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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. 

5 Irreverent Tips for Health and Happiness in 2013

    Workout Animal

    Exercise Animal

  1. If you are exercising 7 days a week, odds are you are being lazy.  Lazy with your recovery that is. Training does not make you stronger; it actually breaks you down at the cellular level. You become stronger only when you recover after the breaking down process. Elite athletes and committed recreational athletes typically have no problem with the grunt and groans of hard workouts, but too often avoid adequate recovery out of misperception that down time is goofing off rather than smart training. “Lazy” is a disinclination to engage in an activity that one intellectually knows would be beneficial.  Most folks are lazy with avoiding exercise; heavy exercisers are typically lazy with avoiding recovery. Recovery imbalance decreases performance, and increases the probability of illness, injury and burnout.  If you have any questions about the dangers of overtraining and the benefits of recovery, check out the January 2013 issue of Medical Science of Sports and Exercise. It has the first ever joint consensus statement on “Prevention, Diagnosis and Treatment of Overtraining Syndrome” by the American College of Sport Medicine and the European College of Sport Sciences.  Stay tuned for a webinar on “Balancing Stress and Recovery” sponsored by Get Your Head In The Game in February of 2013.
  2. Motivation is over-rated.  Motivation changes like the temperature; commitment is the key to making long-term change. For example, I know of no parents who are “motivated” to get up at two o’clock in the morning with a sick child.  They do it because they are committed. If you want to actually get the goals that you have set, commit to a SMART goal– one that is Specific, Measurable, Action-oriented, Reasonable and Time-oriented.  For example, a goal such as “working out more this year” is a lovely thought, but usually not very helpful in actually producing change.  By contrast, a SMART goal such as “getting to the gym three days a week for 30 minutes, for six weeks in a row” has a much higher probability of being achieved.  For more on SMART goals and effective goal getting, check out this video: http://headinthegame.net/resources/videos/#GoalGetting
  3. Take time to P to improve performance.  As simple as it sounds, performance (including sticking with an exercise routine) can dramatically improve if you simply Pause, get your Pulse down by breathing, put things in Perspective, and then work your Plan.  Often you do not need to learn anything new to perform better; you simply need to remember what you know.  The “P” routine allows you to slow down those pesky old habits, and be more intentional in your actions.  Try it and you will ‘Ppreciate the results.
  4. Commit yourself to an institution. A school, church or organization that is.  One of the keys to happiness (and simultaneously preventing burnout) is to use your strengths and talents in pursuit of something that is “meaningful,” i.e., bigger than yourself.  Many people consider volunteering with a local civic group, or becoming more involved with their place of worship; but then put off doing so until “things ease off a bit.”  Don’t kid yourself, your life will always be busy and that lull may never come.  Make the commitment and you will find the time.
  5. Stuff it.  The old adage of “count your blessings” as a means of promoting happiness is actually well-grounded in modern research.  Studies indicate that the simple act of reviewing the positive events of the day can have profound impact on improving happiness.  I recommend a variation that is geared towards a fantastic New Year’s Eve celebration at the conclusion of 2013.  Get a large jar (preferably one gallon or larger) and keep a small pad near it.  Take time every day to “count your blessings” and write down at least one positive thing that you experienced during the day, and stuff it in the jar.  On December 31st, take out the jar and review all the good memories of 2013 as part of ringing in the new year.  After the stroke of midnight, store the memories in a baggie (or a scrapbook if you are inclined) and repeat for the next year.

National Hug A Runner Day (Go H.A.R.D.!)

National Hug A Runner DayFrom the ranks of “obscure celebrations in the world,” November 20th is national Hug A Runner Day (H.A.R.D.).  This is an opportunity to express appreciation to the pavement pounders and trail runners of this world. If you know a runner, this is your day to give ’em a big hug; if there is a runner you’d like to get to know, consider this your invitation to introduce yourself with open arms.

For those individuals striving for peak performance, Adam Goucher and Tim Catalano, official founders of national H.A.R.D. and authors of Running the Edge, offer the history of H.A.R.D., along with a handy training guide for optimal hugging. (I am partial to “interval hugging” and “Hug visualization”:  CLICK HERE for the guide.

Check it out; wrap your arms around your favorite runner, and Go H.A.R.D.!

Don’t just set goals, GET goals

Ever notice how setting goals is typically a lot easier than actually getting those goals?  Typically around this time of the year, people begin struggling with all those goals that were so optimistically set with the entrance of the new year.  If you are beginning an exercise program, check out this recording

of a presentation on 11/1/11 at Forsyth Medical Center in Winston-Salem, NC. It provides tips and insights for not just setting goals, but actually getting your goals. In this 50 minute program you’ll find humor, examples and practical advice on the benefits of thinking in stages as you embark on change, and tips for dealing with discomfort during early stages of an exercise program.

