BOOK REVIEW: Running Flow Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, et. al.

Running FlowRunning Flow by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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This book examines how Flow can be achieved by runners. Flow, in this usage, means a specific state of mind in which the activity at hand becomes effortless, self-criticism quiets, and one becomes pleasantly fixated on a task. It’s a term coined by the book’s lead author, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, based on his research into how some people were able to slip into a mental state in which even mundane activities could become an almost blissful obsession. This was part of a broader inquiry into how people can achieve a higher quality of life at work or at home.

The book is divided into two parts. The first four chapters lay out the concept of Flow in detail, and provide the necessary background for readers who may not be familiar with the concept. These chapters describe the role Flow can play in running, examine the components of Flow (i.e. necessary conditions and outcomes), and explain what personality traits are most conducive to achieving Flow.

The second part consists of five chapters, and it delves into how a runner can achieve Flow. Chapter five explores in detail three of the nine components that were introduced in chapter two, and tailors the explanation for runners. These three are the antecedents of Flow: clear goals, a match of challenge level and skill level, and immediate feedback. Chapters six and seven suggest the ways in which Flow can be facilitated in non-competitive and competitive runs, respectively. Chapter eight discusses the limits of flow. Because Flow is associated with feelings of effortless performance, some think of it as a sort of panacea for all that plagues their running. Furthermore, it’s not a state that easily happens and consistently returns; it’s often fickle and elusive. This chapter not only disabuses one of such notions, but also explains how failing to achieve Flow need not be the end of the world (or of one’s race.) The final chapter takes Flow beyond the concept of running and suggests what it’s pursuit can do for an individual more broadly.

The chapters use mini-case studies in which the authors describe the experience of professional runners in races and the effects of Flow on their performance and their experiences of races. There are numerous graphics. Many of these are color photos of the athletes who the authors spoke to, but there are also diagrams used to clarify key concepts. There is a glossary and references section as well.

I enjoyed this book. I’ve always thought of running as a task for which Flow would be hard to achieve because the matching of skill level to the amount of challenge is so crucial to achieving Flow and the movement pattern of running is so repetitive and monotonous. (The reason this matching is important is that if one’s skill level is far beyond the challenge, then one is bored, and if it’s the other way around, one is frustrated and overwhelmed – and neither boredom nor frustration facilitates Flow.) The book is a quick read that offers runners everything they need to make their mental experience of running more enjoyable and productive.

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5 Thoughts on the Conscious Mind in Martial Arts Training

In recent years I’ve spent a lot of time trying to quiet the conscious mind in order to let the subconscious do what it does best. There’s a lot of terminology that’s used to describe the mind state in which one’s actions are effortless and one can adjust swiftly to unforeseen challenges: e.g. “in the zone,” the Flow, Zen mindset, and (in the Kotler and Wheal book I just reviewed) ecstasis. However, regardless of the name, one key to this state is a reduced activity of the part of the mind that’s self-critical and overly cautious, and that requires not letting the conscious mind do what it’s prone to do.

 

However, taking a course on mauythai advanced fundamentals recently has reminded me of the important roles the conscious mind plays in learning. The challenge is to use the conscious mind effectively–without letting it running amok.

 

The conscious mind is largely driven by anxiety about uncertainty. This makes the conscious mind a planner and worst-case scenario generator extraordinaire. (In meditation, I’ve begun to not only note what thought popped into my head before I dismiss said distraction, but I also have a classification scheme of kinds of thoughts, and “planning thoughts” are probably the most common type of thought to hijack my mind.) This planning / forecasting  proclivity can be beneficial if one is doing a job that requires such planning, anticipation of possible hazards, and the need to adjust to complex difficulties. However, it can also make one neurotic, overly risk-averse, and pessimistic.

 

So, here are my five thoughts on the conscious mind in martial arts training.

 

5.) Feed the right wolf:  There’s a well-known story about a Native American man telling his grandchild that inside each person there are two wolves at war, one good and one evil.

The child asks, “Which one wins?”

The old man replies, “The one you feed.”

 

This is a variation on the theme–not so much about good and evil as about positive and negative outlook. In martial arts training there are often competing emotional states. On one hand, there is often anxiety about either being injured or even about the embarrassment of being bested. (Surprisingly, it seems like the magnitude of the latter is often greater than the former.) On the other hand, there is an intense thrill that comes with making progress. For those who don’t understand how martial artists can put themselves through what they do, this is the part for which you’re probably not understanding the intensity of the high. When it clicks and you’re getting it right more often than you previously did, the feeling is transcendent.

 

So, when one sees either of these two feelings arising, choose the latter. If one notices the anxiety, remind oneself the promise of that awesome feeling of having it fall together.

 

4.) Scanning for lapses in form: The process of learning a martial art–like any movement art–is repetition of the movements until they become ingrained in one’s procedural memory. Early in the process, this feels clunky as one has to scan for imperfections in form with one’s super-intelligent but slow and cumbersome conscious mind. However, increasingly, the body begins to incorporate these movement patterns and they start to become second nature. The trick is to keep this in the moment and not let one’s thoughts linger on what one just got wrong, or any perceived ramifications of getting it wrong.

