Q: What Stands Between You and Better Performance? (A: You)


Call it “Flow” or “The Zone” — we’ve  all had moments when it all comes together: when we can do no wrong, when our performance jumps to a higher level. The old cliche is that we go unconscious; our normal selves vanish and we’re replaced by someone better.

Now, science is showing us the useful truth beneath that cliche. Higher performance is not about addition; it’s about subtraction — specifically, subtracting the chatty, busybody part of your brain that focuses on your internal state. In fact, the lesson can be summed up as follows: get out of your way.

Exhibit A: Sally Adee, a writer for New Scientist, just wrote an extraordinary story that takes us inside the expert brain. The story involves a new technique called transcranial direct current stimulation, or TDCS, which sends low-voltage electricity to certain parts of the brain. The current turns off your prefrontal cortex — the part of the brain that creates critical thought — and lets you act without interference.

The skill Adee tried to improve was marksmanship, via a military-designed video game. Before TDCS, Adee was average. After, she was transformed into an expert (she couldn’t miss!). Tests by the military show that TDCS more than doubles subjects’ ability to detect a threat. Other studies using related types of neurofeedback show similarly promising results.

The takeaway, I think, is not that we will all soon be sporting electrode caps (though we might!), but rather that the expert brain is a quiet place. A place where concentration and relaxation coexist, and where attention is 100 percent focused on the external, not the internal. Where the self, for a rare and lovely moment, disappears.

The other takeaway is that we should make a habit of developing this kind of relaxed, concentrated focus. It might be yoga, or exercise, or meditation, or prayer, or just a daily walk — it doesn’t matter, so long as it takes you to the sort of quiet place where you can vanish, and develop a sense for knowing when you’re there.

As Dan Millman writes: “The essence of talent is not so much a presence of certain qualities, but rather an absence of the mental, physical, and emotional obstructions most adults experience.”

(A belated, but big thanks to Rob Nonstop for the heads-up!)

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10 Responses to “Q: What Stands Between You and Better Performance? (A: You)”

  1. Rod Roth says:

    H. A. Dorfman, In his book about coaching pitchers, calls it “The tyranny of a thousand distractions.” He teaches his pitchers to step off the mound whenever they are thinking about anything other than the next pitch. Thanks, Dan.

  2. Scott says:

    I make ABSOLUTELY no claims of being an expert or talented ski racer, but in my college days, as a ski racer on the Northern Michigan Ski team, my best races, by far, were the ones that were incredibly quiet and afterward I would have very little memory of cognitive thought. The worst races (which were the majority of them) were the ones where there was a nonstop conversation about the course going on in my head for the entire run. The difficulty was silencing the chatter!

    On a related note, I remember Jonathon Vaughters, the DS of the Garmin-Transitions Professional Cycling Team making a statement like “Smart people make terrible bike racers”, which I believe he was saying because there was too much chatter going on in the head of a “smart” person, instead of just racing.

    Maybe I should be coaching my soccer team to meditate before matches? I can just see a bunch of 12 years sitting around in the lotus position trying to calm their mind…..

  3. Dave says:

    Boy, ain’t it the truth. I’m struggling with my tennis game, as usual. And the thing I struggle with most is watching the ball as I execute a stroke. I can do it during practice but during competition, an actual game with people on the other side of the net, and even though I know very well what it is I must do, things go south in a hurry . And once things begin to go south the chatter in my brain takes over and prevents me from getting past my problem. I wish there was a magic practice routine, a learnable method, that could reduce my self-doubt and distraction.

    Maybe yoga would help, or meditation, as Red Roth says, or maybe I’m just too smart for my own good. Yeah, that must be it.

  4. Joey says:

    I’m a golfer and ever since I read The Talent Code, I’ve wanted to be the best in the world. I meditate daily to practice a quiet mind so that when I am at my best I can just play. There’s no better feeling than competing at your best and feeling like nothing can go wrong.

    I am constantly searching for new ways to improve and I just recently found a guy who specializes in living in the flow state, where you are basically the best and purest version of yourself. It’s pretty amazing stuff. His website is http://humanoperatingsystem.org/ if you’re interested.

  5. Ted says:


    One of the more interesting/fascinating things that I observed over the last few years, is the differences in improvement among high level 17 to 20 year old athletes. Speed at which new skills are obtained and how deep those skills become in less than a years time.
    If there are two D1 athletes, both 18 years old. Both in the same program. But over the course of 6 months, one has made the typical/normal improvements that one would expect but the other has taken his skill up to a level that is becoming world class but did not start at that level. They both are perceived as having the same passion for improving and practice.
    I sometimes wonder is there pre-work that had been done by the player who’s skill has taken off like a rocket ship. ie did he play chess when he was younger? Was he a ferocious reader? Did his 5 years of basketball from 5 to 10 years old help? (All of these things are just random thoughts and not real data on any particular athlete)
    I wonder if you have found anything that seems to create more “sponge like” learners than others? (It does seem some athletes improve drastically with the same ice time as others who have improved minimally)
    The obvious answer from The Talent Code, would be that the one athlete has more purpose in his practice. His practice is deeper.
    (In my own experience, I feel that more cerebral athletes improve quicker and deeper than non. But that is just a non-scientific observation.)


  6. djcoyle says:

    Hey Ted, You put your finger on something fascinating, and you ask a great question — and I have to say, I don’t really have a clean answer for you. But I think you’re absolutely on the right track. To your list, I’d add a couple things: 1) the factor of mindset — having a growth mindset, in particular (Carol Dweck writes a lot about this — but it basically comes down to seeing barriers as opportunities; and 2) all the invisible emotional forces that affect learners and their identities, particularly around that age — where they can suddenly stop thinking of themselves as, say, an athlete, and start thinking of themselves as someone else. Overall, it’s an area that’s really worth focusing on, since it makes such a difference.

  7. djcoyle says:

    Hey Joey, Thanks for sharing that — that site looks like it’s worth checking out. (And good luck!)

  8. Mikey Stott says:

    I made similar observations years ago after playing a game called “dirty words”. The game (from what I can remember) basically revolves around a phrase that has an innocuous meaning. The thing is, it actually has an “r-rated” second meaning which you have to decipher. I wasn’t actually playing but in the background with my attention occupied on something else. Since I was in the vicinity though, I heard every phrase and kept on saying the answer. (Much to the dismay of the contestants!). After aggravating them for a considerable period, I was forced to join.
    The result?
    I couldn’t get another correct answer…
    Certainly shows that our “brains” can get in the way of us!

  9. John Turner says:

    Getting out of your own way is a primary theme in the most recent book by well known sports psychologist Dr. Bob Rotella, “The Unstoppable Golfer: Trusting Your Mind & Your Short Game to Achieve Greatness.” In previous books, Rotella has stressed the idea of “train it, then trust it,” to differentiate between the analysis and thinking associated with practicing, and the need to stop thinking and just let your training take over when playing. I see this as applying the principles of deep practice to build neural networks, then switching off any attempts to consciously control the golf swing, which cannot possibly be as fast, fluid, or accurate as the unconscious control possible with the trained networks.

  10. Candice says:

    Daniel, I don’t know if you’ve seen this RSA Animate video on the divided brain. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dFs9WO2B8uI&feature=related. It explains so much of what you’re talking about here the ability to focus on what we know how to do while relaxing enough to deal with what we don’t know. Check it out and see if offers any new insights.

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