In the Zone: How Do Athletes Achieve a Superman-Like State of Mind?

A best-selling author explains the science behind the mindset of an elite athlete

This story first appeared on Sports Are 80% Mental.

Two years before he stood on the Sochi Olympics podium with a gold medal around his neck, alpine skier Ted Ligety took a trip to Alaska.  There was no qualifying race or Team USA training session, but rather a heli-skiing trek in the Chugach Mountains with a film crew from Warren Miller Entertainment.  The risk level was high, even for one of the best skiers in the world.  But that's what keeps the best on the knife's edge balance of skill and fear. To survive requires being in the state of Flow.

"The Flow State is a place where the impossible becomes possible, where time slows down and a perfect moment becomes attainable," Director Max Bervy said. "This film reveals what it is like to be completely immersed in the present ... completely immersed in the snow, in the mountains, and in the enjoyment of winter."

After a great performance, many athletes have described a feeling of being “in the zone.” In this state, they feel invincible, as if the game slowed down, the crowd noise fell silent and they achieved an incredible focus on their mission. What is this Superman-like state and how can players enter it when they most need it?

Steven Kotler, New York Times best-selling author and co-founder and director of research for the Flow Genome Project, has spent over a decade studying Flow as experienced by dozens of unconventional action-adventure athletes. Unconventional in their live-in-the-moment, who-needs-10,000-hours attitudes, these athletes, including snowboarders, surfers and rock climbers, test the limits of their abilities with laser focus. Anything less and their lives may be in danger.

Released last week, Kotler's new book, "The Rise of Superman: Decoding the Science of Ultimate Human Performance", breaks down the science of Flow and how each of us can learn to use it in our everyday life.

During a recent conversation, Steven and I discussed what all of this means for the future of athlete development.

Dan: Steven, congratulations on the release of your new book, The Rise of Superman.  Can you tell us a little about it and how you chose the title?

Steven Kotler: Thanks Dan, much appreciated. The book is about how action and adventure sports athletes have harnessed the peak performance state known as “flow” (being in the zone, runner’s high, etc.) to drive athletic progression faster and farther than at any other point in history. It’s truly remarkable. In the past 25 years, these athletes have achieved nearly exponential growth in ultimate human performance—that’s performance when life or limb is on the line. Thus, part of the “Superman” in the title refers to this astounding level of progression.

More importantly, flow science has advanced leaps and bounds in the past few decades. So we can use these athletes as case studies— we can figure out what they’re doing to harness this state so successfully and apply this knowledge across all domains in society. In that sense, The Rise of Superman could also be called The Rise of Everyone—meaning it’s a book about what might be possible for all of us.

Click here to continue reading the interview on Dan's blog.

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