It is possible I gained more of a mature athletic perspective a little early in life. I was injured at a young athletic age – first, both my rotator cuff tendons fell into severe chronic inflammation at age 16 which exiled me from the competitive pool for three years. Next my over-training converged with a congenital defect in my knee at age 21 shutting down my aspiring triathlon career with finality. I experienced the stages of deep grief over the loss of my ability to participate in these sports competitively at that level.
Then I had a sort of a spiritual breakthrough, a transition that turned my eyes onto what was ahead, rather than continue to grieve over what was left behind. I didn’t know it then, but this tragedy and transformation sent me on a course to discover how to extract satisfaction from the internal qualities I could develop during training, rather than only from some publicly-recognized external accomplishment. I stumbled upon the science and art of Flow State which provides great motivation to train with excellence and happens to be available at many levels of investment, at any age, and whether anyone else notices or not. Effort and understanding, yes, but no race, no podium, no spectators, and no expensive equipment required.
I was prompted to write some thoughts on this after reading this article in the New York Times discussing the challenges serious competitors face when they get older.
‘Not long ago, a group of aging elite distance runners got together, and as they reminisced about old times, a familiar topic arose: No matter how much they train, no matter how much they push themselves, their best times are behind them.
Howard Nippert broached it first. He was running the other day, he told his friends, and feeling as if he was in the groove, feeling great, just flying along as he did in the old days. Then he made the mistake of looking at his watch. It was telling him something a lot different than what he was feeling.”
This runner described how he felt good on the inside – like he used to feel in the ‘old days’, but then when he noticed it was not producing something hoped for on the outside, apparently his satisfaction was diminished, if not lost. Which should have ruled this run, his external speed or his internal sensation?
He was touching the golden zone, and then, only because of his value based on some arbitrary speed, the gold turned to grey. He entered into Flow State, but because it wasn’t ‘fast enough’ for his outdated value system he couldn’t be fully present and continue to enjoy that wonderful experience. (Granted, I am reading more into the story to make a point…)
First, I want to acknowledge that those who train from an early age are likely so hard-wired for the achievement they seek that “every run is a training run, every run has a purpose and you are constantly aware of time passing and distance passing” (quoted from the end of the article). That is a necessary state of mind for those who aim for the top of their sport. And, the program they burned into their brains for all those years doesn’t go away suddenly after age or injury shut the competitive party down. That program must be over-written with a new program. This is not easy. But I still want to advocate for this reprogramming, for the sake of longevity in being active in these sports we love.
Flow State is not merely a ‘good feeling’, and it certainly isn’t a ‘good feeling at any slow speed’. You could sit at home and eat your favorite ice cream to get some sort of a good feeling. Flow State is an even better athletic form of ‘good feeling’ – it’s when the body systems are working skillfully, working harmoniously, and using energy very well. It comes from and produces good physical sensations, a good mental state, and good emotions – these feed back into those systems and enhance the groove further. You get ‘lost in the moment’ and feel like you could keep going and going like this with joy (till the fuel runs out!).
The speed you travel is a variable in the equation – speed is a ‘servant’ of this Flow State, not a master over it. You need to get up to some sort of speed, to get up to some level of effort to tap into it, and then maintain it in order to stay in that zone. Too little or too much and you slip out of this state. But this speed is relative to your current body, not your past one. You achieve Flow State by working with today’s resources, not yesterday’s.
You can train to enter into Flow State and improve it – to make the zone wider, to make it last longer, to enter into it sooner, to have it resilient under more difficult conditions. Even when you start out in a sport, there is a form of Flow State available to you even at that entry level, and on levels above – I call them my Levels Of Heaven. There is a science and an art to cultivating access to these. When you want to go to a higher level of performance you have to build a new entrance into Flow State for that level. The good news is that the Flow habits you’ve developed on lower levels serve you on the higher ones.
And, the window between too little and too much shifts with your age and physical conditions – you don’t need the strength or speed of your younger years to get there. It works with what you’ve got right now, even if that is less than what you had before. But what it cannot work with is a mind that is only satisfied with external products and achievements of the past, or chasing quantities that may or may not be within your control today to achieve. It works only with a mind and body that are fully present today, right now.
I don’t mean to pick on this particular aging runner in the NYT article. His quote comes out of a very specific context and he may likely have a good attitude about continuing to run if the topic was presented to him a different way. But the big question remains about how an aging athlete is going to make a ‘soft landing’ after his fastest and strongest years are behind him. How is going to generate satisfaction for himself now that others (or he himself) may no longer admire what he can produce on the outside?
How can you transfer to an orientation that gets its satisfaction from developing internal qualities which can increase with age, which may only be noticed directly by yourself, when external products are certain to decrease with age?
This harks back to my recent article discussing alternative objectives for your practice time. When some things that relate to high performance slip out of your control (because of aging or because of injury, for example) there are still other things that remain within your control. It is imperative that you recognize what those are. Choosing a training goal that depends mostly on things you can control is wise. Choosing a goal that depends on a lot of things you cannot control is risky to your morale, if not foolish.
I have in mind two categories of swimmers who may be reading this: a) those of you who achieved something great in swimming when you were young that you won’t be able to do now, and b) those of you who have started this sport past your prime and still have your best achievements ahead of you.
In order to maintain satisfaction with this activity, in order to maintain kaizen motivation for training, both kinds of swimmers need to balance a desire for external achievement with an appreciation for the internal qualities that make swimming feel good… that can make it feel better year after year, no matter the age. It is because of those good feelings that you will want to continue with this activity for the rest of your life.
So, like this runner, if your fastest days are behind you, cry it out, grieve, accept, and then grow up. There are good things to look forward to, but you won’t see them when you’re too busy looking back.
And, if you are older but just starting out, aim for internal quality from the beginning, and those external products will improve as a more natural, sustainable result of that orientation. (A bit more on that topic in Two Essential Measurements.)