We all have peak states. In fact, we have a few. We have moments of complete love, like when we see our kids after a long time away from them, or experience peak emotional states when we see a touching movie or hear an old song. We also have peaks of ecstasy (do I need to explain that one?) and we have peaks of mental performance when we just feel the ideas and solutions flooding into our brain. We also have physical peaks, but what is our best peak state for the performance we desire?
For me, I can have one peak experience by getting on my bike and flying down a hill as fast as possible, knowing that if I lose focus for just a moment I’ll be road kill. I can also experience a peak while on the golf course when I’m relaxed, but not catatonic-relaxed, and just enjoying a good round. On those days it seems like I swing effortlessly and the ball just flies towards the hole. And even when I go flying – it’s a strange combination of the two, being relaxed and enjoying the ability to fly a plane, but also focused enough to watch out for other aircraft, pay attention to the instruments and react to what the plane is doing.
But, the same level of intensity that I have to tap into on my bike is not the same level of intensity that I use for golf, or for flying. I’m just as intense but in different ways. Golf, and life are like that. Some players perform their best when they are totally relaxed while others thrive on high levels of activation (Cohn 15).
Mental calmness is important to achieving optimal performance (Cohn 15). An overactive analytical mind becomes cluttered with too much information which leads to confusion. As we have seen in previous research, you can overthink something. I train a lot of people in areas where they have to take a multiple-choice exam at the end of their training.
Being someone who has test anxiety myself, I understand their pain. I tell them that all week they are inside their logical mind, thinking, assessing, memorizing, analyzing. Then come test day, they should just read the question and go with their first instinct. Their brain has already done the mental homework. Once they start overthinking, they start looking for reasons to put down the wrong answer.
So first, learn which peak state you need for the situation at hand. When I’m reading materials that I’m going to later train, teach or blog about, I activate an intense mental state – my eyes fly across the words at about 600 words per minute, looking for key concepts – bullet points if you will. When I’m in front of an audience training them to pass an exam, I follow a stricter regimen and bring my voice down a notch or two. When I’m about to facilitate a training seminar, where the goal is to develop the learning from within the group, and there is no exam, I talk softer and in a slightly higher more excited pitch. I have different states for different situations. Golf is the same way – a golfer approaches a drive differently than a putt. There’s a different stance, stroke and feel for each club. Life situations are the same way.
Second, build self confidence. While you may not be able to enter a peak state all the time, you can build your confidence which makes entering a state of peak performance easier.
- Identify your patterns (Cohn 24). Pay attention to the thoughts, feelings and situations that helped you gain confidence.
- Take control, don’t be controlled (Cohn 24). When you’re intimidated you don’t play your best. If the situation gives you any edge whatsoever, take it. If the situation hinders you, downplay it. Don’t make it worse than it is. If it’s windy out, just hit on a lower trajectory (Cohn 24). If the situation is not ideal, don’t focus on what not’s working, focus on what is. When we had a power outage during a training program one time, I noted that we still had enough light because of the windows, so we grabbed our workbooks and soldiered on.
- Don’t let one bad shot ruin the round (Cohn 25). Even the pros have bad shots in a round. What makes them pros is that they can recover from them.
- Have high confidence, not overconfidence (Cohn 27). Fake confidence means believing you can play beyond your skills and abilities. Real confidence is believing in your ability without overstating your ability.
- You get what you expect (Cohn 29). Expect to land in the water and you will. I’ve rarely seen someone hit over a water hazard after first stating, “well, this shot’s going to be wet.” You’ve just stated your intent to the universe that the shot will go into the water and the universe will meet your expectation. That said, there’s plenty of times I’ve been surprised that a ball didn’t make it over the water, but if you start with the intent that it will splash, it’s going to splash. If you give yourself the chance to make it, then at least you haven’t defeated yourself before you even started.
These lessons all translate easily to any endeavor. Expect failure, get failure. Expect success, well, it may not always happen but if you expect failure you have a 100% guarantee. Be confident in yourself, play within your abilities (but practice to push yourself to expand your abilities) and use your self-confidence to get into the peak state that is right for the situation.
Cohn, Patrick. The Mental Game of Golf: A Guide to Peak Performance. Lanham, MD: Taylor Trade Publishing, 1994. Print.