Enhancing quantum performance

I am constantly being asked questions about the psychology of performance and the ‘state of mind’ that is necessary to ensure success in competition.

Many athletes adopt a mechanical approach to their mental preparation. Specific goals are set which the athlete then strives to achieve. While this sort of approach offers structure and clarity for the athlete, I feel that it only taps into the logical part of the brain. Further, this approach is outcome based and does not embrace the fluidity and ever changing nature of competition.

Exceptional performance that catapults the athlete onto a new level requires an added dimension that incorporates an approach that taps into imagery and creativity. This approach is based in a philosophy of quantum thinking in which mental energy is seen as having properties similar to water, where multiple levels of thinking are integrated into a holistic focus.

The nature of this approach is nonverbal, intuitive and story-like in which ideas generate powerful meaning that the athlete can connect with. In line with this way of thinking, photographs, images and/or meaningful stories can help crystalise mental energy that will help the athlete reach higher levels of performance in a spontaneous and creative way.

On a recent walk I took three photographs that best illustrate ideas regarding the integration of three mental processes, that if one taps into, will assist the athlete during the unfolding process of competition.

Three inter-connected mental components form the holistic model that embraces quantum thinking. These three components should co-exist and be utilised at the appropriate time, depending on the nature of the challenge that is being encountered:

  1. The optimism and joy of a dog on a walk
  2. The alertness of a cat ready to pounce
  3. The freedom and flow of a bird in flight

In a conversation with an iron man triathlete, I was explaining that it was necessary to remain present in the unfolding moment of competition. The three dynamics mentioned above, are ever present during the race.

There needs to be an overall optimism in the way that one approaches and deals with challenges, particularly in the tough, down periods of a race. Remaining connected to the joy of a dog on a walk supports the athlete at times when doubts, despondency or fears creep in.

A cat that is ready to pounce is in a proactive state of readiness. The alertness of a cat helps the athlete deal with the unexpected. To be successful, it is important to trust your abilities and to respond immediately and spontaneously to a threatening or challenging moment. In order to respond in such a way, the athlete needs to be in a concentrated state of alertness, where nothing is taken for granted. Nothing should distract the athlete from the present moment of focus.

Many athletes go into competition with a definite, structured game-plan having specific outcomes. While this may offer the athlete security, the challenge during competition is to be able to adapt and be flexible to change. Trusting your instincts and being able to change strategy at critical moments of the unfolding process is a skill that champions possess. If the mindset is too rigid, the athlete is likely to hold onto a game-plan that was formulated before the start of the race, but may no longer be working due to changing conditions and/or opponents that have found a way to neutralise or defeat you.

In summary, the table below captures the holistic, and integrated mental state that will offer you the best chance of a quantum performance:

Aligns you to:

Counters:  

Dog on a walk

Optimism, Joy, Support

Despondency, Fear, Stress

Cat ready to pounce

Alertness, Concentration, Discipline, Stillness

Lethargy, Complacency, Distraction

Bird in flight

Flexibility, Flow, Freedom, Creativity

Rigidity, Tightness, Limitation

The column of counters highlight the mental challenges that negative energy activates. If you are feeling despondent during competition, then tapping into the theme of walking the dog will help you. If you become aware that you are getting too tight or rigid in how you are approaching the challenges, then linking to birds in flight will offer you the necessary flexibility of movement to navigate around the obstacle.

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Each new day begins with a sunrise, that brings light and warmth.

A new beginning or a new way depends on new insights that help direct your energy into a new direction. The model above does not only apply to elite athletes that are constantly working on expanding their expertise and skills to master taxing challenges in the heat of competitive battle.

A client of mine revealed that she was aligning herself to the themes of freedom, fearlessness and joy, as part of her change process, in how she wanted to live her life going forward. She stated that she wanted to better utilise and embrace opportunities that crossed her path. Such is the way to lead a more fulfilling life where your light can shine in its own uniqueness.

Rest, hold hands and appreciate

Life is movement.

We are on a journey, traveling to where…?

There may be times when we feel alone as we question the meaning of our quest.

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We strive and compete. We seek recognition and status. We rush as we guzzle time in our frenetic desire to accomplish.

We are afraid to stop in fear that others may pass us. This fear drives us to push harder and to increase our pace.

If crisis or illness stops your movement, you are probably feeling exhausted. It is time to take stock. Maybe a change is required? You may need to examine the pace, direction, intention and meaning of your journey.

