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Flow in a Flash*

Flow in a FlashPerformance psychology tips to optimize your flash mob experience!

You’ve just learned of an opportunity to participate in a flash mob and are almost giddy with anticipation.  You also know that performing on demand in new situations can pose mental challenges as well as the technical challenges of performance.  Rather than simply “getting through” the performance, you yearn to have that exquisite sensation of “flow”– that exhilarating feeling of being totally absorbed in the moment, deep enjoyment of the experience, and effortless control (Csikszentmihalyi, 1990).

Performance psychology is “the study and application of psychological principles of human performance that help people consistently perform in the upper range of their abilities, and more thoroughly enjoy the performance process” (Portenga, et al, 2011). Here are some tried and tested tips from performance psychology that have helped performing artists, athletes, business executives, and even surgeons master the mental aspects of performance and achieve that etherial state of flow in a flash.

Key for Success in ANYTHING

Psychologist Robert Nideffer (1985) began exploring optimal performance in the 1970’s.  His attentional model of performance has been a foundation of success for Olympic athletes, military personnel, business executives, performing artists and surgeons. According to Nideffer’s model, the key to success in anything is:

  1. Identify the elements essential for success;
  2. Maintain attention on the essential;
  3. Ignore the distractions.

For example, the 100-meter dash has three critical elements: 1) the reaction time and initial acceleration at the start; 2) the distance traveled with each step; and 3) the rate at which each step is taken (cadence or turnover).  All physical and mental training are designed to optimize these three elements. If you guessed something other than these three elements, odds are that you identified a strategy to optimize one of the essential elements.  For example, being focused and relaxed helps optimize reaction time and initial acceleration at the start.  Good form maximizes distance travelled with each step.  Running “focused and all the way through the finish” helps sustain a high rate of turnover as a person lengthens his or her steps after coming out of the starting blocks.

Now consider all the non-essential distractions for the 100-meter dash: Who is in the lane beside you?  How many people are watching? What happens if you lose? What happens if you win?  Anything that does not optimize one or more of the essential elements is a distraction.

The same attentional model applies to the performing arts where the technical aspects of performance are merely strategies to optimize the one essential element: the emotion that the performer wishes to convey.  Ironically, being overly focused on technique can actually be a distraction if it lessens the performer’s focus on the emotional goal.

What is essential for a Flash Mob?

A flash mob is defined as “…a group of people who assemble suddenly in a public place, perform an unusual and seemingly pointless act for a brief time, then quickly disperse, often for the purposes of entertainment, satire, and artistic expression.” (Wikipedia, retrieved August 1, 2014)

A flash mob is more complex than the 100-meter dash; however, if you boil it all down, there are two essential elements for a flash mob:

  1. FLASH timing
    The performance is a surprise, and the performers dissipate immediately after the performance.
  2. An unexpected group identity from within a larger group
    There are multiple individuals performing coordinated actions that are beyond the norm of the social context; the group is identified by participation in the coordinated action.

Both elements must be present to be a flash mob. For example, a large number of people may sing the national anthem at the beginning of a sporting event; but this is not a flash mob. There is not an element of surprise, nor is it beyond the norms of the social context.  If a group of people unexpectedly rose and started singing the national anthem prior to raising the curtain at a ballet, THAT would be a flash mob.  People at a beachside pub may dance to music by Martha and the Vandellas in a fashion that appears choreographed; but it still would not be a flash mob.  People unexpectedly starting to dance in a choreographed fashion in the midst of a convention of researchers, academicians and therapists, however, THAT is a flash mob.

Implications for Performance

So how does knowing “what is essential” help you as a flash mob participant?  It is easy to become overwhelmed with the various details and nuances of performance.  You will perform at your best if you keep your attention on what is essential: flash timing and group identity through coordinated action.

Flash timing requires secrecy and the element of surprise.  Be prepared to clearly switch roles from apparent bystander to performer, and then immediately back to bystander after the performance… no curtain calls or autographs.

Do your best to learn the moves and/or dance steps, but the essential element is the coordination of actions.  You do not have to worry about the quality of your dancing or performance.  Yes, it would be nice for you to learn all the steps and toe touches; but if you can master the basics where you can move in a coordinated fashion, you are a flash mobber.

Anything that does not optimize the timing element or coordination is a non-essential distraction.  Common distractions include worry about how well you will do, the quality of your dancing or musical skills, or how viewers may react.  The easiest way to deal with such distractions is “Hello-Goodbye.”  “Hello,”  my attention is off target.  “Goodbye,” shift your focus back on what is essential. You may find it helpful to mentally rehearse not only your performance, but also how you want to feel while performing.

FACE the Challenge

Lastly, to make the most of your flash mob experience, I encourage you to do the same as Olympic athletes, world record holders, renowned performing artists and surgeons who want to perform at their peak and enter the flow experience:

  • Focus totally in the moment;
  • Activate to your ideal level (breathe slowly to chill down or rapidly to pump up if needed);
  • Commit fully to the process at hand;
  • Embrace the opportunity.

How often do you get the opportunity to participate in an experience such as this flash mob?!!!  FACE the challenge and enjoy!

Good luck!

Charlie Brown, PhD
Director, Get Your Head In The Game

References

Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1990). Flow: The psychology of optimal experience. New York: Harper & Row.

Nideffer, R. M. (1985). Athletes’ guide to mental training. Champaign, IL, England: Human Kinetics Publishers.

Portenga, S., Aoyagi, M., Balague, G., Cohen, A., & Harmison, B. (2011). Defining the practice of sport and performance psychology. Retrieved 8/4/2014 from http://www.apadivisions.org/division-47/about/resources/defining.pdf.

*Presented at 122nd Annual Convention of the American Psychological Association at Washington, DC on August 7-10, 2014 as part of the symposium: Flashdance — The Psychology of Dance, the Phenomenon of Flash Mob, the Neuroscience of ChoreographyAugust 9, 2014 at 12:00 PM. 

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