How To Be In The Flow. Lessons Gained In Tennis To Perform At Our Best And With Ease

Flow pic, Benoit Foucher Flow article

Imagine.

August 2004.

You’re a tennis professional playing an ATP tournament and you’re soon going to be on the court. It’s been a long journey already and you’ve certainly been training far beyond the 10,000 hours required to master your craft.

And now there is a chance, your chance.

Your chance to make a difference. In Your life.

Catch it and you’ll never be the same. You’ll be able to say there was a before and an after.

Your chance to be a great player, knowing it, knowing deep inside that you’ve reached something significant.

All of this is at stake. You feel it, you know it…

…And curiously, amazingly, you don’t care.

You don’t care anymore.

You’re fed up with the recurrent so familiar story that runs inside your mind, with all its associated pain and inner conflicts.

The truth is, you’ve been “close” to succeed so many times, you got so many match points against top players, victories that could have changed your career, and you’ve never been able to make it.

And the only good thing that comes with it is that you no longer going to be trapped by this siren’s illusion that one match could change your life. It won’t. It won’t because you’re not going to make it. At least not with the same mind.

Because one thing is 100% clear: focusing on winning and you’re dead!

It never ever works in a way that is satisfying.

It puts pressure, tension, on your body and mind, and then you can’t perform nor enjoy fully your match, a match that you often leave with regrets.

All of this is present in your consciousness so at this moment, before this match, you make a unique decision that indeed will change your life. Not how you thought it would be, and yet, totally transformative.

You decide …. to stay relaxed no matter what.

To let go totally the desire to win.

As if you had lost this match already.

You’ve reached so much pain with your previous pattern that one more time would be too much. Only one conclusion seems honorable for your own sanity to enter the court: as if you really don’t care!

Pre-match warm up? Just 2 stretches. Very different from all these years when you couldn’t remove the tensions in your body before the middle of the second set! Yes, your mind is clear and relaxed anyway.

So you’re starting the match with this spirit. Each shot you hit you still don’t care. In, out. Ok. Fine.

The opponent, as you knew, is quite good compared to your best level.

And you, curiously, amazingly, are playing quite good too…and hey, you still don’t care!

You’re playing. Now. In the moment, or rather moment by moment. There is no thought about winning or losing. There is just this f… moment!

It’s as if you’re in another dimension. Or drugged.

All the movements are easy. You don’t think about what to do. You just have your overall game plan intention and the body seems to do the rest. On autopilot. Wow.

40-15. Now it’s match point. For him. You don’t know how you’ve arrived to this moment. Can’t remember. Just that if this guy wins this point, he would have won the match.

And once again there is a key decision to make. Are you going to fight? Are you going to “give your best” as you always did before?

Nope. Once again you choose to stay in the same state of mind. You don’t care. Really really don’t care!

In fact, you play this point even more relaxed than ever before. You control the point and he ends up missing the ball after a long rally.

40-30. He’s going to serve on the T, in your forehand. You know it. He serves. As expected. You jump, hit as hard as you can, still fully relaxed and without watching where the ball is landing.

Winner.

Deuce. The crowd, his crowd, is now silent. There is just a familiar clap, your sister’s clap, echoing somewhere. And you still don’t care.

Now it’s a moment of doubt. Not for you. For your opponent. You can feel how he feels. After all, you’ve been in this sort of situation, in his shoes at that moment, so many times, you’re kind of an expert of it!

2 minutes later the match is over. Still without thinking about it, it happens that you won this match.

Wow. You can’t barely believe it.

Just when you didn’t care anymore.

Just when you gave up your expectations, your desires, your hopes and dreams. And hop, you’ve just performed the best match of your career.

Relaxed. Fully relaxed. And YOU JUST DIDNT CARE!

As you can imagine, this is a match I played. It was against the number 1 from Venezuela, in Venezuela, in a small ATP tournament. And by far, the most transformative experience I’ve had as a tennis player on a court.

To illustrate my point, I’ve read once a story of Lawrence Olivier performing an amazing piece of art in theatre. An extraordinary performance that moved the entire crowd to tears and joy. So when this journalist went to interview him backstage he thought he would find the star celebrating. Instead he found him furious and hitting everything he can find in his room.

“But sir, your performance tonight was extraordinary!” said this journalist.

“I know”, replied Lawrence. “But I have no clue about how I did it!”

 

Likewise, my moment, a “divine” moment, also called in many names, like Flow, Zone or Bliss, is not something that I found out purposely. Like many athletes that have experienced a similar moment, it just happened, one match out of a thousand maybe, without knowing why at that time!

The good news for me is that finally, after almost 15 years practicing, teaching and diving more into this topic, I now can honestly say that it’s possible to recreate such moments. More than possible, we can train for it. It probably won’t work all the time, but the probability can be quite high this time…

And it’s likely to happen to you, too, as you follow my Flow recipe!

