its executive functions) was deactivated. Instead there was heightened activity in the neocortical sensorimotor areas – those responsible for controlling and planning voluntary movement. These are the areas needed for playing instruments.
Limb explains, “The brain is, in a sense, inhibiting some of its self-monitoring to mitigate the detrimental effects of overthinking and excessive caution … With practice, you are really training your brain to send out motor impulses with greater efficiency and optimization. While there are physical changes that accompany practice, in the end, it’s the brain that’s getting better and better.”
It’s just as your parents told you. Practice makes perfect. But they didn’t realize you are training your muscles and your neurons.
We all experience flow, occasionally. Those moments when we execute the things we need to do quickly, perfectly, and with a cleared mind, functioning automatically. For some of us it’s our morning routine that gets us to work on time. For others, it’s when we’re driving a vehicle. Or swimming laps at the local pool. Or working out in the gym. Or doing craft. Or even when we’re messing about with tools in the shed, or ingredients in the kitchen.
But we could all do with more flow. Especially during those activities we yearn to excel at.
Experts operate fast, and approach maximum efficiency seemingly without effort. The rest of us find that when we are moving quickly, we are rushing because we are not primed to that optimal performance. We are aimed at getting whatever pesky task we need to do, done. We are certainly not in the flow, groove or zone.
We all can’t be experts, or elite practitioners in the field we’re interested in, but there are certainly ways to be more zen-like. Here’s a simple take-home prescription for the future, then: if you want to be good-to-great—practice more than the rest. And then, rehearse and prepare, mentally. Now, try more speed and less haste, until you wear it like a second skin.
And then—go get those medals. Not Olympic prizes, but the ones you get awarded by your family, friends and colleagues for being accomplished and respected for getting things done. And enjoying yourself along the way.
Aglioti, Salvatore M, Cesari, Paola, Romani, Michela, Urgesi, Cosimo (2008). Action anticipation and motor resonance in elite basketball players. Nature Neuroscience 11: 1109-1116.
Fagard, Robert (2003). Athlete’s heart. Heart 89 (12): 1455-1461.
Faubert, Jocelyn (2013). Professional athletes have extraordinary skills for rapidly learning complex and neutral dynamic visual scenes. Scientific Reports 3 (1154): 2045-2322.
Grafton, Scott T, Hamilton, Antonia F de C (2007). Evidence for a distributed hierarchy of action representation in the brain. Human Movement Science 26 (4): 590-616.
Limb, Charles J, Braun, Allen R (2008). Neural substrates of spontaneous musical performance: an fMRI study of jazz improvisation. PLoS One 3 (2): e1679.
Sukel, Katy (2012). Mental preparation of high-level athletes. The DANA Foundation. July 23. http://www.dana.org/News/Details.aspx?id=43530