From Fear to Flow: Mastering the Edge in Sports and Life

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“Everyday we have an opportunity to create a living masterpiece.” – Michael Gervais

“That’s what I’m f%&*ing talking about!” was not the typical conclusion of the presentations at San Francisco’s Wisdom 2.0 conference – where Zen teachers, such as Eckhart Tolle or Jon Kabat-Zinn, spoke on the role of mindfulness in the tech community — but it is a real example of the intersecting worlds that Michael Gervais and organizations, like The Mind and Sport Institute (MSi), journey where wisdom meets high-performance athletes.

When it comes to mastering the edge in sports, Michael Gervais is the man to talk to. Gervais just completed his finest masterpiece yet; a work of art comparable to a professional sports version of Picasso’s “Guernica,” which stands as an embodiment of peace. Gervais, along with coach Pete Carroll, supported the Seattle Seahawks in winning the Super Bowl while also mindfully transforming the organization’s culture as previously noted by ESPN. At Wisdom 2.0, Gervais captivated the crowd, not with stories of players using profanity to express breakthroughs, but by bringing to life a message that lives deep in the minds and hearts of elite athletes. Through his talk on performance psychology, sports became a metaphor that fluently reminded us of the purpose of life and how to achieve it.

Unlike the modern notion that competition is all about dominance, Gervais honors the word “competition” at its true essence, which is to “strive together.” I think this may be the key message he encourages athletes to embrace. I believe it is also a means by which he gains acceptance into the often-guarded recesses of athletes’ minds in order to strive together to create their masterpiece on a shared canvas.

Gervais wants athletes to respect competition as a medium that allows them to express themselves to their fullest capability and to self-actualize who they are truly meant to be. In regard to who they are meant to be, success does not depend on “winning,” according to Gervais. In fact, he does not even mention winning in a traditional sense.

He talks about being engaged, resonating with — and exploring — what’s possible.

Coach Carroll and Gervais began their partnership by talking about creating a “masterpiece” throughout the Seahawks organization; a living moment-to-moment energy that pumps at what coach Carroll calls, “one heartbeat.”

Gervais’s message then is that winning is not defined by the score at the end of the game, but rather by “the way it feels” to be who you are. And although Gervais points out that the way we feel must not be dependent on winning the game, he does demand athletes to adopt a fearless and relentless attitude that is blind to seeing failure as an option.

So what’s his secret to helping people master the edge and enter the omnipotent mind-body state of flow? I believe it’s COURAGE.

I believe Gervais made this point clear when he reminded us that “the number one fear of American’s is public speaking.” Why public speaking? Because people fear judgment and failure, especially in front of others.

This is why athletics is so special and unique. This year’s Super Bowl alone required the Seattle Seahawks’ athletes to perform in front of over 100 million people — according to FOX — and to be judged and criticized, yet rise above it all.

For Gervais, “fear is at the center of what [they] are doing,” and mindfulness is the inner tool they use to diffuse the intensity of it. Mastering this inner-play is the key to the lock of courage, and successfully striving together.

I get the notion that just like Buddha saw the wings of wisdom and compassion as necessities to enlightenment, Gervais sees both the wing of fear and the wing of courage as necessities to lifting athletes’ game to new heights.

Here are 9 strokes inspired by Gervais’ talk to help you paint your own masterpiece:

1.Start with what is possible

Ask yourself what is possible of your performance based on your talent, skill level, dedication to training, etc., and most importantly what’s in your control. Be courageous, but also realistic, when setting your goals. Also, determine what it feels like when you perform at your best –remember, not just winning, but when you are resonating with your most courageous self. Dedicate yourself to feeling that way on a consistent basis.

2. Embrace the winning attitude

Gervais shared that the best athletes are “obsessive, anxious and perfectionists.” By fusing “what they do with who they are” they become the ultra-motivated people we come to love and admire. However, he does note that that this fusion of identity is not always healthy or sustainable in the long run, and athletes can often find themselves searching for more flexibility and freedom in their identity. If you’re serious about being the best athlete you can be, take the plunge.

3. The map is not the territory

For Gervais and Coach Carroll creating a championship organization is not about the X’s and O’s, or even the W’s and L’s. It’s about honoring the courageous journey athletes soldier; an exhibition where everyone “openly engages in situations where they are constantly vulnerable.” Know what winning truly is and where it occurs.

4. Carpe Diem

“There’s no such thing as a big moment, there’s another moment.” For example, the Seahawks considered Game 1 of the preseason as a “championship game.” As was every other game, says Gervais. They are all “championship opportunities.” Never let a day pass without putting in work — never.

5. Master the battle between being committed vs. being hesitant

Commit to the philosophy of how you are going to overcome fear and doubt. Develop and master your ability to both know and accept fear as a part of growth and how to deal with it. Know your values, these are what will keep you dedicated to journeying on your path when it gets hard to know where to step next.

Are you committed or not? There is no maybe.

6. Learn to fail fast

We are going to fail at times; it’s inevitable. See it as a stepping stone, an opportunity to strive together or compete. Develop a plan on how to recover from mistakes quickly because they are going to happen.

7. Allow the “no mind experience” to ensue

Don’t talk about the mind, don’t talk about winning, don’t talk about peak performance. Talk about what it feels like to play at your best, why you are dedicated to achieving that, what it would mean to yourself and the ones you care about.

8. Find an organization that has a courageous leader or be one yourself

Gervais made it clear that the fearless mentality within the Seahawks started from the top with coach Pete Carroll. Carroll created an organizational structure that allows for success by having a clear philosophy and he confidently got everyone to follow suit. A rose can grow from concrete, but it needs a crack to sow its first seed. Find fertile soil if you can, and if you can’t, break a crack and go hard.

9. Meditate and become more mindful

Gervais knows that the best athletes are anxious, obsessive and perfectionists; an attitude that motivates them to achieve incredible feats but also results in accumulated stress and possible burnout. Add breath awareness and meditation into your regime in order to give some relaxation to your constant human doer, and embrace your human being. Remember, Gervais sees mindfulness as the inner tool used to diffuse the intensity of fear which holds athletes back. To learn more about how meditation can both improve your performance and wellbeing check out The Mind & Sport Institute.

Gervais’ primal insight into high-performance psychology springs from his personal background in action sports and passion working within the military arena. Here, there is no room for doubt, as fatal consequences are not a just metaphor, but a sacred reality. Sport philosopher Laus V. Meier once stated:

Sports is not an intermezzo, a meaningless interlude in our daily lives similar to play. Sport adorns life, amplifies it and is to that extent a necessity both for the individual — as a life function — and for society by reason of the meaning it contains, its significance, its expressive value, its spiritual and social associations, in short, as a culture function.

I believe that Gervais and professional athletes alike can relate to Meier’s philosophy; just as artists, singers, dancers, doctors, lawyers, entrepreneurs, techies and so forth can. Sure professional athletics is not a life for everyone, but their display of courage surely is an inspiration for us all.

Oh, what a feeling

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