Athletes throughout history have found that their performance inexplicably increases for certain periods of time. They seem to be ‘in the zone,’ calmly unbeatable, doing the right thing at the right time over and over again.
Then they try to repeat the experience. Only a few intuit how to do that.
But one athlete, who was also a sports scientist, decided to identify what it was that made her performance spectacular at certain times that she was missing the rest of the time. After a number of studies involving athletes at the peak of their sports, she had one consistent observation.
Athletes in that state don’t move their eyes much. They rest them on the ball, the hoop, whatever, calmly and intently. She dubbed it ‘Quiet Eye’. It corresponded to those periods of high performance, and seemed to have some power to induce higher performance when taught to other athletes.
Scientists have tried to explain the advantage of this reduced eye movement as allowing the brain to absorb more information, process it and plan out the next move.
But here’s the catch. There is no MRI machine portable enough to be used during play. They don’t know what’s happening in the athletes’ heads.
Almost all of us at one time or another have experienced this state. It’s hard to live life without encountering it at some point. Do any of you recall doing a lot of thinking in those moments?
If conscious thought had anything to do with it, the state would be replicable. But during athletic competition, too many things are happening too fast for our brains to consciously process in real time. Just try to play tennis by consciously telling your limbs when to move.
We may not be able to measure brain activity very well in this state, but we do know that breathing and heart rate both slow down. These physiological indicators as well as the reported emotional state behind it – calm confidence, a lack of anxiety, openness to whatever comes next – all add up to one thing. There is a state that allows humans to perform exceptionally, to seem to know what will happen next, to be in the right place at the right time doing the right thing, and it’s been observed for millennia.
Whether you call it the meditative state, tranquil abiding, presence or whatever else, it is a state of living entirely in the moment, without the conscious verbal thought-stream, without rational planning, without anticipation (as we normally think of it) or anxiety, without resistance to or desire for particular outcomes. And guess what. A calm, steady gaze is a fairly common indicator of this state.
And this also tells us the reason it’s so hard to get back to that flow state. Whether you’re looking for it in athletics or in any other endeavour, you can’t get it back when you’re trying to grasp it, to make it come back, to replicate it, rather than relaxing into it. That’s a form of trying to control the outcome – the opposite of the state you want.
Once again, science has reached the point of striking a commonplace truth from the time of the Buddha, and would rather not acknowledge it.
On the other hand, training eye movement to induce this state in reverse has shown promise, and this is another common truth of the meditative state. If you can emulate the externals of that state in your body, there’s a good chance your mind will follow. Breathing is the most common such tool, but a number of systems including EFT have used eye movement for its cognitive impact.
Steven Kotler comes at the question from a different side, using inputs to guide attention.
With all of that said, by all means have a look at the article, it’s well worth the read, and it is encouraging to see the sports world trying to hack what is, after all, the central mystery of performance.