The Eye of the Tiger: Flow and Maximal Human Performance
Eight years ago I sat enraptured in a tiny hotel room in Texas while watching a 12 inch television screen unblinkingly. I was away for work in the States and all eyes were on Michael Phelps as he dominated his competition on the way to winning eight gold medals. I remember it as if it were yesterday and am indeed reliving it, as Phelps is still crushing his competition almost a decade later at Rio 2016. As a Canadian, for a while I found it a little odd that I was cheering SO intensely for an athlete who wasn’t even representing my own country. As I’ve been glued to Olympic swim coverage once again, I’ve been pondering why it is that I have such a veritable man-crush on Michael Phelps. I don’t aspire to swim competitively, or even look like Michael Phelps, as that goofy-looking big-eared guy would not hold up very well under the crushing weights of strongman, but there is something about him that resonates with me. There’s a fire in his eyes when the pressure is on that I’ve rarely seen before.
He’s got the motherfucking eye of the tiger.
While most people are laughing and making memes of #PhelpsFace, I guess it does look funny, but what I see in that look is the absolute will to win.
As they say, real recognize real. When I watch Michael Phelps race I get fired up, like really fired up. I see the look in his eyes; the calm, the focus and then the flawless execution that results. It brings out emotions in me that I usually only feel when I’m competing and it’s motivating. I recognize that he is in a state of flow.
After many years of competing in basketball and now strongman, I feel comfortable and confident in performing when the pressure is on, but it has been a long journey to getting to that point. When I played basketball in high school, my anxiety at game time was so bad that I couldn’t hold the ball for more than a few seconds before I would pass it or shoot, lest I mess up a play or have the ball stolen from me. During university I took on a leadership role on the teams that I played for, which somewhat counter-intuitively gave me greater confidence as I had to demonstrate and confidently lead younger players when performing under pressure. I started to reach the flow state for the first time in sport as the coach of my college’s ultimate frisbee team, where I had to keep my composure for the sake of younger and less-experienced athletes on the team who were already nervous enough. Then came strongman. Competing in strongman for the first time was when I deeply felt the effects of flow. Flow is an almost meditative state that you reach when the demands of your body and mind are pushed to the absolute limit of every fibre. And it is quite addictive to be able to reach such a state of serenity in any activity and that is part of the reason why I love strongman so much. Flow is typically studied and described in top-performing athletes and extremists like rock climbers, but is also seen in any world-class performers such as concert pianists, mathematicians, medical doctors, etc. Ordinary human beings who perform incredible feats in the face of extreme stress often reach the flow state, as their situation allows zero room for error. Flow is the eye of the tiger.
Watching Olympic athletes execute flawlessly when everything they worked the last four years for is on the line is highly motivating when you see them reach that flow state to push everything to the brink. It’s amazing to watch and you can appreciate it to a greater degree if you’ve ever pushed something to the flow state before. I get it, other athletes or competitors get it, but I’m not sure if other people get it as much. But that doesn’t have to be the case. If you’re new to strongman, another sport, or whatever else it is you’re passionate about getting better at, keep working at it and you’ll reach the flow state. I don’t think there’s a way to pin-point how long it will take you to reach the flow state, there are just too many factors to take into consideration, but here are a few steps you can take to better perform under pressure and get that much closer to reaching flow:
- Meditate, lots - the better you can control your mind and focus your thoughts when relaxed, the more efficient you’ll become at controlling anxiety in high-pressure or competitive situations.
- Practice, more - 10,000 hours or 10 years. Mastery takes time. Michael Phelps has been competing at the Olympic Games for 16 years! I know I haven’t mastered strongman or anything else, but I’m still working towards it and you should similarly keep at it if you haven’t reached flow yet.
- Find what you’re passionate about - I’ve reached a flow state in several sports, while cooking, and while writing or discussing topics I’m passionate about. I’ve heard lecturers say they reach flow while in front of a class. I don’t believe flow discriminates, so find what you love to do and keep doing it. Enjoying what you do is possibly the most important factor.
- Put the pressure on yourself - the flow state demands every ounce of focus and effort in your mind, if not in your body as well. For some things this is easier said than done. I think that’s why sports, particularly high level or extreme sports are so often associated with flow. For other things you’re passionate about, you might have to get creative in order to put yourself in a situation that stresses flow out of you. Enter a cooking competition or put a timeline on your creative project.
You might be questioning why you would even want to reach a flow state. Much like other mindfulness practices, flow is incredibly beneficial for stress relief, positivity, and preserving brain health as you age. You can learn more about the concept of flow and the benefits by reading the works of the father of flow himself Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (it’s been almost 10 years and I still don’t know how to say or spell his name without looking it up!!).
If you want to learn more about what it takes to reach the flow state in a strongman competition, check out my eBook on Maximizing Your Strongman Competition Performance. Sign up for my email newsletter and I'll send you the eBook for free!