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Leading Through Anxiety into Flow

Inner and Outer Games

I was recently enlisted by the Waratahs rugby team to help them come back from a disappointing season in 2017.  To do this, I chose to shift into fifth person perspective and simply observe. As I integrated myself with the team, I watched the players as individuals and a collective to gain an understanding of the inner game that was taking place. At the same time, I was taking note of the outer game which was reflective of the team’s processes, systems, and communications.


Defining Performance

When challenge (meaning) and skills (performance) match each other, you have the definition of engagement. It is an alignment of opportunities with skills and performance to facilitate engagement in the present moment. This combination is the intentional meaningfulness that each of the players brings to their performance, leaving behind any unintentional meaningfulness that is no longer of service.


Reframing Anxiety

I have worked with individuals within the team to overcome the anxiety and intense pressure that comes with high-performance sport. The structure of anxiety is a strategy that sends your focus into the future with predictions based in the past. As you go towards the future, you take past experiences with you and look at the future through the lens of the past. When this happens, your resources remain in the past, which takes away your capacity to build resources along the way. These movies of the future that are based on past events, create a false reality that inadvertently impacts your present mind-body-emotional state.

The interesting thing about anxiety is that you would not get anxious if the possibility of an alternative self-actualised outcome was not possible. That is, if what you were worried about could not occur in a different way, there would be nothing to be anxious about. This means that anxiety is actually the awakening of your potential.

The Waratahs players, like all of us, needed to shift their thinking about anxiety to realise that it was calling them to lean in and take risks to begin to actualise their fullest potentials.


Moving into Flow

To help the players get to this point, we focused on examining the framework that was running behind the content. This is about listening to the structure of thinking and how to determine when that structure is no longer of service.  In many cases we have been able to identify what these self-defeating structures meant, and why they were designed that way (the positive intent). Players had to question if their structures were still enabling them to grow and develop to their fullest potential.  If they answered no, our task was to design a new and different structure. The new structure needed to be able to run their game outside of their awareness when they moved into flow. The role of flow is critical to enable them to step outside of themselves (and their structures) during a game.

Flow is where the players literally forget themselves and allow their skills to come to the forefront. This is the reason for dedication to practice.  Practice is necessary for the skills to imprint on their systems. When the team is in flow, the skills flow without conscious thought, and the game plays itself.

Developmental coaching has played a part in enabling the flow (a natural state) within the Waratahs team.  In the moments where individuals and the team have been able to get past the intense pressure they were under, they gave themselves permission to have fun and play to their full potential. As they played in flow, they were able to blow away the opposition and exceed all of their own expectations.

I even watched a few of them look up at the scoreboard in what they later termed as disbelief.  This is what happens in flow; time passes without recognition. There’s no through time; there is only the player in time.  The players were so engaged in watching the ball and unleashing their potential, that time became irrelevant as flow took over. Suddenly their concerns, nervousness, and anxiety were replaced with a sense of pride, accomplishment, and personal self-actualisation.


Applications in the Workplace

This acceptance of anxiety and shift into flow that brought the Waratahs some early success has applications in the workplace.  A large part of leading the human part of organisational success is being able to understand and awaken possibility within your people. Understanding and facilitating movement with the integration of the potential in anxiety is critical.

In my view, the real opportunity for a leader is to learn to lead human beings, not just the content (tasks, outcomes etc.) of what they do. The 5 core competencies of a self-actualized leader


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