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Graphing Flow, Like Phil Jackson

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Phil Jackson, the legendary NBA coach, tucked a profound insight about our mental states into his book, Sacred Hoops. He focused his articulation of it around basketball, and as a result, it hasn’t been as widely discussed as I think it should be. So I’d like to reframe it outside of basketball.

Jackson believed deeply in meditation. He said that if his players regularly meditated, they would be more capable of “focusing on the journey rather than the goal”, which would help them “play the game the right way”. So after practice, he would force his cadre of hypercompetitive, hyperathletic millionaires to sit there and do… nothing. 

The results were convincing. Jackson was one of the game’s winningest coaches. He won 11 rings and was a mentor to both Jordan and Kobe. 

But Jackson’s great insight wasn’t that meditation can improve individual performance. Most people are familiar with that. His genius was to draw a connecting line between individual meditative practice and peak collaborative performance.

Collective Meditation

Jackson wrote about a special type of team performance, where all 5 players on a court are totally in sync. Part of it is about the states of the 5 individuals – the players are completely focused, know what they need to do, and aren’t thinking about their stats. But it was more unified than that: the players would form a collective “we” – as if any decision one of them made on the court, they all made. They would operate within the framework of a gameplan, but also be completely amoebic and capable of making adjustments in the moment. He likened it to an improvisational performance by an experienced jazz group.

To Jackson, this collective mindstate is actually an extension of meditation. In order to perform at that level, players would need to clear their minds of any personal desires or thoughts of the future or past and simply focus on the present moment.

“When the mind is allowed to relax, inspiration often follows.” 

Phil Jackson

Flowing from the mat to hardwood

So Phil’s insight was that meditation can be a powerful multiplier for not just individual, but group, performance. At first, this was a tenuous connection to me. Although I’d shared the experience of peak group performance and understood the benefits of meditation, it was hard to see how something so personal and physically inactive could have a large effect on something so collaborative and active. 

Then I found the connective tissue: flow.

The state of flow, coined by the researcher Mihály Csíkszentmihályi (one of my favourite names of all time), is the feeling of being in the zone. Wikipedia defines it as:

When a person performing an activity is fully immersed in a feeling of energized focus, full involvement, and enjoyment in the process of the activity. In essence, flow is characterized by complete absorption in what one does, and a resulting loss in one’s sense of space and time.

It’s clear that the team state that Jackson wrote about on the court was a flow state. Similarly, it clear that successful meditation also involves entering a flow state. So Jackson was really getting his players to practice flowing.

According to Csíkszentmihályi, achieving flow has 3 conditions:

  1. One must be involved in an activity with a clear set of goals and progress. 
  2. The task at hand must have clear and immediate feedback. 
  3. One must have a good balance between the perceived challenges of the task at hand and their own perceived skills. 

Sports are naturally highly conducive to flow states. They have built-in goals, feedback and skill regulation. Meditation, on the other hand, is the opposite. It almost completely lacks any goals, feedback, or clear guideposts for skill level by definition. That doesn’t mean it’s impossible, just more difficult.

To Jackson, meditation practice serves as the mental equivalent to football players lifting weights.  If a player is capable of reaching flow when sitting there doing nothing, it will be much easier for them to flow when in a challenging game environment. And when a group of players can collectively begin to flow, they’re able to enter a powerful shared headspace.

Graphing Flow

This got me thinking about the spectrum of flow activities. On one side of the spectrum, you have highly physically inactive flow states, like meditation, writing, or coding. On the other side, you have highly active flow states, like running or basketball. 

But Jackson would suggest there’s also a second axis to graph: level of collaboration. Meditation falls as a highly individual activity, then team sports experiences on the other side.

Flow States, Categorized

Interestingly, yoga is the only activity I could think of that fell at all in the middle of either spectrum. I think this helps explain its popularity: being highly active and collaborative can make flow states more accessible, but there are real barriers to entry for both types of activity. Although we discussed how sports are conducive to flow states, they also require substantial skill development and social coordination.

Yoga offers a gateway into flow without being overly burdensome mentally or physically. Phil Jackson was also a frequent yogi. We can plot the accessibility of flows as follows:

Accessibility of flow activities

It’s tempting to also make conclusions about how one part of the spectrum is more rewarding, but I’m going to avoid that because I think that still has to do with one’s personality.

But I can conclude what Jackson likely already knows: entering a state of flow is highly productive and rewarding, and the more entry points you have into that mental state, the better. So it’s worth thinking, like Jackson did for his players, about the various ways you can access it and where on these graphs those methods fit.

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