Flow in a Flash*

Flow in a Flash

Performance 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


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. 

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

National Hug A Runner Day

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.!

Learn While You Burn

Learn and Burn

Changing how you stay at the top of your game…

Learn and Burn
Learn While You Burn

Here at Get Your Head In The Gamewe realize that staying on top of the latest techniques, theories and tools is a challenge.  It’s often difficult to find time to read books and journals.  The publishing process for professional journals and books can take anywhere from 10 months to 3 years, so that even the most recent printed materials may not reflect the actual current thinking of the day.

Our alternative is to offer a number of resources in the form of online videos that you can download and watch at your convenience, and that we can easily update to make certain that you are receiving the most up to date information to help you perform at your peak.  It’s easy, current and convenient:  Start streaming the video on your smartphone, iPad or computer; hop on the treadmill or trainer; get yourself a great 20-30 minute workout and “learn while you burn.”

We will be launching our “Coach the Coaches” video series on Nov. 1, 2012; our “Master the Mental Game” for athletes and performers is scheduled for release in January of 2013.

As a special promotion for our “Coach the Coaches” series, you are invited to view the video Introduction to Performance Consulting free of charge.  The only catch is that I would like you to provide feedback on the video and our “learn while you burn” concept by completing a brief survey after viewing it. The Coach the Coaches series is designed for professionals interested in pursuing a career in performance consulting (psychologists, counselors, coaches and graduate students).  This video offer is free through October 2012 (and, no, you don’t actually have to be working out to view the video).  Beginning November 1, 2012 we will offer this and other videos for a slight fee.

Here’s the link to the free video: https://headinthegame.net/resources/videos/#Intro2PC

Here’s a link to provide feedback: CLICK HERE to complete the survey

Check it out and let me know what you think and any topics you would like addressed!

Charlie Brown, PhD

Olympic Success in Perspective: Ubuntu

Ubuntu: "I am who I am because of who you are"

Ubuntu: "I am what I am because of who you are"

Over the past two weeks the world has been treated to amazing displays of physical achievement as each country’s greatest athletes have gathered in London in pursuit of being “faster, higher, and stronger.”  While we recognize individuals for their accomplishments at the 2012 Summer Olympic Games, the African concept of ubuntu is at the core of every athlete reaching his or her dream.

Ubuntu is the African philosophy that emphasizes the inter-connectedness of all persons.  There is no clear English equivalent; the concept is often translated as “I am who I am, because of who you are.”  Both Nelson Mandela and Archbishop Desmond Tutu have used the term to describe how injustice to any one group of people impacts all people.  But the inter-relations apply not only to suffering, but also to celebration.  It does not diminish the talent, commitment and accomplishment of an individual; it acknowledges the importance of others in the journey.

No person rises to the pinnacle of success without being lifted by others. When Michael Phelps won his record breaking 19th medal, he was quick to give credit to the members of the relay team.  As his medal tally grew while his career drew towards its finale, he consistently acknowledged his mother, family and Coach Bob Bowman, all of whom have been been with him throughout his journey. Ubuntu!  I am who I am because of who you are.

In the midst of Usain Bolt proclaiming himself the fastest man on the planet and a living legend, he acknowledged the importance of his country’s support and having training partners such as Yohan Blake to push him to new heights of performance. Ubuntu!  I am who I am because of who you are.

The interconnectedness also encompasses pain and tragedy woven into the fabric of one’s life.  US Olympian Kelly Wells found personal refuge from an abusive stepfather by pouring herself into training on the track. Her youth was marked by tragedy, yet she is now a model of resilience and a beacon for others who may be facing the challenges of abuse. Ubuntu!  I am who I am because of who you are.

Over the past two years I’ve had the privilege of working with Team Elite of SwimMAC of the Carolinas, arguably the top swim club in the US after having the largest number of athletes qualifying for the Olympic trials and placing more swimmers on the Olympic squad than any other swim team in the country, plus having SwimMAC CEO and Team Elite Coach David Marsh named to the US Olympic coaching staff.  The five Team Elite swimmers in London are returning with six medals — 3 gold and 3 silver.

All five are exceptional athletes; yet their character and integrity are even more impressive than their physical abilities.  These five athletes have held the spotlight, and while doing so have modeled ubuntu by reflecting attention to others as integral to their success.

Gold and silver medalist Cullen Jones has long acknowledged the role that both of his parents and his nearly drowning as a child have played in his becoming a two-time Olympian.  When he qualified for the  100 freestyle at the 2012 US Olympics Trials, his first action upon leaving the water was to hug Coach David Marsh and Assistant Coach Peter Verhoef.  In an interview immediately after winning the 50 freestyle at the Trials, he was asked how he was such a different swimmer from four years earlier when he did not qualify for the event.  He credited Marsh pushing him and having great training partners, Nick Brunelli and Josh Schneider. Ubuntu!  I am who I am because of who you are.