While planning, perseverance, desire, honesty and meaning will help you reach your destination, it is important to consider whether you can sustain your efforts and whether you are truly happy doing what you are doing. To assist in this regard:

  1. Walk the dog
  2. Stop, sit, look up, and appreciate the broad vista
  3. Hold hands

‘Walk the dog’ is a metaphor to remind you about an attitude. A dog on a walk is totally absorbed in the present moment as it explores the environment with joy. There is no such thing as a depressed dog on a walk.

Sitting on a bench to rest and to look at the broad vista that extends in front of you, helps you keep perspective. Stopping and looking up, gives you an opportunity to notice and appreciate the beauty that exists before your eyes. This helps to nourish you emotionally and to regenerate your energy as you continue your travel.

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It helps to share the journey with a partner. Anyone who observes and supports your movement is considered a partner. Having a partner, seems to halve the effort and worry during difficult times.

Holding hands when you are walking can be done physically, emotionally and/or mentally. Holding hands keeps you balanced and helps regulate your pace and provides a context where another is connecting to you energetically. Holding hands is a loving gesture.

A mother is always the first to hold your hand as you begin the journey.

Dedicated to my mother, Mimi. Her abundant generosity and kindness helped ease the burden of many a traveler.

Soften the eyes and extend the gaze

Elite athletes will tell you how important it is to have ‘good body language’ during competition.

Under stress, the energetic system of the athlete tends to tighten and rigidify. In extreme cases of stress, the athlete can get immobilised and stuck at critical points during the competitive contest. This hinders the spontaneous movements that are required to execute complex physical actions. In such cases, there is greater possibility that the visual system misjudges the movement and distance of the ball and/or the movements of an opponent.

When dealing with stress during competition it is important that the athlete learns to (a) soften the eyes and (b) extend the gaze.

In stillness: Two klipspringers extending their gaze
In stillness: Two klipspringers extending their gaze

Many years ago, I did a night walking exercise with my friend, Dr Ken West (who specializes in sports vision). Before the walk, I learned that there were two types of photoreceptors in the retina, (a) cones, that were condensed in the centre of the retina, and (b) rods that covered the rest of the retina. The cones were responsible for color and daylight vision and provided us with our sharpest vision, or highest acuity of vision. The rods did not detect light as sharply as the cones did, but were more sensitive to low light levels than the cones were. Finally, there were many more rods than there were cones in the retina.

From a sporting perspective, the cones are used to focus eyesight in a concentrated way (watching the ball), while the rods are used for peripheral vision (broader awareness of the surroundings). Of interest, I established that the reaction time for spontaneous action of motocross racers at the start line was significantly quicker if peripheral vision was used (as opposed to focused vision on the start gate). The fundamental reason for this difference in reaction time is that the cones are linked to conscious thinking, while the rods are associated with the unconscious (which bypasses logical thinking).

During the night walk, we had to utilise our rods (peripheral vision) to navigate our way. The purpose of the night walk was to activate the unconscious and stimulate creative thinking (via the use of peripheral vision). While asleep that night, I had such vivid dreams, that to this day, I can still remember them. My friend, Ken, also reported having vivid, unusual and intense dreams.

Precision in action: A green backed heron striking a fish
Precision in action: A green backed heron striking a fish

During stress, intense focused vision tends to gets over-activated, which in turn, tightens the visual system. To soften the eyes, the athlete needs to go into peripheral vision at times when there is no activity or concentration required. In cricket, for example, the batsman can go into peripheral vision between the balls that are bowled. This helps the eyes to relax and also stops the mind from thinking too much or too logically.

The eyes can help improve the body language of an athlete. When dealing with failure, an athlete’s body tends to cave in, with the head and shoulders dropping (indicating heaviness). As this unfolds, the vision is directed down, almost in shame. This sinking sensation in the body can be countered if you look up or extend the gaze. By looking up, I don’t mean staring up into the heavens, but rather lifting the gaze. As you do so, the eyes lift the body as well as the spirit.

An elite athlete needs a visual system that is alert and relaxed in order to perform optimally. Softening the eyes by activating the peripheral vision and extending the gaze into the distance will help the athlete to achieve this.

The story that is revealed in the eyes

On a physiological level, the eyes absorb visual sensory data, which then gets interpreted by the brain. This interpretation is a complex process and is influenced by many factors such as experience, beliefs, assumptions and social conditioning.

I have come to understand that there is so much more to the eyes than just their physiological aspect. The eyes are the ‘windows to the soul’ and reveal the most inner thoughts and feelings. They are constantly communicating, without the necessity for a word to be spoken.

A young, talented hockey player was telling me how well she was dealing with the stressful demands of competition. As she spoke, however, her eyes were telling me otherwise. They were filled with sadness and insecurity.

