Thursday, February 09, 2012

Performance, Zen and ‘flow’

To become an expert in any sporting discipline it typically takes 10,000 hours of practice during which the brain builds networks to enable automatic and precise responses.  I can’t have spent much more than 100 hours playing/practicing skittles which goes a long way towards explaining my mediocre performance. What if there were a way to speed up my learning process?  It seems that there is!  An article by Sally Adee on ‘Zen and the art of genius’ (New Scientist 4 February 2012) reports investigations into the role of an elusive mental state known as ‘flow’ which can allegedly slash the amount of time taken to master a new skill.

‘Flow’ is characterised by a feeling of effortless concentration with four key features which in the context of my bowling may be described as:

  • Intense and focused absorption in which I lose all sense of time – not sure that I’ve ever experienced this!
  • The sense that my activity is rewarding for its own sake - somewhat confused with the pleasures of a pint or two of real ale (autotelicity – the condition not the ale).
  • Feeling that my abilities are perfectly matched to the task without feelings of frustration or boredom – very rare for me but there have been occasions when I knew from the instant that the ball left my hand that pins were going to fall in abundance.
  • A sense that the ball is doing it all by itself – I rarely if ever experience this (automaticity).

I clearly have considerable needs for development so how do I speed up the process? One approach is to focus on the outcome rather than what you’re doing. I’ve tried that, imagined the satisfying clatter as pins fall and even seen them in my mind’s eye. The ball just swings off to the left, or right, and misses the pins entirely.

I mustn’t lose hope because an alternative is to zap my brain with a small electrical current while practising and playing. The only downside to this approach is that it could leave me temporarily blind. That would be disastrous if it happened on my first go; the remainder of my bowling would be random lobs down the alley…….