In positive psychology, a flow state, also known colloquially as being in the zone, is the mental state in which a person performing some activity is fully immersed in a feeling of energized focus, full involvement, and enjoyment in the process of the activity. In essence, flow is characterized by the complete absorption in what one does, and a resulting transformation in one’s sense of time.
Accessing this flow state in certain moments, especially so during matches, or when the stakes are high, are hugely beneficial. You want to avoid paralysis by analysis. You want to trust in your instincts and your training. Overthinking is a real problem. Anything that is forced rarely translates to better performances.
I will be discussing tools and protocols how to attempt to access flow in a separate blog that is being published soon. Simply put, flow is an expression of what you currently know how to do!
But what I would like to propose and get you to try and to think about in this blog is that real growth and deeper learning happens in what is called the reach and fail state. Flow and reach and fail are tethered together. Flow is on one side of a continuum and reach and fail is on the other side. At different points you want to move up and down this continuum for different settings, but for now we are very much going to focus on the reach and fail side of the continuum.
When you are in a reach and fail state your pre-frontal cortex is engaged, and your brain releases a set of chemicals (epinephrine, acetylcholine, and dopamine). This should be a very deliberate stage, and you will be conscious of what is working and what is not working. The cocktail of these chemicals stimulates neuroplasticity. Basically, a fancy of way of saying your brain is now primed and ready to grow, expand and learn better and faster. When you understand that a healthy amount of reach and fail needs to occur to get the brain ready for the next stage of growth is where the magic happens. But don’t be fooled. The work is hard and real. I hope you are ready for it?
Let’s go in a little deeper…
Errors, and the making of errors, are cues that something is not going right. When this happens, neurochemicals are deployed in the brain that signal neural circuits must change i.e., neural plasticity begins to occur. Making errors over, and over, and over again, are the route to shaping the nervous system so that it performs better. It’s like running and performing continual tests when running code to see if the app or program is working well (trust me, I know all about this on the journey to creating the SquashMind app!). It’s a falsehood that everything we do, and experience, changes our brain. The brain changes when certain neurochemicals (epinephrine, acetylcholine, and dopamine) are released.
It’s this cocktail of chemicals, as such, that is sloshing around in our brain that primes and wakes up the neural circuits encouraging plasticity. To arrive at the optimal learning state, you need to be calm as well as expect and embrace making lots of errors. Be sure to know that there is no matter or consequences to errors you are going to make and if anything, you need to have them present for learning to occur.
Just for clarity, I am not saying be deliberate or purposeful in trying to MAKE errors but be deliberate in your actions and intentions. Know that when errors do occur (and hopefully they do or you are just practising flow!) that this should be seen as a positive and good thing especially when you are trying to learn a new shot, skill, or movement pattern.
THE PLASTIC BRAIN
The brain is incredibly plastic from birth until about age 25. Then somewhere about 25 there is a tapering off of plasticity, and adults need different mechanisms to engage plasticity as a result.
Some advice for those younger than 25 reading this; get the broadest education possible. Also learn to play a musical instrument, learn a language, practice art, invest in a hobby or skill. Your INCREDIBLY plastic brain can really be put to use. Try and maximise it! Get a broad training and along the way find the thing that captures your passion and excitement the most and then put a tonne of additional effort there (I am really hoping this may be squash 🤞🏼😃).
The stinger is when you’re young your brain is very plastic, but you have less control over your experiences. When you’re older, generally you have more control over your experiences, but your brain is less plastic. Learning how to tap into these plasticity systems is very powerful and I will tell you how to further along in the reading.
FRUSTRATION, THE KEY TO UNLOCKING YOUR POTENTIAL
It’s understandable to get frustrated. But it’s the frustration that is the key that begins to turn to unlock the mind. When you make errors, the nervous system starts releasing neuromodulators that says you better change something in the circuitry. And so, errors are the basis for neuroplasticity and learning.
