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It seems that everything that we thought we new about performing in the zone might be wrong. We know that top sports people often talk about being in the zone, that state where we are so focused, we almost become lost in the moment. We feel at one with our work. Things start to feel effortless and frictionless, like water in stream. Psychologist Mihály Csíkszentmihályi defined this mental state as ‘flow’. With the advent of positive psychology and strengths-based approaches, the notion of flow has been very much in vogue in the workplace.

But there is problem with this idea. It simply doesn’t match the mental state that top-performers tell us that they experience in moments of high achievement. Or to put it more accurately some aspects of the mental state of high performance are very much consistent with flow and some are strikingly different. That was the finding of a team of researchers led by Christian Swann, from the University of Wollongong, Australia who interviewed top performers just days after delivering outstanding performance. During the interviews these elite athletes – from the worlds of Rugby, Tennis and Badminton – were asked to talk through their achievement step by step, paying particular attention to their thoughts and feelings at the time.

While many of the thoughts and feelings were consistent with flow, many were not, and seem quite different. Both are characterized by a sense of confidence and absence of negative thoughts. However when in a state of ‘clutch performance’ competitors are acutely aware of deliberate focus on the task and feelings of intense effort. These are what performance psychologists refer to as ‘arousal’… and would you believe, there’s positive arousal – a state of excitement – and there’s negative arousal – a state of anxiety.

The idea of positive, as opposed to negative, arousal led to an important insight for Harvard Psychologist Alison Wood Brooks. Wood Brooks’ research showed that the reaction of most people when supporting a friend who is anxious (about a public speaking engagement in this case) is to try to help them to calm down. She then goes on to show, via further research, why this idea might be precisely backwards. And here’s the point, in terms of the body’s autonomic response a state of excitement is almost identical to a state of anxiety. We have known for some time about ‘performance anxiety and it’s detrimental effects.

When participants were required to proclaim ‘I am anxious’ before a number of activities that normally induce anxiety, such as public speaking, performance demonstrably fell. By contrast, getting people to say, “I am excited” before a similar task significantly improves performance. In fact people are significantly more likely to rate the speaker as being ‘persuasive’ versus either the control or those stating that they were anxious.

As Wood Brooks points out, it is far easier to move from one state of high arousal to another, than it is to move from high arousal to low arousal. ‘Flow’ is undoubtedly a positive and desirable state, but few of us know how readily to achieve it in a short space of time. The characteristics of clutch performance – high, positive arousal, intense effort and deliberate focus – can be readily learnt and applied.