Performance psychology

Finding Flow and the Freedom of Play

(This article originally appeared in Tennis Pro)

During the stress of performance and competition, there is a strange tension between thought and feeling, and process and outcome, that stretches the routine constructions of the mind. Despite the innate wiring maintaining the equilibrium of mental functions, it can be hard to recognize when we immerse in patterns that lead to poor decision making. An awareness or thinking about thinking is a meta-process that allows reflection about choices and the roots of decision making. Then we are not automatons and can consider the ‘dialogue’ in mind, on our way to mastering the process of ‘noticing’ or being a level above the information.

To notice is to be a witness to the workings of our mind and body and is at the heart of self-awareness. This is the ultimate reason for reflecting on practice, competitions and life in general. In this practice of self-reflection, we can untie the knots that are barriers to progress, as well as intensify the aspects that are moving us forward.

The tension between process and outcome has a distinct influence on play, and therefore the quality of performance. If we take a moment to truly notice what is happening in play, we observe that when we feel we are playing at our best, the process is close to or in ‘flow’. Psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi brought the concept of flow into light and has written numerous works on the topic. He described several elements of the state, but I would like to look at two in particular.

• Our sense of time transforms and either speeds up or slows down.

• There is a merging of our actions and our awareness so that we are not thinking self-consciously about performance. We are simply in it.

From these two elements, I want to suggest that in flow, we are experiencing play in a different way. First, in not being self-conscious, we are not critical of self and not engaging the cycle of thinking and feeling about outcomes. It is not that we don’t notice them, but rather they are part of an overall process and of a different quality.

Second, in flow we are truly in the present, a witness to actions rather than immersed in expectations. What happens… happens, and we continue to flow. A simple change in description may be helpful; products or outcomes are in phrased in the past or future, such as “I won” or “I lost” or “I want to win.” Process is phrased in the present, such as “playing” or “executing” or “moving.”

While this may seem a play on words, it is not. It is noticing the power of language and its impact on beliefs and expectations. The second you merge process and product, you begin to fool with your sense of time, as well as actions and awareness. The mind plays tricks and thinks the outcome can be “lost.” Feelings that accompany a sense of loss are then inevitable. But consider that in the moment you have nothing and therefore nothing to lose.

For the outcome exists in a future time – not now.

Now, I am not saying that you do not script, set outcome goals, visualize and mentally rehearse. These are all important and reinforce key mental and physical aspects of performance. What I am saying is to trust in the moment – in muscle memory, working memory, and other executive functions; focus on playing versus being played by the desire for an outcome. The moment desire enters the mental space it gets crowded, and tense, and the dialogue begins. For thoughts and feelings play an imaginary pinball game with the future and the past and invite desire’s closest friend – fear.

Consider a pure image of being in the present and deeply into the process — children playing. How free they are and absorbed in the moment without a sense of time. And though it seems like there may not be a plan or a progression, there is, for play is thematic and not chaotic. The major difference is that in the purest sense play is the goal in and of itself. Once you expect something out of the process, you are in a difference space. At times we may step back and measure to get a sense of where we are in the process, but the vital skill remains being able to let it pass and let go of any desire for the outcome to be now.

The present moment calls for competing, adjusting, executing, strategizing and the like. And in flow, the motivation is intrinsic and self-rewarding. In maintaining this perspective, you will find this space is one lacking in fear and pressure and all energy draining attributes. This has nothing to do with lack of caring, effort or intensity. It has everything to do with the freedom in this private space, and the beauty of meeting the moment as it arises.

For coaching and teaching players of all levels, we can inspire the process of ‘playing’ and promote improvement, growth and development. We can help athletes to notice thoughts and feeling and patterns of choices. We can use language that helps players notice the process that produces the outcome, as well as the conditions of flow. Goals and vision are extremely important for they guide the process. But, in the end, it comes to the only control we have…

What can you do right now?

Photo credit: Adam Kring,

Mental Health, Performance psychology


Recently, one of the greatest athletes in the history of sports had a meltdown during an important stretch of one of the most important events of the year. Purposely, I am not naming names, because it doesn’t matter. This player is a champion who does the work, puts in the time and effort, and has a superior mental attitude. If there is such a thing as checking all the boxes, this athlete does it in every way possible.

Still, pressure caused an eruption, an emotional volcano, and a temporary lapse of direction.

I offer this piece for one reason.

The work is never done.

If you think fear is outgrown, or that demons can be locked away in the attic, or negativity is for the weak-minded—think again.

Everything exists in the tension of opposites.

You can’t set a goal without some sense of what failure is. You can’t perform well without knowing what poor performance is. You can’t be positive without the counterforce of negativity. You can’t make a good choice without knowing what the wrong one is. And conscience is all about informing us of darkness and light.

The heroic only occurs with a dragon to face up to. Pretending there aren’t any dragons is a fatal flaw. There will always be obstacles. The greater the task or adventure the more obstacles there will be. And the greatest challenge will be the one inside you. Best to be prepared rather than hope the obstacles don’t appear. Or worse, making believe they don’t exist.  