Humans do not like this feeling of frustration. But the few that do, (and can you become one of them?) do exceedingly well in whatever pursuits they happen to be involved with. The ones that don’t, generally don’t do well, they don’t learn much, they exhibit fixed mindset traits such as quitting, blaming others, avoiding challenges, and taking criticism as an attack on their personality. The feedback of these errors, the reaching and failing, starts to release those amazing three chemicals I mentioned earlier to prime the brain for plasticity:
- Epinephrine increases alertness
- Acetylcholine increases focus
- Dopamine increases motivation, pursuit, and feeling good
Getting to the point of frustration and then quitting and walking away from the endeavour is the worst thing you can do. Because if acetylcholine is released it gives the opportunity to focus on the error margin (the gap between what you currently can do and what you are trying to achieve) and then the nervous system starts to make changes almost immediately to attempt to try and get the behaviour right. And when you start getting it even a little bit right that third molecule (dopamine) comes online in greater waves and stimulates motivation and pursuit.
The above tends to happen very naturally in young brains but tends to happen a lot slower in old brains. If you are uncomfortable making errors and get frustrated easily, see if you can begin to leverage that frustration towards drilling deeper into the endeavour. If you can drill deeper, you are setting yourself up for a terrific amount of plasticity mechanisms to engage. But if you do the opposite, you are setting up plasticity to rewire the brain according to what happens afterward, which is generally feeling miserable. Not only a feeling of being miserable, but this behaviour also grows and emphasises a part of the brain that looks for the easy way out and develops a tendency of giving up as well as increasing avoidance type behaviours. Not good!
“Continually drilling into a process to the point of frustration and then staying with that process for a little bit longer is the most important thing for learning”. – Prof. Andrew Huberman
ACCELERATE THE LEARNING EVEN FURTHER WITH DOPAMINE
There is a way to leverage accelerated learning even more so with the mindset you use when you reach and push past the point of frustration. If you can subjectively see the positives in reaching the point of frustration this can release dopamine into the system. Dopamine is a molecule of motivation and pursuit alongside the feel-good molecule of reward and pleasure.
Learn to attach dopamine, in a subjective way, to making errors. The frustration itself is the cue, but if you can subjectively associate that frustration with something good, and you want to continue down that path, you can bolt on dopamine to this process, and this accelerates the learning.
Failing repetitively and telling yourself that those failures are good for learning creates a greater effect and accelerates plasticity. See the positive i.e. I’m frustrated, but the frustration is the source of accelerated learning knowing what chemicals are being released in the brain and how this will help.
As mentioned, releasing dopamine is subjective to each person, so you need to find authenticity in what you are doing and the joy and thrill of it to release dopamine for yourself and the learning bout you are in. So, make lots of errors, and tell yourself these errors are important and good for your overall learning goals i.e. attach dopamine to errors.
EXAMPLES FOR SQUASH
Incrementally learning as an adult is absolutely essential. Make small errors rather than big errors. Smaller bouts of focussed learning for smaller bits of information. It’s a mistake to try to learn a lot of information in one bout. Know that errors are the gateway to plasticity.
How long should you go for? This may be a question you are thinking about now. Until hitting the point of frustration and at that point continuing from anywhere from 10-100 more trials or roughly between 7-30-minutes. If you leave that episode at that point of frustration your brain is still plastic and it’s a huge waste.
For example, if you are working on a new shot in a solo drill such as having options in the front of the court, know that being deliberate with what you are working on is the starting point. After some time of reaching and failing to set up correctly you reach the point of frustration with the task. Your shots are inconsistent, you don’t feel you can play two shots from the same position, and your arm is aching a bit due to the stillness you are trying to create, and you feel like nothing is working. This is the time to now realise the chemical cocktail is at its highest and you need to set yourself a goal of pushing through. It may be 40 more shots, or 15 more minutes. Something that is measurable, and you hold yourself accountable to it. Because if you do this, as you now know, this is where the real learning takes place due to the plastic brain.
When you get to the point of frustration and are looking to push past it, do not add a variety of new errors. Drill down on some of the errors you are experiencing in the moment. The nervous system will get confused if adding new errors at the point of frustration. It can be tempting to change the task or to default back to something you know you are good at. You may want to get a feel-good boost by doing this. This can be ok, and certainly should not be dismissed, but what it does is fail to maximise the learning that the brain is now fully primed for.
Shorter bouts of intense learning are key. Being deliberate in your practice will bear the most fruits and the above should help you with this.