In preparation for winning his gold and silver medals, world record holder Nick Thoman would start practice with a handshake with now-Olympian Davis Tarwater as a commitment to push each other to excellence.  Throughout interviews this past year, Thoman acknowledged the role of the coaches, support staff and training partners such as Eugene Godsoe and Nelson Westby, as well as the incredible field of US athletes competing in the 100 backstroke, as vital factors in preparing to represent the US in London.  Ubuntu!  I am who I am because of who you are.

Gold medalist Davis Tarwater has stated that failing to make the 2008 Olympic team was probably the most devastating experience of his life; and at the same time, probably the best thing that ever happened to him as a person.  He coupled an evolved perspective with incredible work ethic in his quest for the 2012 Olympics, embracing challenges from teammates such as US National Champion Tim Phillips along the way. Ubuntu!  I am who I am because of who you are.

Three-time Olympian, Kara Lynn Joyce came to Team Elite less than 12 weeks prior to the Olympic trials, in part, to train head to head with Team Elite sprinters Madison Kennedy and Andrea Georoff. Changing programs so close to the trials was a gamble that paid off as she qualified for London in the women’s 50 free. Ubuntu!  I am who I am because of who you are.

The normally quiet and shy Micah Lawrence was clear and emphatic in her gratitude to teammates during a Team Elite meeting prior to her qualifying in the 200 meter breaststroke.  She thanked not only Kevin Swander and Elliot Keefer, who both challenged and supported her in daily practice; but also those whose support and commitment created a sense of family that allowed her to strive for new heights.  Kate Mills, Eric Knight, Bryan Lundquist, Greg Pearsall, and the entire SwimMAC community were all essential ingredients of this recipe for success. Ubuntu!  I am who I am because of who you are.

On a personal note, my professional colleagues are aware that I have had the honor of working with Coach David Marsh, Team Elite and the SwimMAC community.  In the aftermath of these 2012 Olympic Games, I find that my reputation, recognition and influence as a performance psychologist has grown. Thank you, Team Elite, for the privilege of working together. Ubuntu!  I am who I am because of who you are.

“Consulting for Peak Performance” Workshop at APA Convention

Consulting for Peak Performance- New Venues for Professional Practice

Consulting for Peak Performance- New Venues for Professional PracticeIf you are a licensed psychologist or professional counselor interested in becoming a performance consultant, on August 3, 2012 Drs. Charlie Brown and Kate Hays will be leading a 7-hour CE workshop, “Consulting for Peak Performance – New Venues for Professional Practice,” at the upcoming American Psychological Association Convention in Orlando, FL.  The program provides an overview of performance consulting and how it differs from traditional therapy; core skills required for competency; ethical challenges; and a look at the pragmatics of the business of performance consulting.  CLICK HERE for details.

If you are a die-hard Olympic fan and concerned that the program conflicts with the London Games, arrangements have been made for a live stream of the games for updates at every break throughout the day and it is rumored that the workshop may have a “pre-emptive break” for 22 seconds at 3:09 pm to view the finals of the men’s 50-meter freestyle.

10 Tips for Handling Pressure Like an Olympian

Tower Bridge at night displays the Olympic Rings
Tower Bridge at night displays the Olympic Rings
Tower Bridge at night with Olympic Rings

Athletes consistently report that mental preparation for Olympic competition separates the good from the great.  With that in mind, I want to share what U.S. Olympic champions have identified as the top 10 lessons for Olympic success. This information comes from the DVD, “Success at the Olympics,”  produced by the Sport Psychology Services at the USOC.  The lessons here are not restricted to athletes, but apply to anyone who wants to perform under pressure in business, performing arts or high risk occupations.

For ease of reading, I’ve broken these into two parts: five are covered in Part One (CLICK HERE for Part One); the remaining five in Part Two (CLICK HERE for Part Two).  These links lead to recent issues of our Pressure Points newsletter.  If you haven’t done so already, I encourage you to take a moment to subscribe to the newsletter and other “Good Stuff” from Get Your Head In The Game, that way you will be assured of getting great tips and offerings “hot off the press.”

As always, I welcome your comments and feedback on Pressure Points and any other aspect of our site.

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

PS – Olympic fever is here.  Catch it!

In pressure situations, remember to “P”

Business confrontation

I recently had the opportunity to contribute to Sue Shellenbarger’s Q&A column in the Wall Street Journal (click here for her original column).  It was a great question, and Shellenbarger crafted a thoughtful, concise response using my input combined that that of my good friend and colleague, Dr. Kate Hays.

I confess that my writing style is more quirky than what was reflected in the column, and decided to offer my unabridged response to the question of how to handle confrontational situations in the workplace.

Q: I enjoyed your article on stress. I do face-to-face customer service in my job and frequently must deal with irate or abrasive customers who make stressful demands. My body responds just as you described; my heart speeds up, my hands get extremely cold and my mind goes blank — then I get even more nervous. I have never liked confrontations but I must try to stay calm and think on my feet. Can you offer any advice? –J.W., Boston, Mass.

There are 3 key ingredients to performing successfully in pressure situations: 1) a clear “target” of how you would like to handle the situation; 2) specific strategies for staying “on target;” and 3) practicing the process of staying on target when confronted with distractions and rising emotions.

Have a clear target.