Why Learning To Be In The Flow

Before that, you might ask: “Why would I bother to learn such thing?”

Here are the reasons.

  • If you’re interested to perform at your best, without any regret, whether you lose or not, this is for you.
  • If you’re fed up of the tension you have, in your body and in your mind, when you’re about to perform, this is for you.
  • If you’re looking for more moments where you’re in the flow, when everything is easy, effortless, and yet, it’s the right move at the exact right time, this is for you.

Whether you’re a tennis player, an athlete, or any person who happens to perform his thing, this is for you. The Japanese people had their Tea ceremony masters as well as their samurais. Monks around the world have reached this state too. And top business people have started to implement the same techniques.

And you, too, can be part of this crowd, if you want to. So let’s begin with my recipe to help each of us to be in the Flow.

The Steps To Enter The Flow

  1. Being Clear About Our Intention. Our Game.

The goal of this step is summarized in one word: FOCUS!

Focus focus focus, I repeat it 3 times because this is a word I hear many people using it… and very few know what it means.

Focus on an intention, something we can control. Which means, (and you might want to read what I’m going to say a few hundred times, it’s hard to get this one for me, too!)  letting go of the wanting to win or achieve any kind of outcome. I’ll come back to this point in the “Killers” part of this post a bit later.

Focus on something that serves and helps you to perform at your best.

While we could focus on anything, why not on something that is special and unique to us!

For instance, in tennis it could be “I am leading the point from the baseline, hitting at 70% of my maximum and using more spin on my forehand side”.

Or before an important business meeting, it could be “I am explaining these 3 key points while remaining open to other suggestions”.

A key note: be specific and in a “present action” mode. Saying “I kind of like to play on the baseline” or “I will tell them what’s important” don’t have the same power as my examples above.

This first step of Being Clear With Our Intention is essential for our mind not to be dispersed in dream land or attached to the results.

Having said this, when want to be in the flow, we need to add the next point so here we go…

  1. Entering Our Performance State

The goal of this step is summarized in another world: PRESENCE.

I remember my coach telling me he’s heard Jacques Piacenta, famous track and field French coach, saying that it’s not so much about what exercise we choose that makes the difference in your results. The same exercise can be used by a beginner and an international coach.

What makes the difference is what we put into it, in other words, HOW we do it!

Hitting a forehand with our shoulders tight and blocking our movements will never lead us to the Flow. On the other hand, having the awareness of our breathing and relaxing our movement can change everything.

In our business meeting, raising our voice by fear of not being heard, having a shallow breathing and moving frenetically all the time is not going to feel very good. Being centered, having a steady rhythm in our breathing and daring to do some pauses to emphasize on our key points will. Without saying the impact will also be very different.

To be clear. To enter our ideal state, I discovered with my teachers and experience that the best is to build the awareness on our senses. Therefore, picking up one of the following and checking which one gives us the best result (and enjoyment):

  • Breathing

How deep is it.

Breathing in our hara helps us being more steady in our body and emotions. Full breathing, meaning inhaling from our pelvis to our neck, gives us access to our full capacities.

  • Rhythm

There is some choice here.

It could be the rhythm of our breathing (again), the rhythm of our feet (if we walk), the rhythm of our voice (if we talk), or the listening to the rhythm of the balls (in tennis). Very good tip for the people who are most sensitive to play with their bodies and ears (vs. eyes, I’m one of them).

  • Relaxation

Very important one.

The more we have a relaxed body, the more our unconscious mind can take the lead and respond moment by moment.It seems to me that when we are tight, our fears block us and we end up not doing the best choices possible, nor adapting to the situation very well.Also, an important point to make is that our conscious mind is waaaayyy slower than our unconscious mind.

In tennis, we don’t have this luxury time to think during the point. Every response has to come “naturally”.

In my business meeting example, not being relaxed generally leads to not being able to listen well and to access our intuition which could tell us what to do in response to someone else’s comment.

What kind of relaxation? I would suggest to focus on ONE of these 3 often very tense areas: jaws, shoulders or hips. Try now to consciously relax any of these areas and I bet you can feel a difference!

  • Fluidity of movements

Have you ever watched a Tai Chi or Karate master?

Whether they are moving slowly or very fast, all the movements are smooth and without any blockage.

Of course this aspect is more important for those of us who want to be in the Flow while doing a performance that need some sort of movements. And yet, this kind of elegance, I find, gives me some confidence and ease that could be well used in public speaking or any stressful situation.

  • Awareness of our senses

By listening carefully to all the sounds around or having a panoramic vision, here as well we can grasp much more information and sensitivity for what’s necessary in this moment.

To build this sense, I recommend finding out a good mindfulness practice. The thing is, no matter what teacher or practice you find out, it doesn’t come that easily, especially if you live in a noisy speedy environment like me in Hong Kong, where you have one new thing coming to you every other second or so! Therefore, practicing being with our senses is key!