Take your mental approach to the next level with my sports psychology workbook: Above the Field of Play. Or to learn about other sports psychology services (including an assessment of your present mental approach), visit my website at

Photo credits: Ben Turnbull; Caroline Pimenta; Gabriella Clare Marino–

Performance psychology


There are two main types of progressions in building any sort of capacity—physical or mental. These progressions follow developmental stages and it’s good to know the pattern beforehand. It can save a lot of headaches and needless repetition—even keep you from giving up when you are just a step away from an important goal.  

The first progression is incremental growth. Skills, knowledge, and habits are gradually improving and it’s an additive process. This represents little steps headed in the direction of an important change. More information or efficiency has been added to your present level of performance in a skill or strategy.  

The second progression is transformative growth. This happens far less often and represents a significant change in mindset or ability. Something “clicks,” or you have a realization—an “ah-ha” moment that rearranges you on a significant level, a way of being, or a way of doing changes in quality. You see what you didn’t see before. You can do things autonomously and have created even more space for growth.  

Both progressions are important. But you can’t experience transformative growth without the small steps of incremental growth. This is the most important reason that every moment matters. Every bit of attention we pay to a process matters. Every practice matters. And then, every reflection on a practice or performance, or experience matters.  

When this makes sense, there are no good or bad days. We may say we had a “good day” or a “bad day” as a social convention but internally we know better. Every day has the seeds of growth. It all depends on what you give your attention to, and the price you pay in time, energy, and purpose.

Take your mental approach to the next level with my sports psychology workbook: Above the Field of Play. Or to learn about other sports psychology services (including an assessment of your present mental approach), visit my website at

Photo credit: Jeff Ochoa–

Performance psychology

The Fundamental Habit

One habit stands above all others—or should I say below. It provides the foundation for meeting the moment and applies to all roles and situations. In one of the most important books ever written, Man’s Search for Meaning, holocaust survivor Dr. Viktor Frankl, offered that our greatest freedom is our power to choose our attitude.

In this sense, attitude is not referring to the popular use of the word (“You have a bad attitude”). It’s not a descriptor. Attitude is the direction we are pointed in, meaning we intentionally choose our movement into future. We have no control of the great complexity we meet in the world—except how we choose to act. 

The space between what we perceive and how we respond is the essence of a human being becoming. The habit of entering that space is the greatest of all. Disciplines that teach us to rein in the wild horses of the mind begin with this intention. To honor this space. 

The ways to reach this space are few and the obstacles are many. In a world that reflexively searches for answers with deft thumbs misses something critical…  The search for meaning does not have an algorithm. Reflection and contemplation happen in silence, stillness, and solitude.

Those three “S” words make many shudder.

In the role of athlete, coach, or parent, the space for our greatest habit can grow giving more perspective and more room for developing knowledge and skills. If this space doesn’t grow, we repeat the past. Or we act out scripts without our names in the byline.

And that makes me shudder.

(This post originally appeared in A Father’s Path and was edited to suit for athletes and coaches)

images credit: J. Plenio (J Plenio Photography) and Daniel Gonzalez (unsplash)

Performance psychology, Sports Psychology


(estimated 2-3 minute read time)

One of the many questions I ask clients may sound borrowed from a job interview: “What do you see in five years…?” But really, it’s a question of an internalview. The answers range from rich to vague and confused. And that question helps frame the next one: “When you look back on your life over the past five years…?

The day-to-day and the year-to-year can have the flavor of familiarity. Patterns abound. But there’s a process below the surface that speaks to the complexity of life. As you move forward with an aim, you are steeped in complexity beyond imagination. The further out or bigger the goal, the more complexity factors in.

What that translates to is people, things, obstacles, and events that are not in your present experience. If you look back five years, chances are high (regardless of whether you set an ambitious goal or not) that there are people that are in or out of your life, and events and problems that occurred that you didn’t foresee.  

This is one of the understated reasons why individuals don’t set goals or don’t set them too far out. The complexity can be overwhelming. And the courage and imagination to set the vision high can be daunting. Security, safety, and the known will always whisper in your ear to stay put. But this process of imagining a future self is the way that we develop the inner qualities to rise to the goal or vision.

Setting long-term major goals and creating a vision of your future self is the essence of evolution. If you consider who you would be if you became this future self, you have tapped into a deeper process of self-realization. Then the key is to hold this vision both loosely and in the present. Loosely because complexity will emerge with your first step forward. Think of your vision as a point on the horizon. You see the point in the distance within the enormity of the whole perspective, but details are vague.

And holding this vision “in the present” provides an internal compass regardless of the complexity of the situation. Responding and adapting to complexity (demanding, growing), and holding your vision (devotion) in the present will inform your smallest goals, decisions, and the way you problem-solve through obstacles.

photo credit: Tim Johnson (unsplash)