Focus and flow are two words that are thrown around quite a lot in the movement world. There have been many books and resources published on the topic, yet very few athletes really understand how the two concepts fit together.
Intuitively, it seems focus and flow would be at odds with each other. The former requires intense willful, voluntary effort to maintain a sense of mental acuity, while the latter is characterized by a unique absence of perceived effort and surrender of voluntary control.
However, just as “Focus Now. Flow Later.” implies, the two are quite complementary in nature. In fact, if you want to experience flow, first you must exercise focus. Focus a prerequisite to flow.
Four Stages of Competence
Stage 1: Unconscious Incompetence
Let’s use the skill of double unders. Before you ever knew what CrossFit was you were unconscious of your incompetence. In other words, you had no awareness that you could not do double unders. It’s possible you didn’t even know what double unders were.
This doesn’t just go with the overarching movements like double unders; it also applies to sub-movements. For example, you obviously know what running is and you can run even if it isn’t pretty, at a blistering pace or for a long time. However, it is very likely that you are unconsciously incompetent of different sub-skills you need to be a great runner. Maybe you aren’t aware of the orientation of your pelvis in space and that isn’t allowing you to express your respiratory capacity. Maybe you aren’t aware of how weaknesses in the lateral aspect of your hip contribute to the pain you experience with “flat feet.” And the list goes on…
It’s about constantly discovery.
It’s the white belt mentality.
Never stop learning.
Always be a student of your movement.
Stage 2: Conscious Incompetence
Back to our Double Unders example. Eventually you jumped into a CrossFit workout that had double unders programmed. Very quickly you moved from being unaware of your incompetence to being very conscious of it.
While your incompetence during Double Unders is obvious, other skills are much harder to discern if you are competent or not. For example…
How to you know if for a given position during a movement your joints are oriented correctly in space?
How do you know if you are breathing correctly?
How to you know if you are wasting energy due to inefficiencies?
The waters often get muddy when talking about sub-skills.
Stage 3: Conscious Competence
The final two stages typically are where people spend most of their time and energy. At this point you know you lack the skill so you work to develop it. In the case of double unders you do single unders, you spin wiffle ball rope to work on timing, you practice Pogo Hops, you work on Penguin Hops and (of course) you attempt double unders.
Eventually you get to the point where when you are very focused and giving full effort you can complete double unders successfully. Congrats! You are now consciously competent.
However, to be more accurate, you are consciously competent in on a given day with given conditions (rested, low inflammation, unfatigued setting, correct rope length, etc.) Over time you will need to develop conscious competence in each setting, including adding the layers of speed, local and general fatigue and competition.
Stage 4: Unconscious Competence
The final stage of competence most athletes never reach. Very few will put in the time and energy needed to reach stage four and ‘master’ a skill.
In this final stage, you no longer have to think about doing double unders while doing double unders. You just do them. Maybe you think about your next movement in the workout, or about your breathing, or about the clock or maybe about what’s for lunch…anything except double unders. The skill is now unconsciously competent.
Again, this isn’t just about movements. It’s about the finest points and details. It’s about learning to breathe through a brace during butterfly pull-ups with more diaphragm engagement. It’s about reclaiming a hook grip and finding your hip without thinking while cycling snatches. It’s about the fostering unconscious competence in all the details. It’s about the pursuit of mastery.
In the Mind of an Elite Athlete
Often people watch a Mat Fraser or Rich Froning and ask…I wonder what they are thinking about when they are competing? This is why so many people have fallen in love with Brent Fikowski. The man is one of the few at the pinnacle of the sport who shares in depth his mental state throughout training and competing.
The truth is much of the time they aren’t thinking an awfully lot about anything. They are going through the workout, completing the various movements, but focus is soft. It hovers there, but it isn’t a hard focus. They are so competent in the movements that thinking about them will make things worse and performance will wane. Athlete’s will call it being “in the zone.” Psychologists will call it flow.
At times, during certain movements or workouts, a single focus point can be helpful to the elite. Thinking about a performance statement, movement cue or simply the breath prevents the brain from taking over and getting in the way of the body. After all, it’s a compliment to compete “out of your mind.”
Developing Unconscious Competence
It’s now clear that getting to unconscious competence is the goal for the athlete. It allows for freedom. It allows you to move and relocate focus as you please. So what is the best way to promote unconscious competence?
Conscious, focused practice.
The more time you spend intently focused in an activity or skill the more you will be able to do it unconsciously as well.
Let’s use the analogy of riding a bike. You can probably ride a bike and you are also probably able to do it without having to think to a degree. Now image your friend is a rider in the Tour de France. He spends hours every day on his bike. He focuses intently during his practice developing greater balance, power and efficiency. Now imagine the two of you decided to ride bike through the park together. Who is going to have an easier time getting into flow and not having to think about navigating around benches, potholes and people in the park?
“Discipline Equals Freedom”
This is a quote from Navy Seal Jocko Willink, in his excellent book Extreme Ownership that I recommend on our Resources Page. The lesson here is that discipline in your training now will result in freedom down the road. The more time you spend studying and learning your craft, the easier you will be able to manipulate focus as you see fit in the heat of battle. Work to become an expert in every single movement in your sport, including its endless list of sub-skills. Consider each movement its own discipline. Take the time to learn it and master each of its parts and memorize its pieces. Be able to take it apart and put it back together. Be able to do it forwards and backwards. Be able to… you get the point. Discipline your mind to focus now so you can create freedom of thought later. Focus now. Flow Later.
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Related Read: Why Your Mobility Isn’t Improving