Whether You’re Looking To Hit Performance Highs In Sport, At Work Or In Your Passion, Michael Caulfield Has The Recipe For Combining Success With Good Mental Health

Top-level performers from sport, music and business all talk about entering a dream-like ‘flow state’ where high performance feels effortless – naturally, it’s an elusive mind state, but can we open the door to entering The Zone in whatever walk of life we’re in? Sports psychologist Michael Caulfield reveals how exclusively to RSNG…

1. Realise You Can’t Force Flow
He’s worked with some of sport’s great performers and managers, so Michael Caulfield knows how powerful the flow state can be. ‘Everything slows down into slow motion; if you’re playing a sport like football then the ball becomes the size of the moon. If you’re playing the piano or in an artistic performance then it just flows. Having spoken to speak to people who have had the most remarkable moments in high performance, you ask how did that happen and they have no idea, they can barely remember it and it’s almost a subconscious state,’ he says.

Flow sounds like the perfect tonic to breaking off that performance plateau – the problem is you can’t force it into existence. ‘Flow state is the Holy Grail – it’s not often experienced and the more you force it the less likely it is to happen. It sounds a bit airy fairy but it’s a bit like love – the more you go looking for it the further away it is, and then suddenly you bump into someone and the world changes almost in that moment.’

2. Prepare For The Big Days
If forcing flow is off the cards, how can we coax a better performance out of ourselves? ‘Flow state comes irregularly whereas high performance comes regularly,’ points out Caulfield. ‘You can’t go looking for it but you can prepare yourself for the big days, the big events. Not put your faith in hope, but you prepare well, and now and again you touch these heights that you did not know you were capable of.’

‘The greatest performers, in all walks of life, have a simple system that they can trust under pressure’

3. Learn To Love Routine
So, how can we prepare to progress high performance and open the door to the flow state?
‘It’s a question of routine,’ says Caulfield. ‘We’re not great at routine because it’s a bit boring and we want to tweak it, and change it when it doesn’t go well, but the greatest performers I have come across, in all walks of life, have a simple system that they can trust when placed under pressure; a series of habits and routines that are almost unbreakable. They rely on the process as much as the final goal. So, they are not defined by the final goal, they judge themselves on how much they put into the effort and the process behind it.’

4. High Performance Doesn’t Mean High Pressure
The feedback loop of performing well is a satisfying thing, but Caulfield says that focussing on individual successes or failures is dangerous. ‘We define ourselves by did we win or lose, did we get the job or not, did we pass or fail the exam? That then becomes our defining moment and it takes away all balance and perspective, and short-term thinking takes over.’

The top performers he has worked with are able to see the bigger picture, focus on their daily efforts, and not put themselves under unnecessary pressure. ‘They trust their skill on the day, and the good ones work out that it does not work every single day, but the system can work every single day.’

5. Analyse Your Wins
When a strong team falls as the first hurdle, like England’s Rugby squad in the World Cup they hosted, there’s an inevitable review of what went wrong. ‘But I love a big review of what went right and we don’t do that very well,’ says Caulfield. We tend to analyse failure but we don’t analyse success. If something has gone well look for the reasons as to why it went well.’

‘We say: “Oh I got lucky, it just came off on the day.” No it didn’t, there were other reasons too – spend as much time analysing that success as you do what went wrong.’

6. Why So Serious?
With all this talk of success it’s easy to lose sight of what inspired you to perform in the first place – having fun. ‘Sometimes my job in life, even as a highly trained scientist, is to make things less professional,’ admits Caulfield. ‘I can tell you about a team in a global competition a few years ago where I was one of the support staff. The team was prepared, fit and ready and it was the day before the event, but it was about to boil over. The practice session the day before was ugly – the coach was chewing at people and the players were reacting.’

‘The coach said to me: “Mike get the everyone into the meeting room at 2pm!” I said: “Oh, I’ve booked you and me nine holes of golf down the road!” He said, “You what?” and I said: “The taxis are booked too, and the support staff are coming, they’re really looking forward to it.” Eventually he said OK, but actually I hadn’t booked a game of golf – I did afterwards! We had a fantastic afternoon, he played like a God and came back in great form, while the team relaxed. To this day the game on the day after was the best we ever played. We were ready, we didn’t need any more talking about it, everyone just relaxed and then absolutely got it right.’

7. Re-Prioritise R&R
Everyone has busy lives and often the first thing to get chopped is our downtime – this could actually be holding our performance back, says Caulfield. ‘The best training we have is rest and recovery, which gives you energy to do more. The more you do the more you want to do – the less you do, the less you want to do.’

He’s found in his research that everything starts and finishes with a with a good night’s sleep. ‘We live in a sleep deprived society – we’ve lit up the dark, which affects our mood, our energy levels, everything. People take phones to bed and have blue light in the bedroom, which is wrecking sleep.’

‘We live in a very measured society, so some days bury it all and just ride’

8. Turn Off Your Performance Data
Measuring performance is a vital part of working towards a goal, but we’re so used to the idea that we may actually be overdoing it, suggests Caulfield. ‘We measure everything and it’s just stupefyingly dull. People get fed up with it.’ Not only are we boring ourselves silly, we may in fact be blocking our high performance access to The Zone. ‘Just immerse yourself into the activity.’

‘Now and again, as Dave Brailsford did with Team GB cyclists, you need to turn off the measuring and just ride – one day he did that and they just smashed it, because they stopped measuring everything. We live in a very measured society so some days bury it all and just ride.’

WHAT NEXT? For more on prioritising process over outcomes, read RSNG’s exclusive interview with the winner of six Olympic Gold Medals, Jason Kenny…

Michael Caulfield has teamed up with leading sports retailer Wiggle to help you Get There. Find out more here

Follow the writer @mattfitnessray