I've been teaching tennis players how to get in the zone since 1978 when I did something on the court that got me in the zone every time I did it, and when I showed others how to do what I was doing, it got them in the zone too! All of them – whatever their skill level, young or old, men or women, across all cultures – everyone who played this simple, imaginary game, would immediately get in the zone.
Since that time I've been studying the zone, or flow, or the peak performance state – whatever you want to call it – from the inside as well as from the outside, and have been modeling the zone's underlying structure and process in a way that can help tennis coaches not only better understand the zone, but also teach it as part of their overall tennis curriculum.
This model, called the Parallel Mode Process, or PMP for short, has evolved over the years just as coaching consciousness has evolved over the years. Where the zone was considered too far outside the box for the conventional coaching of the 70s, 80s, and 90s with its mechanistic approach to teaching the game (think sound biomechanics and the kinetic chain), today, the zone is no longer considered a mysterious phenomenon that can neither be taught nor learned. Rather, today's coaching consciousness is witnessing the emergence of a relational or integral perspective on coaching that includes playing in the zone rather than dismissing it as a random occurrence.
This emerging integral perspective does not minimize the importance of mechanistic coaching, mind you. How could it? The mechanistic approach is tried-and-true, based on rational science and the proven logic of linear system dynamics; a logic that says: the dynamics of the parts of the performance determine the behavior of the whole performance. This mechanistic approach makes sense, too. Get the parts of the performance right and the whole performance will be right. That’s the logic of linear system dynamics – and it works.
We've built an entire teaching industry on this mechanistic paradigm in which the parts are primary to the whole, but along the way a different perspective has begun to make its way into the coaching profession; an approach to coaching that is relational rather than mechanistic. An integral approach based on the logic of nonlinear system dynamics.
Here’s the difference between linear and nonlinear system dynamics: where linear system dynamics suggests that the dynamics of the parts of the performance determine the behavior of the whole performance, nonlinear system dynamics takes the opposing view suggesting that the dynamics of the whole performance determine the behavior of the parts of the performance. In other words, instead of the mechanistic system’s view that sees the parts as primary to the whole, this integral system’s view sees the whole as primary to the parts.
Confusing, yes? So what does this emerging integral perspective have to do with coaching sports? How can it help us teach our athletes to perform better? That's really the nitty-gritty, right? What's in it for us as coaches? And what's in it for our athletes as players?
Very real questions with one, very real answer. What's in for everyone is "the zone."
Where linear, mechanistic coaching stops at the zone; nonlinear, integral coaching starts at the zone. And what makes this valuable to any developmental program is that a working understanding of these two coaching perspectives allows us to not only teach our students how to perform with sound biomechanics, but also teach them how to perform with sound biomechanics in their peak performance state!
When you hear about “peak performance programs”, ask this question: does that peak performance program include performance in the zone? Does it include the peak performance state? How complete is a peak performance program if it doesn’t include the peak performance state? When we talk about high-performance coaching, what is meant by "high-performance?" I don't know about you, but I've always thought the highest performance state in any sport is performance in the zone.
Experientially, we all know that to be true. We've all been in the zone. We've all experienced our peak performance state. That's not the issue. The issue is reproducing that peak performance state intentionally so as to perform in the zone by choice, not chance. When's the last time you got in the zone on purpose? Furthermore, how do you teach your students to get in the zone on demand?
Sport Psychology says you can't create flow’s unselfconscious state through self-will. This is the argument rational science uses to negate the notion of intentionally creating flow. Fortunately for us as teachers, this dogmatic view is falling by the wayside with integral coaching approaches that not only teach you how to get in the zone, but also how to stabilize and develop the higher conscious state that is essential to human peak performance.
Integral coaching sees performance states, both normal and peak, as whole states simultaneously arising as the interplay of their parts, and these "parts" include the interior and exterior of the individual athlete as well as the interior and exterior of the competitive athletic environment. Here's a an integral map of the athletic experience as a whole, including its interior and exterior parts:
As an integral performance model, the PMP uses this map of human experience, originally developed by integral philosopher Ken Wilber, to model both the human normal and peak performance states as whole performance experiences simultaneously arising as the moment-to-moment interplay of these interior and exterior parts or "quadrants."
A breakdown of each of the quadrants of performance experience in sports looks like this:
The Upper-Left Quadrant. The Individual-Interior or “I” perspective that is intentional and subjective. My thoughts, feelings, values, motivations; the state of consciousness in which I perform.
The Upper-Right Quadrant. The Individual-Exterior or “It” perspective that is behavioral and objective. My physical body, its biology, neurology, biomechanics; the mode of operation in which I perform.
The Lower-Left Quadrant. The Collective-Interior or “We” perspective that is cultural and intersubjective. The values, language, mutual understanding, and relationships I share with others in the competitive culture of sport.
The Lower-Right Quadrant. The Collective-Exterior or “Its” perspective that is social and interobjective. The rules and tools of different sports; the different athletic environments and different population of players.
This integral perspective on performance and performance coaching has allowed for a better explanation of the differences between performance in the norm and performance in the zone, but more importantly, it has allowed for a better explanation of how to teach our students to perform in the zone by choice, not by chance.
Ask yourself this: is your coaching approach mechanistic? Is it integral? Does your coaching program utilize both approaches? Do you simply teach your students how to perform better? Or do you also teach them how to perform in the zone? Remember, mechanistic coaching stops at the zone. Integral coaching starts at the zone.
Where are you as an evolving teacher and coach? And where does your coaching program fit into the evolving trajectory of performance and coaching consciousness?