It's hard not to notice in the sports press, the meteoric rise of athletes that seemed to be locked in a zone. The way Jason Day and Steph Curry capture the imagination with their gravity-less elevation of their respective games. But the approach to practice is really the unheralded path to this superstardom. There are few who are willing to dedicate themselves to an unconditional growth mindset when it comes to improvement and Day and Curry represent trained neural networks that have benefitted from a comprehensive approach to training that is unrelenting in its search for better.
You can get a taste for this neural network training and presence in the zone in your own practice as well. Surely the reader can think of those times when they stood over a putt or a chip or a tee shot and simply felt that the shot that was required was going to be produced with seemingly no effort or extra cognitive input. This is the kernel, the distilled essence of existence in the flow state or the zone. Living in this state more continuously really doesn't require much from us other than throwing away everything else that is extra. What do I mean? It is for example extra to believe that if you make this shot you will be a good golfer. It is extra to feel like a calculation must be made prior to execution of a golf shot. It is extra to think that you should feel any differently than you actually do when standing over that shot. The process of throwing away the extra thoughts (in Buddhist lingo... letting go) gets you closer to purest state of enjoying the sensory input feeding into the circuits that must operate prior to execution of the shots. You don't even need any conscious knowledge of what these circuits are and what they do (even though that is precisely the subject of this blog series) in order to execute the shot at hand.
Maverick McNealy won the 2016 Western Intercollegiate at Pasatiempo Golf course, held concurrently during Master's weekend every year at this slightly less renowned Alister Mackenzie tract. He shot 64 64 on the weekend and only one other golfer in the field was within 14 shots of his score. He did what no other Stanford golfer (not even Tiger or Patrick Rodgers) did during their tenure on The Farm. His winning score of -16 was the lowest any Stanford golfer had ever shot in a 3 round tournament. Maverick openly talks about adopting a growth mindset to practice (a concept whose principle proponent, Carol Dweck, has championed as critical to true continued success) The ability to go supernova in performance requires the confluence of this mindset (that there is something to be learned gained and improved by hard work rather than innate inborn talent) as well as a dedication of this principle to every aspect of life that would contribute to performance. In the case of golf, nutrition, exercise, knowledge of physics, command of the different aspects of the game (short game, putting, driving and iron play) provide starting material to adopt growth mindset. To go beyond this, to incorporate balance work, visualization, ambidexterity, trick shot execution, martial art based movement practice can expand the capabilities of the body to allow enhanced performance if one actually sets the growth mindset to work on these avenues as well. The key here is that some of this work can be done at almost every waking moment and sleep helps consolidate the gains. The athlete poised to go supernova is able to effortlessly combine the best aspects of practice into each moment of their existence towards this singular final goal.
The next time you get a taste of a zone-like state, revel in it. Don't go to the point where you start to wish it will last, remember this is extra. Rather, notice the feeling in the body and the quietness of mind that yield this state and dwell in that for a short moment. When it is time to move on to another task, see if you can actively release the thoughts and feelings that weren't present before and seem to be extra. In practicing this way (a form of meditation actually described in both Buddhist and Hindu texts) one can attain the flow state in whatever one is absorbed in (some call it "bare attention"). Washing dishes can lead to improved putting when this kind of state takes hold. But don't get too carried away with your good results when they start flowing your way. This is a sure fire way to lose the flow state as trying to partake in the fruits of one's labor gets in the way of the labor. Stick with the simpleness that results from setting aside everything (feelings thoughts, movement patterns, behaviors) that are extra to the moment that is in front of you. If it is washing a dish, then feel the food remnants being removed from the dish under the water. If it is putting a 10 footer be cognizant of the feeling in the hands and the visualization of line and speed that informs you of a successful putt. Compare the outcome of the actual executed putt to your visualization then let it all go as there is now a new task at hand (you've got to go get the ball out of the cup at some point...). In this simple way, we stay directly involved in the present moment alone. Tossing away the extra, discerning deeply the solution to the present problem and repeating this in complete absorption.
Inevitably there will be a break from this absorption. During my own writing of the last part of the last paragraph I entered that state that I was writing about. But as I write this there is a little bit extra and the feeling is lost. So when during practice you notice the break in absorption with the task, congratulate yourself! This is the road to sustained mindfulness. As you will never be in a continual state of mindfulness if you can't discern when you break from it.
You can teach yourself to sustain the state for longer and longer periods of time simply by repeating the above process with whatever you are tasked with doing at the time. You need not sit full lotus under a bodhi tree or camp out a driving range or a green complex to reap the benefits in your golf game. Each moment that arises and asks of you an appropriate response, is a moment that forms the crucible for honing a mindful flow state that can be applied when the game is on.