Updated: Jan 27
Today, one year ago, we all heard the tragic news of the death of Kobe Bryant, his daughter and seven others in a helicopter crash. It is one of those moments of which you remember where you were when you heard the news. For me, this day marks one of the weirdest days as a coach ever. My team managed to defeat an unbeaten opponent in possibly our best game of volleyball ever. On top of that, this performance came just one day after our worst performance ever. I remember the excitement after achieving this win, running onto the court, celebrating. We got back to the dressing room, did our usual post-game debrief which includes voting for a man of the match and the celebratory changing of our record on the white board. In the middle of the celebrations, one of my athletes suddenly says: "Kobe has died". The room fell silent and we listened to the athlete reading the news story. The 5+ hour bus ride home was one of mixed feelings and nobody really knew how to feel or react showing what an icon Kobe Bryant was for many athletes around the world.
One year after this tragic accident, let's take a moment to celebrate what, in my opinion, Kobe was best at: being in the zone. Being in the zone, or flow as it is referred to in sport psychology research, describes a state of heightened awareness and performance. Athletes who are in the zone seem to forget about everything around them that isn't important and get completely sucked into the game (evidence in the picture on the right). However, many athletes also know it as a once or twice in a lifetime experience. Being in the zone is not something that is easily achieved, and it was so impressive that Kobe seemed to be able to experience flow so often. In many games, it elevated him from an amazing basketball player, to aruably the best to have ever played the game.
The reason that consistently being in the zone is so difficult is because it is inherently a subconscious state. What I mean by that is that when an athlete experiences flow, their subconscious brain is doing most of the heavy lifting. Rather than having to think and plan every single move, the athlete just acts. Rather than having to use inner dialogue to strategize, the athlete just knows what to do. Maybe you have experienced this before, you made a play, and when asked why you made that particular play you said: "I don't know why but I just knew it was the right decision". This symptom of doing not thinking, is accompanied by a total immersion into the game. Athletes in the zone don't realize the passing of time or what happens around them. Some athletes describe flow as a sort of tunnel vision, in which everything but the court, field or pitch was blacked out. Combine these symptoms with total confidence in one's ability and you can easily see why being in the zone is such a desired thing.
So what makes someone good at mastering flow? In principle, the answer is simple but the execution is extremely hard: relax, trust in your ability, and let your brain take over. If you want to experience flow, you must try and avoid overthinking things. If you practiced, trained and prepared properly, your brain knows what to do. For instance, imagine being a javelin athlete. You have thrown that same javelin, thousands of times before in your life. During competition, there is no need to tell yourself to change the position of your arm or shoulder after a bad throw. Your brain knows what to do, so trust it. This is much easier said than done, but it is a requirement for experiencing flow. Today, let's all celebrate the great athlete Kobe Bryant by trusting that our brain knows what to do.