Z is for Zen Thinking


Missy Franklin at the start of a race at 2013 Winter Nationals. (Large)I

I am not a Zen Master by any means, but back in the day I read "Sacred Hoops" by Phil Jackson and got hooked on Zen philosophy. Books exist relating just about any topic to Zen teachings. This article is not meant to be a lesson on Zen. The purpose of this article is to present an approach I sometimes take with clients who have trouble letting go of thoughts or accepting the challenges they face.

There Is No Try
The great Yoda once said, "Do or do not. There is no try." I have worked with more swimmers than I dare to count who finish a race with gas left in the tank. One thing many of these swimmers have in common is an UNCONSCIOUS fear, typically of pain, sometimes of either failure or success. This fear holds them back from fully committing. Instead they often hope or wish, rather than going all-in. Whether it's a new event, an attempt to set a record, or pushing your body beyond what is comfortable, at some point in your swimming career you have to say "I will do it". No hesitation, no what-ifs, just a complete stubbornness to make something happen. Zen is about trusting and doing.

Go With the Flow
There is a sport psychology concept known as “flow,” also often referred to as "being in the zone." This is the rare occasion when you swim and finish a race with a remarkable time and have no idea how you got it or what you were thinking. It just happened, and it happened easily. To achieve this type of performance, you can't actually try not to think. Instead, you have to literally go with the flow; have a plan for what you want to happen, and don't second guess it. Dive in and swim. Typically, the moment people realize they are swimming “out of their mind,” and are on track for a PR is the moment when they leave the flow state of mind. This doesn’t always hurt their time, but it just removes you from that Zen-like experience.

Accept and Release
If you've ever taken yoga, instructors often teach you to focus on your breath or the muscle you are working. Zen thinking is very similar. Basically, if you have a thought that is irrelevant to your race/practice or detrimental to your performance, you don't judge it or dwell on it, you accept it as simply a thought and then let it pass quickly through your mind, returning your focus to the task at hand. For example, if you say to yourself, "What if I don't win? These other swimmers are just as good as I am," you wouldn't want to follow that by thinking, "Why am I thinking that?!?! I should be confident!! Maybe I really won't win. What would others say?...". Instead, you simply accept you had a thought, imagine it departing from your head, and focus on your breath/race/clear your mind. Don't give thoughts extra energy unless you want them to stick around.

Connections and Togetherness
Zen followers often believe we are connected to everything else in the universe and that we have shared energy. Think about it. If your coach is in a bad mood, doesn’t that impact you in some way? If someone swims a better time than you, it impacts what lane you will be in and (if you weren’t mentally tough) could impact your confidence. While the Zen concept of universality is much more philosophical than my simple take on it, I believe that recognizing how your behaviors, thoughts, and emotions influence others is an important awareness to have. When you know that coming to practice with a strong work ethic and an optimistic attitude can positively impact those you train with, you may choose to work even harder. This ultimately has a positive impact on you as well. If you are a leader, you are more likely to behave in ways that will help teammates compete their best so that you also will reap the benefits of raising the bar.

Zen and Peak Performance
In Zen, the ego is lost. There is no judgment. There is no aversion to losing or desire to win. You do not compete as a means to an end. You immerse yourself in an experience and simply have whatever that experience may be. Many swimmers have such a fear of losing to someone they shouldn’t that their ego gets in the way. They unknowingly handicap themselves from performing their best because they focus so much on the outcome they create anxiety. In a Zen state of mind, the focus wouldn’t be on, “what will happen at the end of the race and how will that outcome reflect on me?” Instead, your thoughts would be in the present moment and focused on doing what you have trained to do. It’s a combination of everything I have mentioned. You go with the flow, you trust that your training and your preparation will pay off, you let things happen, and you stay positive. Instead of trying harder, you actually try easier because you essentially allow your peak performance to happen. It’s not that you don’t want success; it’s just that you don’t put energy into thinking about it as you are on the blocks. A Zen-minded swimmer would define success as diving in, swimming and letting your mind tell your body what to do without you having to direct it.

Wrap Up
Like I said, I am no Zen master. This is just how I like to interpret very simply some of what I know about the philosophical nature of Zen. I love the idea of being passionate but not allowing the passion to override the experience. I love the idea of wanting something, but not forcing it to happen. What I love most about Zen is the thought of trust in yourself and enjoying each moment you are engaged in your activity.

I hope you have enjoyed my ABC’s of Mental Training series. If there are other topics or specific questions I haven’t addressed, feel free to contact me. I need some new article ideas!! 
Make it great!
Dr. Aimee 
Aimee C. Kimball, PhD is a Mental Training and Peak Performance Consultant in Pittsburgh, PA. She is an Association of Applied Sport Psychology Certified Consultant, a member of USA Swimming Sports Medicine Task Force, and a member of the USOC Sports Psychology Registry. Dr. Kimball works with athletes at all levels to achieve success in sport and life. For more information contact: AimeeKimball@aol.com; www.aimeekimball.com.

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