For elite athletes, fitness fanatics and gym goers, having the right frame of mind is the best way to achieve the perfect performance. The highest level of intrinsic motivation is known as flow. Flow is described as the complete immersion in an activity to the point in which nothing else matters.
According to the elite US Navy Seals, these are the moments when everything seems to click, when you are fully engaged in an activity that you are passionate about with little regard for analysis or idle thought. You are hyper aware of everything around you and it seems like some mysterious force has placed you on auto-pilot. You observe your own actions flow out of your body and mind with ease as if in slow motion. Some people seem to 'get there' many others do not...
Hungarian psychologist Professor Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, lead psychologist in the concept of flow, claims that flow occurs when there is a perfect match between the perceived demands of the activity, and the perceived ability to meet the demands.
During flow, you lose self-consciousness and become completely immersed in the activity. This then creates a state in which the performer is intrinsically rewarded by the movement patterns involved, it is the ultimate experience among sport participants commonly known as being “in the zone”.
One extra element that many athletes use towards the route to flow is the power of music. They listen to music prior to competition to relax, mentally prepare, concentrate on the task at hand and to help facilitate a state of flow.
Research (The Health Sciences Academy) has repeatedly shown how music can improve performance by drawing one’s attention away from feelings of fatigue and pain when engaged in endurance activities such as running, cycling, or swimming.
I can 100% vouch for that. When on a long distance cycle ride (250 miles non-stop) myself and my two sons used music as a medium to defeat boredom and defeat performance ‘burn’ linked to the brain screaming 'STOP'.
Music has physiological effects on the heart rate and adrenalin levels, and can be a stimulant. It can also be motivating and extend endurance during an exercise session (for example during a marathon run), diverting attention from fatigue and altering perceptions of exertion during workouts, all of which can facilitate the attainment of flow.
Listed below are a range of psychological interventions which can be used as part of a preparation routine, during training or whilst in competition to help achieve optimal performance:
The Use Positive Self-Talk
Muhammad Ali was the master of positive self-talk and self-affirmation, with his famous quote, “I am the greatest”. He used this statement so frequently, and with such conviction, that eventually even his biggest rivals came to believe it. You can create your own self-affirmation statements too, in order to boost your confidence in your chosen realm of activity. These will affirm to you that you possess the skills, abilities and self-belief necessary for success.
Music can enable the athlete to put aside all other outside distractions and internal negative thoughts in order to concentrate and envision what they want to accomplish during the game/session.
Seeing is believing, as they say, and having structured imagery or visualisation allows you to see in your minds eye the desired outcomes you wish to physically bring about. By recreating these outcomes using multi-sensory images (sight, sound, touch), there is strong scientific evidence to suggest that you greatly increase the chance of attaining superior performance, as images program muscles (Karageorghis & Terry, 2011).
14-time Olympic gold medallist swimmer, Michael Phelps claimed “before the Olympic trials I was doing a lot of visualisation. I think it helped me to get a feel of what it was going to be like when I got there”.
Add your favourite piece of music to that visualisation session and again, it is possible to enhance performance, effect stronger results and ‘lose yourself’ in the physical output you are generating and see yourself generating.
Believe in yourself
Jose Mourhino, celebrated football manager and self-proclaimed ‘special one’ once said “It’s taken me 15 years to become an overnight success”.
The term motivation comes from the Latin word “movere” meaning “to move”, and describes the powerful inner force that allows us to direct behaviour in a certain way. Motivation is clearly an essential component of performance, and helps us to gain that optimum flow we wish to achieve during training and competition. Having clear goals gives you a sense of direction that can help you stay motivated, (working towards small process goals, and achieving them will help you reach that end outcome goal).
Not everyone has the same kind of motivation and experts believes there are at least two main kinds.
Ego orientation: Playing sport because you want to be the winner.
Task orientation: Playing sport because you enjoy being the best by improving your own personal best performances.
You can have both kinds of motivation – but it’s best to be high in both ego and task orientation or low in ego and high in task orientation. People with these types of motivation work hard at sport and do not give up when things are not working out.
So, what happens when we add in music?
Consider the focus of a top athlete like double-Olympic medal-winning rower James Cracknell. He has an ability to enter “the zone” and become highly motivated in order to achieve his goals. One technique that Cracknell used was to listen to loud rock music just before competition, in order to create an optimal mindset to race. Cracknell’s musical preference steered him towards the Red Hot Chili Peppers, which worked for him. Music however is a very personal choice and so consider which tracks are most likely to get you motivated and into that winning mindflex.
Marathon world record holder, Paula Radcliffe quoted “In training build-ups for major races, I put together a playlist and listen to in during the run-in. It helps me psych up and reminds me of times in the build-up when I’ve worked really hard, or felt good. With the right music, I do a much harder workout”.
So, the message is loud and clear – add music to your athletic routine to add that extra ‘something’ and to be a springboard into the world of Flow!