David Foster Wallace once described tennis as the perfect hybrid of chess and boxing. The mind has to calculate an ever-compounding series of infinite possible shots, angles, and locations, limited only by the body’s physical capacity to move.
(If you aren’t familiar with the sport of tennis, and just how impressive tennis athletes are, check out this piece written by DFW)
Tennis players are some of the smoothest moving athletes on the planet, as they have to be: the precision of striking a tennis ball against a racquet with the proper force and angle would be difficult enough by itself, much less with the added component of anticipating and chasing down shots.
The speed at which the game occurs makes it impossible for players to “think” their way through the movements that make a return shot possible.
This article isn’t really about tennis though. It’s about the nature of flow, and the roles of the frontal cortex and hindbrain in human movement.
What is Flow?
Sport psychology often talks about flow in terms of focus, fun, and full immersion in the moment. It’s being in the zone.
This is a great description, but it doesn’t tell us much about what’s really going on, or how to get there.
I believe tennis players and musicians give us the answer.
The Chess Player vs. The Boxer
Like David Foster Wallace so eloquently described, there are two main aspects of each player’s tennis game: the chess player and the boxer.
The chess player is the frontal cortex. Its job is in calculating not just where to hit the ball, but also in thinking multiple shots ahead to “set up” the rest of the point. The chess player is thinking in terms of the infinity^n possibilities of hits and shots and angles. Its language is strategy, outcome-based goals, and imagery.
The boxer is the hindbrain. It doesn’t think, it reacts. It integrates all of the body’s senses, along with the strategy, imagery, and outcome-based goals of the chess playing frontal cortex, into smooth, powerful, and precise movement. Its language is rhythm, timing, and reflex.
As long as each part of the brain is doing its respective job, there will be no frontal cortex interference in movement. That is:
Don’t let the chess player try to box.
The frontal cortex just doesn’t have the integrated processing power of the cerebellum to calibrate movement efficiently. In fact, if we really take a look at all of the pieces involved in movement – intermuscular and intramuscular coordination, different muscle contractions, integration of elastic elements, kinesthetic awareness, reflexes, integration of auditory and visual systems, and much more – we don’t even have an entirely clear grasp of what’s really happening in movement. How, then, can we expect to “think” or “cue” our way through movement, if we know there are things we don’t know?
Music Answers Many Questions
I would argue that you will not find more precise movement than in watching a musician who has mastered their craft. I would also argue you will not find a better example of flow.
What’s important in finding flow in music, just like in tennis, is the clear separation in roles of the frontal cortex and cerebellum. The goal in music is not the movement of the fingers on a guitar, or the arm flexion and extension of a drummer playing drums.
The goal of playing an instrument is in the music itself.
The frontal cortex plays the role of conductor. It thinks big picture in terms of song structure and dynamics, it visualize scales and beats, and can think several notes and measures ahead to alter the dynamics of a song.
The cerebellum then processes these structures, visualizations, and alterations and translates them into the rhythmic, reflexive, orchestrated movement that makes music possible.
n more general terms, the frontal cortex sets an outcome-based goal, and the cerebellum translates this goal into fluid movement.
Role of Language in Flow
t’s often said that when an athlete is “in the zone,” their thinking brain shuts off. But to understand what’s really going on it’s important to understand the role of language in our thought processes.
In everyday life, our conscious brain thinks in terms of words, sentences, ideas, etc. If you speak English, you think in English. If speak French, you think in French. But what happens in sport?
In competition, the rush of catecholamines (e.g. epinephrine, norepinephrine, and dopamine) causes a narrowing of focus, which quiets the chatter of the thinking brain considerably. This doesn’t mean the frontal cortex is shut off. This means that the frontal cortex can think in its native tongue of visualization, outcome-based goals, and strategy – without having to first translate to English, French, etc.
This allows for a more seamless flow of information to the cerebellum that can then be processed into movement.
What is Flow, Really?
We know that there are closed loop circuits between the cerebellum and frontal cortex, meaning that there is a constant exchanging of information between the two. The hindbrain sends the thinking brain proprioceptive information and the thinking brain assimilates the information and uses it to guide decision-making processes. The “decision,” whether in the form of imagery, goals, or strategy, will then get passed on to the cerebellum to be translated into necessary movement. As movement occurs, new proprioceptive information is inputted into the system and the cycle repeats.