As she spoke, it was clear that she had learnt to put on a brave face and not reveal her true feelings. When I mentioned to her that her eyes were telling me a story of sadness, she burst into tears. After composing herself, she said that she felt relieved that her true feelings had been noticed. Since she was the youngest in the team, she was always concerned about what the older girls would think of her if she made a mistake during a match. This was starting to affect her emotionally and impact on her performance, resulting in her constantly feeling stressed and insecure.

Your eyes are also the director of your energy flow. They are connected to your intention. While this is linked to goal setting or creating a vision, it is also connected with what you notice in your experiences.

There are an infinite amount of possibilities and perspectives that can be seen in any situation. There may be times when you get stuck in some detail, which in turn, negates you seeing another perspective. While this is a natural phenomenon, you should consciously guard against becoming rigid in your focus. The eyes need to be flexible as they explore the range of perspectives that present themselves. When feeling stuck, you may need to consciously remind yourself to look elsewhere in order to take in more of the complexity that exists in the situation.

In the mechanical world of things (where there are specific objects to focus on), the eyes can find a resting point fairly easily. In such situations, there generally is consensus about what is seen. In contrast, in interpersonal contexts, there is so much fluid visual information available for the eyes to absorb. The challenge is having to piece together snippets of behaviours that are unfolding rapidly in time. In such situations, the eyes scan for patterns of interaction in order to give meaning to what is unfolding. For example, a frown on a face, a sigh in a breath, a nod or turn of a head, a clench in the jaw, etc., need to be integrated visually, interpreted and given meaning. How this gets done is a subjective process, and highlights that in an interpersonal context, there is no such thing as a single fixed reality that the eyes will see. Depending on where you look, a certain reality will emerge for you.

Time and movement in the competitive space

When considering the dynamics of sporting or business performance, one needs to consider time and movement in space. More specifically, a player needs to be mindful of how his/her emotional and energetic state moves while encountering challenges in a competitive environment.

Rowing in stormy weather

In general, the emotional state of a player will move in one of two directions during practice (or during a match) depending on whether or not he is successful in dealing with the stressful challenges. If he is effective in the process, his emotional state will move to a place of optimism, coupled with a sense of freedom on an energetic level. If he struggles and makes mistakes and fails in his efforts, his emotional state will move to a place of pessimism, and his energetic system will tighten. On another level, the energetic system gets stuck during poor performance, with the player feeling totally immobilized.

While consulting with an international athlete, I asked the player to get connected to his present emotional state before entering the competitive space of intense practice. He needed to do a mind/body connection, without judging his energetic state. This offered him internal information as a starting point. In addition, he was asked to share what he was going to work on, on a technical level, during his practice. This provided him with specific clarity as a starting point regarding technique.

During practice, the challenge for the player was to trigger an internal process to move his emotional and energetic state into a more optimistic place when he was performing poorly.

Introducing meaningful information at a critical point in the process is necessary in order to move a player’s energetic and emotional state into a more freer and relaxed place.

But what constitutes meaningful information, and how can the player access it?

On a fundamental level, there are two distinct levels of information that need to be accessed and integrated. Firstly, there is technical information that needs to be incorporated to ensure improved performance. This information exists on the mechanical level of performance. Secondly, there is emotional and energetic information that exists internally. This type of information can be accessed if the player is mindful.

On a coaching level, the skillful and wise coach is able to introduce a meaningful piece of information at a critical point in time, that frees up the tight emotional place that an athlete can find him/herself in, when performing poorly. This information becomes the key that unlocks the internal potential of the player. When this occurs, the coach will see an immediate shift in performance.

There may be times when the coach stops the process and asks the player to take some time out of the competitive space in order to reflect on what is unfolding. This may be enough to create breathing space, so as to allow the necessary movement to occur. However, while this can be done during intense practice, it will not be possible during matches.

In a recent conversation with another elite sportsman, I termed this general movement as one in which the player moves towards the sweet spot during performance.

The matador kill(er)

Some people say that bullfighting is a sport. Nothing could be further from the truth. To taunt and continually provoke an animal that has been placed in an arena from which it cannot escape, until it is slaughtered by the matador to the loud applause of a paying public, is not sport. Instead, it is a barbaric form of warped human entertainment.

Sport is embedded in an ethical philosophy that stands for fair and respectful competition that rewards the winner. Sport has evolved scientifically, as participants embark on a never-ending quest to improve their skills to ensure that they can beat their opponents and win. However, to beat the opponent in a fair and honest way lies at the very core of the competitive battle. And that is why doping and match-fixing in elite sport can never be condoned and should carry the penalty of a life ban from the sporting arena.