 

3.) Try visualization: This once would have been thought hippie guff, but now it’s entered the mainstream. Of course, the advice from #5 must be kept in mind. When I think of the technique of visualization, I’m reminded of a story that Dan Millman told about a girl that he was coaching in gymnastics. He came to check on her only to find her repeatedly cringing and grimacing. He asked what was going on, and she said she kept falling off the balance beam whenever she visualized her routine. It sounds silly, but attitude is a powerful thing, and I lot of people sabotage themselves in ways not much different from this. It’s your mind, you have the power to do the move perfectly every time, if you take the proper mindset.

 

2.) Conscious mind as governor of action and agent of trust: The subconscious mind can be feral. As one spars, one has to match speeds with one’s opposition so that learning can take place. While sparring looks reminiscent of fighting, the goal of sparring is learning, whereas the goal of fighting is winning (or–as a minimum in actual combat–not being destroyed.)

 

This is another role for the conscious mind. It can keep reminders to the fore to keep one’s movement appropriate to the occasion. It can inject an awareness that there’s a relationship of trust rather than warring competitiveness between. That one needn’t respond at the same magnitude that one would under attack.

 

1.) Dropping the Conscious Mind Out of the Equation: While the conscious mind is critical in the learning process, eventually one must do something that feels uncomfortable, which is shifting subconscious operations to the fore and quieting the conscious mind. Overthinking can be death in tests, competitions, not to mention, I’m told, actual combative situations. At some point you’ve got to have some trust in what you’ve trained to do up to that point. It might fail you, but not necessarily as spectacularly as if you let your conscious run amok, getting caught in a death spiral of self-criticism and futile guesswork.

 

Since I’ve been watching quite a few muaythai fights recently at the Rangsit Boxing Stadium, I’ve begun to wonder just how useful corner advice is. I know that people think it’s beneficial because it’s done in droves. Not only is the fighter’s trainer trying tell them what to do, but also his parents, his siblings, his granny, and a hundred random people who may or may not have put money on him. It would be interesting to see a scientific study of how fighters performed who tuned everything out between rounds versus those who tried to take in all the advice. I tried to look up whether any such study had been done, but a cursor Google search came up empty.

 

What comes of all the corner talk?

What comes of all the corner talk?

BOOK REVIEW: Choke by Sian Beilock

Choke: What the Secrets of the Brain Reveal About Getting It Right When You Have ToChoke: What the Secrets of the Brain Reveal About Getting It Right When You Have To by Sian Beilock
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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“Choke” in this book means to under-perform under high stakes. It doesn’t mean to be a poor performer, generally. This book is designed to help those who perform at a lower level when the pressure is on. It’s a condition that’s even been witnessed in Olympic caliber athletes–world champions who couldn’t get on the podium in the most important games of their careers. The book isn’t just about choking in sports; in fact, much of it is about bombing tests, and it also addresses under-performance in business environments.

“Choke” is organized into nine chapters. The first is called the “curse of expertise,” and it deals with just that—how experts are notoriously bad judges of how successful novices will be. This is because the causes of under-performance aren’t always straight forward. For example, some qualities that serve to make individuals strong contenders under low pressure conditions (e.g. a large working-memory) contribute to the cracking of the same individuals under high stakes. The second chapter explains how practice improves performance. Chapter three investigates why using our Prefrontal Cortex (i.e. our conscious mind) can do us in when the task calls for procedural memory that is unconscious to do its work.

Chapter four delves into the differences between the sexes in academic endeavors. Chapter five is about choking on tests in a scholastic environment, and it deals a lot with why minorities under-perform on standardized tests. Chapter Six presents some activities that have been shown to be successful in reducing choking including therapeutic writing, meditation, and changing one’s mode of thinking. There is a box at the end of the chapter that summarizes many of these cures.

Chapter seven discusses choking in sports. Choking in sports has some common ground with academic under-performance. However, it’s also different in that the object is often to quiet the conscious mind altogether. Some solutions for the yips in sports, such as mantras repeated in one’s mind to let the procedural memory take over, may not be as useful in an academic setting. Chapter 8 presents a range of techniques to prevent choking from practicing under more realistic conditions to getting on with it (i.e. not overthinking or slowing down) to distracting oneself to focusing on the goal (not the process.) The chapter also looks at the flip-side, why those who excel in physical performance often stink at coaching (i.e. they aren’t analytical about how it’s done.) This chapter also has a nice summary box of solutions. The final chapter looks at under-performance in a business setting, which again shares some things in common with choking in other domains, but also presents its own problems.

I found this book to be useful and thought-provoking. The advice is sound.

The discussion of bombing at tests and in the academic setting is largely applicable only to females or minorities as it focuses heavily on the issue of why these groups are disproportionately affected by academic under-performance. With respect to sports and business, the only condition necessary to benefit from the advice is a proclivity to choke or a desire to know how to help oneself or others avoid the fate. So depending upon what domain one is considering and one’s demographic, there may be other books that are either more or less relevant to one’s personal issue.

I’d recommend this book for those interested in the science of human performance.

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