The SquashMind app has a dedicated Practice Journal just for this process. The idea is for you to answer a few prompts before your practice session to focus your mind and to try and make you deliberate in what you are doing. Once you have completed your practice you sit back with the journal and reflect and review what happened by answering and filling out another set of questions. When you can do this, and make it a solid habit, your practice sessions will become a lot more deliberate and focussed and accelerated learning will take place due to your deliberate methods as well as knowing what you now know about leaning into the reach and fail state.
A simple analogy I use to help understand this concept is to think about a wildflower in full bloom. When you reach the point of frustration and the three chemicals have been released, your brain is now like the wildflower, ready to accept a bee to both fertilise as well take away the pollen. This is the sweet spot. Now if you walk away from the endeavour at this moment of peak bloom, it would be the same as chopping the head off the wildflower and completely wasting all the hard work the flower has had to endure to reach the full bloom state. The fertilization process will fail to take place and the pollen distribution would go to waste. A real pity, and is this what you are doing to your brain by walking away at the point of frustration?
Shorter bouts of intense learning are key. Deliberate practice is what should be practised in this moment.
“When athletes partake in deliberate practice, they are more in tune with their bodies and see results. Deliberate practice relates to the quality of the practice time. It focuses on specific goals of improving performance by participating in highly structured activities relating to that sport”. Corbett Barr
Remember about 10-100 more trials or 7-30-minutes of deliberate practice to inspire plasticity as the “flower” is blooming. Where are the errors coming from? What the nervous system will begin to do is to start to highlight those pathways for change. Keep at it. Passively going through the motions and “just getting your reps in” is not sufficient to get the nervous system to change.
You are unlikely going to see or feel the results you want in that session, or for several sessions thereafter maybe. But after a few days and a week or two of deep rest, the learning becomes embedded deeper into you. You still may not see it on the surface, but what has occurred and wired together in the brain is where learning has taken place. This will show up when it is ready to. At a certain point you can begin to reduce the reach and fail environment for yourself and begin to access more of the flow state to learn to fully express what you currently know how to do with your increased learning. But more on this in a future blog.
Here is the beauty about stimulating plasticity in the brain, you also create the right chemicals for learning things afterwards. If, for example, you sit down to read a book, pick up your guitar, work on a project you are stuck with, after the 7-30-minute push through in frustration, you are in a heightened state to retain that information as well as solve potential roadblocks. Those chemicals don’t get released and then just shut down immediately. For maybe an hour so after you may be in a state of heightened learning, not just the motor patterns of movement, but also high levels of cognitive information and retention.
A future blog I am writing is going to investigate balance and how using the vestibular system can access plasticity in a really cool and different way. Purposefully being off-balance and having your eyes and body try and recalibrate also releases a set of chemicals and plasticity is awakened. More to follow shortly on this…
In summary, it’s about specifically making errors that inspire plasticity. It’s as simple as that really. But now knowing this great bit of neuroscience and putting it into your practices can start to accelerate that learning and allow you to jump up levels quicker than you were able to before. My hope is for you now to understand and ultimately lean into the frustration when working on a new skill you want to hone.
Alongside this, become more deliberate with your practice by setting your intentions at the start as well as reflecting on the process at the end. A great loop to keep closing time and again for your practices and when done so over a steady and consistent period, real tangible results will happen.
Now go and get at it!
- Become deliberate in your practices and set your intentions at the start of each session using the SquashMind Practice Journal.
- Be in a calm and accepting state when looking to be deliberate with your practice. Forcing anything will never really work. Embrace the errors when they arrive and know this is helping your wildflower bloom.
- Reflect and review your practices afterwards and where you want to make future changes in your learning.
- Understand that frustration is a key and essential element for learning. Leverage this to your advantage. Try and embrace and accept the frustration and lean into it for 10-100 trials more or 7-30-minutes longer.
- Attach dopamine when you are in the reach and fail state by telling yourself this is exactly where you want to be and what you are wanting to do as you know the benefit of the future improvements by being here in this state.
- Over time, play around with the continuum of flow vs reach and fail. You want to be able to work on and access flow from time to time to build confidence and to express what you currently know how to do
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