In the bush, fleeing from a predator
In the bush, fleeing from a predator

There are many stories about what happens to the bull before the actual fight. In short, the bull endures a two to three day ‘pre-match’ process of torture in a dark confined enclosure in order to weaken its capacity and dull its senses, especially its eye sight. The torture is also used to enrage and stress the bull, to ensure that it is in a ‘fight mode’. It does not have the opportunity of ‘flight’.

While I may not have a deep understanding of the traditions of bullfighting, my total abhorrence of cruelty to captured animals is due to (a) my deep respect of nature and the interconnected fabric that exists between all living things (of which man is only a part), and (b) the necessity for fair and honest play in any competitive exchange.

Last weekend a matador was killed in the ring. In terms of the sporting metaphor, he tragically lost the match. While this was not sad enough, the bullfight did not end there. In a bizarre ritual (if a matador is killed), a witch hunt is carried out to find the bull’s mother who is then slaughtered in order not to continue the aggressive bloodline. Such irony. In line with the dominant, patriarchal nature of the culture in which bullfighting is embedded, no action is taken against the bull’s father. Why not? No record may be kept of which male is used to fertilize the female. But maybe the non action against the father of the bull further reveals the warped beliefs and ideology that underpins the thinking of those who are involved in the world of bullfighting.

Talk about matador bravery and dominance of beast reflects the simplistic, power-driven and arrogant perspective of all those who are involved (matadors and public observers). For me, bullfighting has a powerful, yet sad message to all of us: It reminds us of (a) our barbaric past and how cruel we can be, (b) our need to use brutal force and power to dominate nature (and others), and (c) our actual lack of evolutionary progress in the way we relate to all living things.

The majestic African buffalo
The majestic African buffalo

Love and quantum leaps

Balanced and focused
Keaton Jennings – balanced and focused

Recently, my nephew Keaton Jennings, scored two centuries in the opening match of the English county cricket season. Any cricketer will tell you how remarkable this achievement is. His performance placed him in the Durham County Cricket Club’s history books.

I often equate life to the image of an iceberg, where 1/7 lies above the surface (the seen), while 6/7 lies beneath the water line (the unseen). His remarkable performance did not surprise me one bit, since I had observed the accumulation of all the hard work and dedication that goes on behind the scenes. He never shies away from doing the ‘hard yards’, and is keen to learn more and more about the complexity of top performance.

In talking about the mental aspects of elite performance, I shared with him that the mental and emotional components of an athlete need to be integrated and balanced for exceptional performance to unfold. In order to assist this process, Keaton and I spent 6 months doing tai chi together. In addition, he applied the calm breathing exercises of the tai chi practice to his batting.

Besides working on getting into this balanced performance state, I mentioned that an athlete will not be able to perform to his(her) potential if riddled with fear during competition, especially with the ‘fear of failure’. Fear constricts and restricts the energy flow of a person. It tightens the body and freezes the mental capacities of the athlete. Fear vacillates (depending on the context), and tends to rear its ugly head at critical moments during the competitive encounter of elite sport.

There are two processes that one can use to tackle and neutralize fear. It is worth mentioning, however, that fear is a powerful and stubborn energy that is not easily conquered. Given this, one needs to apply gentle perseverance to the process of overcoming it.

Firstly, one should ‘look’ at the fear squarely in its eyes and acknowledge its existence, without trying to change or resolve it. By just looking at your fear, you shine light on it. Since fear operates in the dark recesses of the mind, it does not like light. Besides wanting to remain in the dark, fear thrives and grows with denial. Honest looking, is a powerful neutralizing agent since this is opposite to the denial process.

Secondly, one can counter fear by applying lots of love to it. Love is the opposite energy to fear. When there is love, there can be no place for fear. Playing top sport with love in the heart, assists the athlete to enter the emotional and mental place where mind, body and spirit integrate into a unified and coherent energetic force that allows a quantum performance to occur.

Playing with love in the heart does not mean that the athlete is soft, weak or casual. Love requires taking care of what one does and insists that you are patient, persevering and dedicated in your efforts. Further, love means that the athlete is not critical or judgmental when dealing with failure. Instead, love is expansive and drives the athlete further to reveal the true potential that exists within. By accessing the energy of love, the athlete becomes alert to the unfolding moment and responds spontaneously with an open heart. It is in this emotional place, that the athlete enters the zone, where doubts are released and replaced with an inner peace that thrives on the challenge of the competitive moment.

Leaping with joy
Leaping with joy