Have you ever watched a champion tennis player get in the zone? He might bounce the ball three times, spin the racquet twice, cough and then… slam the ball. That athlete and thousands like him use a physical (somatic) process to build state changes (mental, biochemical and emotional) that cascade back down to a higher performance physiology. World records and world championships are won that way. Psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi coined the term flow state in 1991 to describe this phenomenon because it was very unconscious and fast. Peak performance athletes know how to create flow state and then use it to their advantage. Those who master it win. Have you ever wondered how they do that? It’s true they’ve had doctors, research scientists and dieticians on their side and a whole lot of talent, skill and drive. But now their breakthroughs are becoming available to the rest of us.
Learning how to establish flow state is a powerful tool for organisations and executives like Michael. I had the opportunity to coach him over just two sessions, having met him immediately his recent promotion and just before tackling his first confrontation with a new boss. Michael stood looking at the ground in front of him, imagining a circle there, with everything he needed to overcome his stressful situation inside it. He had been coached through state changing and uploading it when he needed it. A circle is an easier unconscious routine than the kind a tennis player is likely to go through! As he stepped into that circle, Michael’s psyche accessed every resource he mentally needed and he experienced his high performance state. At the same moment his physical experience of the stressful situation collapsed, melting away.
Michael, like many of us, hated confrontation. Under pressure he stuttered, clammed up, sweated and sometimes became physically sick. With coaching, Michael was able to take a new somatic (body based) high performance state to work with him. There, he stepped into it and confronted his boss… beautifully. This might not have been a Wimbledon Championship, but it changed his career and confidence forever. Control the state and you control the outcomes.
States go with programs and triggers
Michael now has a designer state and a corresponding set of triggers to access it (so long as he refreshes this routine from time to time). This is neither a magic trick, nor some unusual manipulation. In the ordinary course of life we access a wide range of physical and emotional states. A fragrance will trigger a memory from childhood, a song on the radio will lift our spirits. Most of the time we are at the mercy of these moods because they rest on unconscious triggers and programs. James A. Howard, Ph.D estimates that 90% of our daily lives are run by unconscious routines and only 10% is conscious thought (“Financial Decision-Making: The Roles of Intuition, Heuristics, and Impulses,” Journal of Modern Accounting and Auditing, 2013, Vol. 9, Iss. 12, pg 1596)
Being unconscious about our state and deploying skills is a fabulous thing about being human. It enables us to drive, read, speak, write, play musical instruments and do so faster than thinking consciously. We take highly complex tasks, break them down, learn them systematically like little programs and then submerge them into the unconscious until they are triggered by our circumstance or environment. Executive coach Paul Blackburn estimates that by adulthood we have 100,000 automated “programs” that trigger a particular state (Beyond Success, 1998, pg 32).
However these unconscious programs don’t always serve us well. There are three separate things that we need to keep in mind when developing a high performance state.
1. The current state may have glitches
Practise doesn’t make perfect, it makes permanent. We may have picked up imperfections that will have to be unlearned before we move to higher skill levels (a better program learned in its place). Think of Michael’s original program, which uploaded every time he needed to confront a boss. It contained fear, stuttering and slow thought. The ideal outcome is for Michael’s old state to disappear as he steps into the new high performance one.
Dr. Lewis Walker MD has applied building high performance states to collapse old response patterns with his patients. The new state brings them “completely in tune with all of their resources… when this state has been developed sufficiently the [patient] then steps into the previous problem context where the triggers and contextual cues for the problem become rewired to the flow state – completely changing the response [and outcome].” (Changing with NLP: a casebook of neurolinguistic programming in medical practise,” 2004, pg 291 – bracketed words mine).
2. The current state may not withstand a harder situation
Sometimes we do not have capacity for higher performance coded into our current states. Promotion is a good example. A person may remain calm managing ten people, but become overwhelmed and stressed managing a hundred people, even when the work load is comparable.
For a very funny example of this see Richard Hammond from Top Gear trying to move from his experience of driving a Bugatti Veyron, to a Formula Renault 500 and finally to a Formula One R25 using his old programs: www.youtube.com/watch?v=EGUZJVY-sHo. The key here is to work with the client in creating that new, high performance state which contains everything they need in the new conditions and be able to switch to it when needed.
3. Trying to consciously take over may cause “choking”
High performance states are based upon a finely tuned relationship between our conscious and the smooth running of unconscious programs. That state can clam up under pressure – think of a golfing pro at a tournament that chokes on the third hole and takes four extra shots to make the green. Table Tennis world champion Matthew Syed observes that when our conscious mind starts trying to control what is otherwise a very unconscious act (the “program”) we slow the whole thing down and mistakes are introduced (Bounce, 2010, pg 191).
If you get to spend time with world class Tae Kwan Do coach Ian Snape, Ph.D you would see a technique he uses to trigger the desired state when it really counts. He teaches competitors to stop thinking (and choking) and start trusting their instinct. The unconscious desires a constant and working relationship with the conscious, just as it already has with the body. However the body and the unconscious do not really have “words” to communicate. It must rely on physical feelings, emotions and at times visual cues or auditory sensations. So part of the coaching work is to set up simple signalling between the conscious and the unconscious: for example a feeling for yes, and a different feeling for no. With just a few sessions, the unconscious can be taught to signal very strongly when it is needed. When Michael’s unconscious knew it was time to confront, he got a green light and stepped up to his new boss. He then accessed his trained high performance state and engaged without all his old physical responses.
Improvements in the state of a leader can have a profound impact on the team they lead. Their improved state seems to inspire confidence. Is it possible to create flow-on state changing effects? Absolutely! Consider the way a coach can inspire a last quarter comeback in his football team with nothing more than his words and state. Think of the way performance improvements from one sales person inspire others. How much more effective would it be to coach the sales team through somatic (body) coaching and engaging a high performance state instead of just creating inter-team competitiveness?
We can learn a lot from the realm of sports coaching and high performance, giving our clients access to somatic intuition and build high performance states so they can achieve much more. We can assist them in breaking down poor programing (or collapsing them), coaching the right state for the higher performance conditions they face and avoid choking (when their conscious mind takes over an unconscious program).
As an organisational coach working directly with executives, teams and culture, we must be aware of the way unconscious programs fire on environmental, sensory and physical triggers and carry state with them. We are aiming to help make our clients more aware that this is happening, what triggers it, what the flow on effects are and give them tools to begin changing their outcomes. Control the state and you control the outcomes.