How To Train Being In The Flow

I know, it’s a loooong list. And as I’ve just pointed with the awareness of our senses, it takes practice for any of these to become natural without thinking of them.

So, if you’re interested developing performance in your field, pick ONE of these suggestions and train with this tool for a while.

More than one will lead to failure, 100% guaranteed! We cannot focus and build 2 such powerful techniques at the same time (my ego has tested and retested for you, as well as many of my students!).

So, where are we now?

We first have a focus on something important for us. Then We build awareness on something that helps us to be in our performance state.

Everyone is different so I’ll suggest you create your own recipe now and go enjoying your practice!

Next!

Next comes the training indeed, and after a certain amount of positive reinforcement, we get the inner muscles built to be with focus and in our performance state.

Then and only then we have the pleasure to enter the Flow.

Not by surprise this time. Not because we’re tired nor fed up.

Just because this is what we have trained.

Simple. And yet, not easy. Because within each of us reside some sort of saboteurs: it’s time to talk about what I call the “Killers”!

Killers: How To Not Being In The Flow!

There are more ways to not being in the flow than entering it! Having said this, it’s important to note them so that when it happens, we can recognize we’re not on track.

Killer #1: Focusing On The Result

I know, we all want to win. Obtaining this new contract. Earning more money. Power. Growing. Ego satisfaction. All in the same package! I believe it’s a disease and most of us are possibly into this one for many life-times!

Far from judging, the only thing I would say: when we want to reach our peak performance levels, we can’t afford this killer.

Focusing on the result leads to tension in our mind and body. At best, it could lead to a short term boost of energy. At worse, it’s going to exhaust our fuel tank very rapidly and leave us very disappointed.

What’s necessary instead is to trust. Trusting ourselves. Trusting that by focusing on our game and our state the best outcome will come, and actually is coming, moment by moment, now!

I have one more thing to say:

Good luck on this one!!!

Killer #2: Am I Good Enough?

This one if about our self-worth.

Top performers don’t wait for the results to know they are good in something. They know it!

After coaching and having purposefully observed so many top and non top performers, I would say one thing: it’s a choice.

We choose to tell ourselves we are good in something… or we choose to doubt. Of course, doubt is always going to come back as we evolve, and yet, as it comes back will be another choice to make.

The training here is to be our supporter #1, which means, my friend, to reassure ourselves.

And please, don’t confuse this with positive thinking: it’s not.

It’s about choosing to believe in ourselves, whether we are in an easy or very tough situation. When this choice is made, other choices come naturally.

For instance, if we believe we’re a top player in tennis, we will only play with the best possible rackets, grips and strings, even if it’s more expensive and our budget is limited. It’s a requirement that follows our belief. The opposite is true.

If we believe we’re good in our business, we will also invest into the best coaches, employees or freelancers to help us, rather than doing it all by yourself.

(And as you might guess, I have some experience in the 2 suggestions above, and their opposite as well, always work in progress for everyone!)

Killer #3: Frustration Of Any Sort.

We can’t control everything. Impossible.

But we can be ready for anything!

When we’re not ready for the unexpected and instead we expect something particular to happen, then there is a big chance to be surprised and sent off balance (isn’t it the law of Murphy if I remind it correctly?).

In tennis, our opponent might cheat. There might have some wind, heat or change of surface. The umpire might do tons of mistakes too.

In business meeting, someone can be very upset, another one might argue with us, or even belittle us for one reason or another.

In addition, more often than not, we’re not performing as good as we hope. Tension might still be here, even if we did the best preparation.

In any case, the question remains the same: are we going to stay stuck to our frustration, to the ball we’ve just missed, to this boss-who-doesn’t-understand-anything, or are we going to be able to dance with this moment, accept the situation and…

…come back to our flow by focusing on either #1 or # 2!?!

 

Indeed, whatever Killer we are experiencing, there are only 2 outcomes:

  • either we give up, blame something or someone by saying something like “it’s not my day”, “the other was cheating”, “there is nothing possible with this kind of boss” ,
  • OR we decide to courageously regroup and focus on what we can control: Focusing on our Intention and deciding to be Present so that we can be in our Performance state.

Courage is the necessary word here, it might seem easier to remain upset and finding excuses, rather than doing the work.

We might yell.

We might cry.

We might continue to sabotage our performance and well-being.

The goal with this post is to assist any athlete, any performer of any kind to change our habits and our neural pathway. I know, easy to say, Benoit!

If we don’t change, we can’t expect a different result.

So, we have an opportunity to dive into the unknown.

Good luck!

And let me know how it goes in the comment section below, I might be able to give you one or two more tips, or you might have found out something that works for you and is inspiring for each of us!

Last recap once more: focus on our game + awareness of something within us and we’re most likely going to perform in the Flow!