Updated: Jan 14, 2022
Ready.Set.Go! (RSG), is a suggested philosophy of life for anyone who feels the tug to explore their fullest potential. In practice, RSG is an action-oriented regulation strategy for achieving optimal performance. It can be a highly individualized pre-performance routine or a simple mantra that cultivates discipline, confidence and flow.
So, beginning with the end in mind, it is assumed that achieving peak performance in your work, sport of life is the goal. That being the case, let's start by defining peak performance and flow.
In a study of Australian Olympic athletes and coaches, looking at the ideal mental states that allow for peak performance (Anderson, Hanrahan, & Mallett, 2014), researchers identified self-regulation, control, and trust as the processes that prime athletes for “automatic psychological states of peak performance”. This automatic activation of performance is more commonly referred to as being ‘in the zone’, and once you’ve felt it, you can’t help but want more. Peak performance happens when you are functioning at your best and exceeding prior standards of performance. “It is the “prototype of superior use of human potential”, and it is characterized by a strong sense of self, clear focus and absorption in the tasks that require you to execute your performance (Privette, 1983, p. 1362).
Famed Hungarian-American Psychologist, Mihalyi Csikszentmihalyi refers to the optimal state of performance as ‘flow’, and says that some people have a higher propensity to get in the zone. He refers to them as having ‘autotelic′ personalities (Csikszentmihalyi, 2013). The word autotelic comes from the Greek root, auto, meaning self, and telos, meaning goal, which describes internally driven people with a tendency to engage in an activity for its own sake (Di Domenico & Ryan, 2017). The concepts of peak performance and flow are differentiated only by the flow characteristic that requires the experience to be intrinsically rewarding, regardless of outcome (Privette & Bundrick, 1991).
Can you imagine a team full of individuals that were performing simply because it was rewarding to them and they weren’t worried about the outcome?
To achieve the optimal state of flow, we need to learn to let go of expectations and trust emergence. Once we submit to what we can’t control, we can turn our efforts to what we can.
Flow theory is important in sport psychology because achieving optimal performance is a highly motivating factor for elite performers. It’s important for coaching because if the coach can understand the mechanisms and process of flow, they can help more of their performers create the conditions of flow.
The Conditions of Flow
The conditions of flow require that an activity has clear, challenging and attainable goals. It requires strong concentration and focused attention. It is intrinsically rewarding, promotes feelings of serenity, a loss of self-consciousness, a sense of timelessness, a feeling of personal control over the situation and outcome, all the while providing immediate feedback, and inspiring complete focus on the activity itself. (Beard, 2015).
When you're in flow, it may feel like time is altered, but in fact, Seattle Seahawks Sport Psychologist, Michael Gervais says that, "Our minds become fully syncopated at the speed of life”. If you’re throwing a football to a receiver, your throw arrives with pinpoint accuracy. If you're delivering a presentation, you don't even need your prepared notes, and if you're in a relationship, you still get lost in hours of conversation, after 24 years of marriage. In work, sport, and life, success largely depends on our ability to be on time, in the present moment, at the speed of life, and that is being in flow.
And here's the rub. Being in the here and now is at constant war with our past and our future. Our mind's perception of time is constantly being interrupted with disjointed thoughts and attention-grabbing media, creating conditions where flow can not exist. To better understand what flow actually is, think of two clocks.
One clock serves as the universal 24-hour clock; the standard measure for every living system on this planet. The atomic clock for example is the most accurate time and frequency standards known to man. The second clock however, is our unique, highly personalized, internal clock. It’s our perception of the universal, 24-hour atomic clock. It’s what Duke University’s Distinguished Professor, Adrian Bejan calls our “Mind Time” (Livni, 2019), and he suggests that unconscious, spasm-like eye movements, called saccades, create an illusory effect on our perception of time. In short, they cause our perception of time to slow down or speed up based on these fast, ballistic eye movements. On average, we experience about three to four saccades per second. Our eyes will fixate on some stimulus, then another saccade interrupts the fixation point by scanning to a new stimulus and fixation point. These fixations happen mostly without our awareness.