This flow of information is where “flow” is created. The frontal cortex is responsible for the “big picture” parts of movement (strategy, goals, pace, visualization) that dictate the reactionary movement of the hindbrain.
Different stimuli can interrupt this flow of information: coaches yelling cues, different emotions, pain or injury, etc. The most notorious problem comes from what is commonly called “overthinking.”
In my experience, almost every instance of “overthinking” comes from unnecessary extra input/cueing from a coach, that then requires extra processing by the thinking brain, or some anxiety that comes from a fear of doing something wrong or looking stupid that adds an extra checkpoint of analysis by the thinking brain somewhere in the flow of information.
Practical Takeaways and Application
By understanding the nature of flow and the functions of different parts of the brain, we can optimize our coaching/practice strategies to move more fluidly. The less frontal cortex interference we have in movement the better.
Cueing is the biggest point of error in terms of flow. Overcoaching leads to overthinking. It’s also important to take into consideration the true “language” of the thinking brain: strategy, visualization, and outcome-based goals. If you coach in this language, and the athlete is adequately physically prepared (e.g. has prerequisite strength and mobility), the athlete will find their own most efficient way to move.
This is why incorporating external objects/obstacles (hurdles, cones, uneven ground, racing other athletes, etc.) into training is so effective: it gives the frontal cortex something to focus on besides the movement itself. The outcome-based goals and strategy feed the cerebellum in movement.
If you have an understanding of Christian Thibadeau’s Neurotyping system https://www.just-fly-sports.com/christian-thibaudeaus-neurological-typing-certification-course-review/ , then this can even be taken a step further. We know that dopamine-seeking athletes are driven by competition. They want to run faster, throw farther, and win. Cue accordingly. Have these athletes race each other. Set up competitions with medicine ball throws for distance, jumps for height or distance, or “obstacle course” races for time. Record, rank, and publish like Tony Holler. I’ve had dopamine-seeking teammates before who thrived the moment competition was introduced. You could literally see it in their eyes. That is what flow is all about.
If you are working with acetylcholine dominant athletes, visualization and imagery is key. These athletes think creatively and cues need to respect that. They understand patterns and have strong intuitive movement tendencies. Where dopamine-seeking athletes will tend to “overpower” forces like gravity and momentum, acetylcholine dominant athletes will “integrate” these forces into movement. Helping them visualize and understand this is important for them to find flow.
The Type 2’s (Adrenaline Seeking/Affirmation Seeking) will find flow in “fun” environments. Team-building type drills, “positive” cueing instead of focusing on what they’re doing wrong, and surrounding them with teammates to push them is important.
The Type 3’s (Serotonin Seeking/Precision Seeking) will find flow by knowing what to expect in practice or competition. Preparation is a major key. These athletes also tend to respond better to more orthodox cues. In a sense, going through the motions is how these athletes find their flow, so program design is an important consideration for fully developing these athletes.
It’s important to understand the individuality in finding flow, and respecting that it’s not about turning off the thinking brain, so much as it is about speaking the same “language” as your athlete’s thinking brain.
Understand the different roles each part of brain plays in movement. Don’t let the chess player try to box.
Recognize that the goal of movement should almost never be the movement itself. This interferes with the natural flow of information through the brain that allows “flow” to occur.
Beethoven didn’t need a coach telling him the most energy efficient way to play his 5th Symphony.
Roger Federer doesn’t need a coach to tell him to get to the inside edge of his feet in his tennis matches.
The best movers do so on their own terms, in a state of flow coming from their own natural thinking patterns.
About Kevin Foster
Kevin is a former Division I javelin thrower for the University of Connecticut. He is currently training to compete post-collegiately while working as a personal trainer and javelin coach in Southeastern Connecticut.
He runs the Javelin Anatomy Instagram page whose mission is to break down and simplify the anatomy and physics that go into the javelin throw in a logical, critical, and holistic manner. Follow the page @javelin.anatomy to learn more about the science of javelin throwing and training.