By Gabe Ettenson, Co-Founder & Facilitator, Sage Space Retreat at PR Labs.
Competitive athletes often associate their most memorable performances with being in “the zone” or in a “flow state.” In this optimal state of performance, they feel fully immersed in their activity and completely focused on the present moment. They’re energized and engaged, but not overtaxed, and their movements are effortless and natural. Athletes often feel a sense of “lightness” and ease in their body, as if they’re moving through space without any resistance. The flow state is a non-ordinary state of consciousness, meditative in nature, and one in which thought subsides and the ability to sense, perceive, and react is enhanced.
While the flow state is often associated with the highest levels of athletic performance, it is also considered to be something rarely attainable and not something which can be achieved through specific training techniques. As a result, athletes usually focus on traditional areas of sports performance enhancement such as strength training, cardiovascular training, and mobility training, and consider the flow state to be an anecdotal side effect of improving these areas. However, the truth is that the flow state is trainable when you understand its physiological underpinnings. In fact, recent studies suggest that for some athletes, focusing on the flow state initially may help improve their performance in other areas more quickly. Hence, the flow state is not only attainable for all athletes but is a crucial element in enhancing an athlete’s overall performance.
The Role of Energy in the Flow State
To understand how athletes can train to achieve the flow state, we need to take a closer look at the concept of energy. Energy is the raw material of human physiology and flows continuously throughout the body, and it is an uninterrupted flow of energy which is required for an athlete to achieve the flow state. Although energy is a familiar term (many think it’s an ingredient in a beverage), even the most advanced scientific minds don’t fully understand it, making it a delicate topic to discuss in the context of sports performance enhancement training. To avoid delving too deeply into the realm of biophysics, however, let’s consider energy as it is more easily understood in the world of athletic performance.
When we examine the more common training methods used to enhance athletic performance, we can see how they relate to energy. For example, an athlete’s strength level correlates with the amount of energy they must use to generate force or power. Similarly, the mobility of an athlete’s connective tissue system can affect the amount of energy they need to expend to move against changing resistance levels in their environment. The more restrictions a “tight” or misaligned athlete has, the more energy they need to overcome them. The efficiency of energy usage in the body depends on how accurately the muscles and nerves communicate. Finally, the adaptability of an individual’s cardiovascular system is a major factor in maintaining a sustained delivery of oxygen, which influences energy conversion and sustained access to energy. Overall, athletic performance is largely dependent on how readily available energy is for a body in a continuous state of motion against changing levels of resistance.
Until now, we’ve focused on the physical systems of the body, such as muscles, nerves, blood vessels, and connective tissue, when talking about the body’s energy system. However, the energy system also affects an athlete’s mental state and can be influenced by it. In the same way that over-exertion during physical activity can result in excessive energy expenditure, excessive worry over performance, fear of re-injury, or persistent rumination on past failures can also lead to unnecessary energy drain. Mental energy is utilized in multiple domains such as work and relationships as well, which can have an impact on the overall energy level of an athlete on any given day. This is why sports psychologists have become increasingly vital for athletes to improve their physicality and mental preparedness.
The mind and body are closely connected and interdependent when it comes to training and competing. They both rely on the same energy system, which can be viewed as a shared resource among the various systems involved in athletic performance. Therefore, conserving energy in the body is key to achieving the flow state. This is where the science of Audio-Visual Entrainment (AVE) comes in. AVE involves using tools such as sound and light, which are forms of energy that can interface with the body, to help manage and regulate energy levels and facilitate access to the flow state.
Audio Visual Entrainment:
Audio-Visual Entrainment (AVE), also called Audio-Visual Stimulation (AVS), is a method that uses sound and light stimulation to influence the brain to move in or out of any of the five primary brainwave patterns. These brainwave patterns, measured by EEG, are linked with states of being; Delta waves are the slowest and most prominent during deep sleep and are associated with restorative and regenerative processes in the brain. Theta waves are associated with drowsiness, light sleep, and meditative states. They are also associated with memory and learning processes. Alpha waves are seen in states of relaxation and mental rest. Beta waves are associated with wakefulness, alertness, and active thinking, while Gamma waves are the fastest and associated with high-level cognitive processing.
It’s important to understand that, despite the location where brain waves are measured, the brain is a processing center for the entire body, and therefore, the measured electrical activity reflects the entire body’s state of being. The various brainwave patterns are therefore not reflecting a physical or mental state independently, but rather, they reflect an integrated “whole-body” state. For example, beta waves may occur while actively thinking when simultaneously moving with speed and complexity. Gamma waves can indicate mental focus while someone is performing precise movement patterns. Theta waves can indicate a less active mind when someone is learning a new movement pattern. Brainwave states reflect an integration point between mental and physical task performance.
It’s fascinating to consider what’s happening in the body during different brainwave states (resting, focusing, reacting, learning etc.). If athletes can transition smoothly between these states during training and competition, is it not akin to what is described by an athlete who has experienced the flow state? And does this flow state also not therefore allow athletes to efficiently use and replenish energy within their body while competing?
To enhance sports performance with Audio-Visual Entrainment (AVE), it is crucial to first determine which brainwave patterns an athlete may struggle to access and use customized programs to facilitate their ability to regain access. More importantly however, it that once they’ve regained access, it is facilitating their ability to transition smoothly and quickly, to “flow,” between the five primary brainwave patterns which enables athletes to stay in a flow state during training or competition. For instance, difficulty sleeping may indicate limited access to the Delta state, while a lack of focus could mean challenges accessing the Gamma state; an overactive mind may be described as being “stuck” in a beta state. By effectively evaluating an athlete’s access to different brainwave patterns, an AVE program can be designed to meet their specific needs.
While light and sound can be used independently for brain entrainment (binaural beats, isochronic tones, flickering/stroboscopic light represent some of these independent approaches), AVE combines light and sound to achieve brain entrainment through an energy-based “entourage effect.” The term “entourage effect” describes the enhanced benefits of sound and light in combination vs. either one used independently. AVE works by providing rhythmic visual and auditory stimulation to the brain, with the frequency of the stimulus related to the desired brainwave pattern. When this pattern is applied for a sufficient period of time, the brain will synchronize with it. The synchronization process also induces a temporary state of neuroplasticity, enhancing the athlete’s ability to more easily integrate the training after the session is over.
While there is more to be said about the neurophysiological principles of brain entrainment, the key takeaway is that regaining access to the five brainwave states and then increasing the speed of transition between them is crucial for entering into and maintaining the flow state during training and competition.
In summary, the flow state is trainable with AVE and therefore more attainable than most athletes imagine. AVE can serve as a crucial element in training methods used to enhance an athlete’s overall performance. Understanding the system of energy in the body and its role in facilitating well-coordinated, effortless action within the various physiological systems can help athletes train to focus on it like they do their strength, flexibility, or cardiovascular endurance.
By using energy-based tools like Audio-Visual Entrainment, athletes can learn to manage and regulate energy levels and transition seamlessly between brainwave patterns, leading to an efficient use and replenishment of energy within their body while competing. With the right knowledge and proper training approach, entry into the flow state can become a reality for any athlete looking to take their performance to the next level.