So, to achieve flow, our perception of time must be locked in and calibrated with the precision of the atomic clock, and to do that we must be in the here and now.
Get Ready. (control)
Ready.Set.Go! represents many performance related concepts that underpin peak performance. To start, READY refers to concepts such as imagery, intentionality, preparedness and planning. In short, an individual does nothing in life without seeing it in their mind first. I’m going to repeat that because it is absolutely critical that we start with that simple truth. We do nothing in life without seeing it in our minds first. The key then, is to learn to control what our mind is seeing.
Close your eyes and see if you can imagine a park? Maybe you’ve been there recently, or you have seen pictures, but imagine that park and mentally describe to yourself what you see.
Are you in the park looking around or are you outside looking in?
Do you see people in the park, cars or animals?
What is the weather like at the park
For the next few seconds, imagine walking through the park. Immerse yourself in this experience, and like a video game try to embody your avatar, in your mind. Feel the outdoor air on your skin, a slight breeze blowing your hair. Feel the surface you're walking on under your feet and imagine that it’s late spring, the sun is out and everything is in full bloom. See if you can smell the scent of fresh cut grass or maybe even hear the noise of children laughing and birds chirping.
This is the essence of getting READY. Through practice we can develop our mental imagery skills and then begin crafting the outcomes that we desire in our minds first.
READY becomes the foundation of your plan of action.
Get Set. (self-regulation)
SET is the execution of your plan. Set serves as a framework to build an individualized pre-performance routine. Studies in human performance have shown that performance significantly increases when pre-performance routines (PPRs) are used (Foster, Weigand and Baines, 2006). Set gives you specific steps to focus on leading up to your next performance, so that when it is time, you can turn all of your attention to the execution of the task. Set is the self-regulation strategy that produces the conditions for flow.
Set follows a systematic sequence of task relevant thoughts prior to the performance of a specific skill (Moran 1996, p177). The sequence starts by establishing the player’s mindset toward the task. If a fighter enters a fight with the intent to not get punched, they are probably going to get hurt. But if they enter a fight with the intent to win, there’s a much better chance of them coming out on top. This mindset eliminates hesitation and deliberation in many peak performance situations.
Using the sport of baseball or softball as an example, this first step starts just prior to the player stepping into the batter’s box. This is important because this establishes intentionality.
‘Set your mind’, reminds the athlete exactly what they are there for. Setting their mind is also exercising their self-talk (ex., “I am winning this pitch!”, “See the ball. Hit the ball.”, “I’ve got this!”). Once an intention is set, the chosen behavior can then be performed automatically and efficiently, without conscious effort (Orbell, Hodgkins, & Sheeran, 1997).
'Set your body’ then becomes a systems check prior to execution of the task. The player systematically scans their body from top to bottom, feeling their feet and lower legs athletic and balanced, sensing their torso rising and falling with the in and out movement of the breath, and aware of any tension in their shoulders, neck, hands, and head (mindfulness).
'Set your focus' is arguably the most important step (remember the two clocks and our quiet eye?). With trained attention, this last cue requires the athlete to gather up all of their cognitive attention and direct it, like a shining spotlight, toward the pitcher. Then, using a broad to fine, external focus, they will engage their ‘quiet eye’.
Each step is designed to be regulated with mindful breathing techniques, allowing the performer to effectively regulate their somatic responses (slowing time down). This last cognitive cue (set your focus) is the moment that an athlete enters a flow state (Quiet Eye).
Set your mind: What do you want to accomplish today? Write it down.
Set your body/foundation: What tools, resources and conditions do you need in place to achieve those goals? Gather them up.
Set your focus: What is the most important thing on the list? Do it first and start now.
If you want to dig a little deeper, check out the 'Three Steps to Flow' post here.