 

How much would you pay to be healthy?

A growing number of companies are discovering that paying people cash to exercise and lose weight yields big financial dividends in the long run.  Working out just 1-2 times a week can lower an individual’s medical costs an average of 8%.  If a person works out 2-3 times weekly, the savings rise to 28%; and if a person works out an average of 3 or more times each week, the savings rise to a whopping 44%, according to a recent article in USA Today.  These potential savings are catching the attention of businesses.  One major US company has set the goal of it’s employees losing 20 tons of weight during the it’s fiscal year, and is linking employees’ annual bonuses to the goal.

One of the greatest challenges of any health and exercise program is remaining committed when motivation wanes.  There is ample research supporting the notion that people change in stages. When an individual gets to the Action stage, simple behavioral principles (such as having a clear behavioral goal and reward) are most effective.  While it may irk some to pay cash to people for doing something that they should want to do because it is beneficial to them, the bottom line is that the external reward (money) is more effective than all the “shoulds,” “oughts” and other idealistic intrinsic (internal) motivation principles.

If you want to stay the course on your health routine during this upcoming holiday season, I encourage you use the same approach that the companies are finding successful:  pay yourself to remain committed to your program.  There are a number of variations of using an external reward to sustain commitment, but they all include these key elements:

  • Have a clear behavioral goal of what you will do rather than what you will not do, such as exercising 3 times each week, having small portion size, eating desert only on Sunday, etc.
  • Ante up.  Make the reward real where you can see it at the beginning of the program.  For example, get a crisp $100 bill, an envelope of cash or a written check at the commencement of your program. It makes a difference if you can actually see your reward rather than thinking of it as a draft from your bank account.
  • Follow the rules. Have a clear structure where you get the reward only by adhering to your commitment.  No fudging allowed.  If there is a risk that you might fall to temptation and give yourself the reward without adhering to the program, enlist the assistance of someone else to hold the stakes.  Be certain that person commits to giving you the reward only when you have earned it.  If there is a chance that you may fall short of your goal, clarify a contingency plan for  the money, such as giving it to charity.
Remember, motivation is over-rated.  Motivation changes like the weather.  Commitment is the key for long-lasting change.
Let me know how it goes…

Wanting a bit more willpower? Try a bite of chocolate…

If you are struggling with self control, a little bite of something sweet may be just the thing to boost waning willpower. Researchers have been studying what actually goes on in the brain when a person is exercising “will power” or self-control.  The part of the brain known as the prefrontal cortex is responsible for will power and self-control, and different regions of the prefrontal cortex influence different aspects of will power. The left side gets things going and energizes your attention on the tasks and behaviors that are your goals, while your right side acts as the brakes and keeps you from falling victim to temptation.

It also turns out that will power requires a goodly amount of energy, primarily in the form of glucose.  If your glucose levels are low, either due to not having enough “fuel” or the body simply not processing the glucose efficiently due to stress or lack of sleep, then your will power is more apt to run out of gas.  Psychologist Roy Baumeister of Florida State University conducted studies where a small number of jelly beans or half a can of soda provided the brain with a boost in glucose to produce more self control.

Members of AA have long advocated the “HALT principle” when undertaking one of the greatest challenges of will power: abstinence from alcohol.  HALT is a reminder to never get too Hungry, Angry, Lonely or Tired.  Modern brain imaging research validates the HALT principle.  If you are hungry and struggling with will power, a bite of something sweet may provide the sugar boost that you need to sustain self control (just make certain is is only a bite!).  Likewise, engaging in pleasurable activities that promote emotional and mental recovery, can help restore one’s will power “muscles” and strengthen them in the process.

These current findings also give insights as to why eating several small meals throughout the day is typically more effective than restrictive crash dieting.  By eating throughout the day, a person is better able to maintain the glucose levels needed to fuel the parts of the brain that exercise self-control.  That means making better choices as to both types of foods and portion sizes.  By contrast, if a person restricts food for an extended period and experiences a drop in glucose, will power crashes and the probability of binge eating skyrockets.

To learn more about recent findings on the neurological basis of will power, check out this article from the Boston Globe: click here.

So now about that chocolate… The researchers used a small number of jelly beans to boost glucose levels. Personally, if I’m going for an energy boost, chocolate is my “fuel” of choice.  The challenge is to stop with just a bite.  If you eat it slowly (and good chocolate should always be savored slowly), the added glucose can help you say “enough.”  Sounds like a “win-win situation” to me.

So what have you found that helps your will power?