When dealing with challenging situations such as you describe, it is easy to slip into the habit of focusing on what you do not want to happen: you don’t want to become upset, you don’t want your palms to start sweating, you don’t want your mind to go blank. Unfortunately, the brain does not incorporate the concept of “not” and instead engages in mental rehearsal of what you’re trying to avoid. It is far more effective to focus upon what you would like to actually do in those situations to provide a mental target for your attention. For example, in the situation you described your target may be staying calm, relaxed and poised.

How do you get a clear target?  Look for exceptions to the problem. When have you been most successful at handling confrontation? You learn more from the one time that you have been successful than from 99 times that you have failed. If you cannot think of any times that you have been effective, find someone whom you believe is handling confrontation well and use that individual as a model for how you would like to behave under pressure.

Have strategies for staying “on target.”

Just as in playing darts, you may not hit the bull’s-eye; but your goal is always to come as close as possible. If “off target,” you make adjustments and keep refining the process. In pressure situations, it is easier to stay on target if you remember to “P”: Pause; get your Pulse down; and put things in Perspective.  Put these together and they become your “P routine.”

Pause. In dealing with an irate customer, it is easy to get caught up in a reactive verbal interchange. Slow the process down by taking both a physical and mental break in the action. This can be accomplished with a simple gesture such as leaning back in your chair, taking off your glasses or picking up a notepad, and then continuing with your “P routine.”

Pulse down. Use your breathing to lower your pulse and counteract the flood of adrenaline. Adrenaline involuntarily triggers short and shallow breathing (along with all of the other physical symptoms that you noted). Disrupt the involuntary response with slow “belly breathing.” Start a long slow breath by relaxing the diaphragm and letting the air fill your lungs from the bottom or belly up. Some people find it helpful to imagine the lungs filling in the same fashion as a water balloon. Inhale for a slow 5 count and then exhale slowly through your mouth for a slow 7 count. Repeat as needed.

Perspective. Plan now for the things that you would like to remember in pressure situations that help you maintain perspective and a sense of balance. This may include things such as “Stay calm;” “My job is to understand the person’s concern, convey empathy, and explain the company’s policy even if the customer does not like the policy;” or “This person is upset with the policy, it is not about me personally.”  It is important for your reminders to be in words and language that are comfortable and familiar to you, and that they are believable rather than a lofty ideal. If you want to remember something under pressure, don’t just think it; ink it. Writing it down improves your ability to recall it later. It can be particularly helpful to write these reminders on a note card where you can view it during your “P routine.”


Staying calm and focused under pressure is a skill that can be developed and improved with practice. The key is to start with low-pressure situations and gradually increase the intensity. The easiest way to begin is with mental rehearsal, which allows you to control all of the elements and the intensity. A good first step is imagining the ideal emotional state that you have defined as your target. Focus initially on experiencing the sense of calm, relaxed focus in a setting that is safe and free of any threats or distractions. Then use your imagination to gradually increase the complexity and challenge of the situation. Imagine staying “on target” while talking with a trusted friend. Progress to mentally rehearsing a minor disagreement with a colleague. Mentally rehearse starting to become upset and then using your P routine to calm down. Once you have been successful in your mental rehearsal, look for opportunities to practice using your skills in real-life situations.

As with all performance psychology interventions, these principles and suggestions need to be tailored to your unique personality, strengths and situation. You may find it helpful to consult a psychologist, therapist or coach if you encounter any difficulties with the process, or simply would feel more comfortable with professional assistance.  All skills must be practiced to be effective. And finally, remember that when you initially begin practicing new behaviors it is common to still be a bit apprehensive and uncertain. Confidence comes after mastering skills, not before.

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.


Best idea of 2011? Create your own “Top 10” list

Start the New Year right
Start the New Year right
Start your New Year right

With the completion of another year and the promise of 2012 ahead, it is time for reflection of things past and things to come.  The ubiquitous “Top 10” lists are staples in magazines and newspapers, noting everything from the major news events of the year to the worst dressed individuals.

Here’s an idea from Robert Pagliarini of the  Chicago Tribune that can be both personally meaningful as well as a great conversation topic at a new year’s gathering:  Create your own “Top 10” list for 2011. What were your biggest accomplishments?  toughest challenges?  funniest moments? or simply what you consider your personal major events?  After you’ve reviewed 2011, turn your attention forward and imagine that you are having the same conversation as 2012 rolls to an end.  What do you want to be listing as your top 10 events of 2012?  After you’ve identified your 2012 list, don’t just think it; INK it!  Write it down where you can use it to navigate your efforts this year and review it next December.

On a personal note, one of my top 10 accomplishments of 2011 was launching the new Get Your Head In The Game website (yea!!!!).  One of my goals for 2012 is to have at least 1,000 people following Get Your Head In The Game on Facebook.  If you’re reading this and and think it is of value, I’d like your help:  take a moment to click the “Like” button and share this post with your friends.  If you sign up to our mailing list, your name will be entered in the monthly drawing for a free gift from Get Your Head In The Game.

Thanks and Happy New Year!

Charlie Brown PhD (a.k.a., Dr. Charlie)