The State of ‘Flow’ and Combat Sports

The state of ‘flow’, often referred to as being in ‘the zone’, is an important concept in psychology, especially in sports psychology. The flow state, according to psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi is a state where a person is completely absorbed in a task or activity, particularly one which involves creativity. It occurs when a task is being performed that is difficult and requires concentration, yet is performed in a manner which feels effortless, natural and without deliberate thought. Flow state, therefore, is the state of mind conducive to the greatest level of growth and achievement in relation to a skill, task or action. There are several steps necessary to achieve a flow state, per Csikszentmihaly. These are, briefly, as follows:

  • There are clear goals every step of the way.
  • There is immediate feedback to one’s actions.
  • There is a balance between challenges and skills.
  • Action and awareness are merged.
  • Distractions are excluded from consciousness.
  • There is no worry of failure.
  • Self-consciousness disappears.
  • The sense of time becomes distorted.
  • The activity becomes an end in itself.

A flow state can occur during any activity, even a task as mundane as eating food or cleaning dishes. However, it is usually associated with activities such as art and especially sport. Indeed, many elite athletes in professional sports have described the flow state, or ‘being in the zone’ as a critical element of their success. Scientific research backs up these claims, showing that the flow state directly correlates to improved athletic performance. According to several studies, achieving the flow state is associated with a measurable reduction in the amount of errors made in a sporting situation, as well as a heightened state of overall awareness, leading to enhanced performance.

Control over the mind and thoughts is especially important in combat sports. These sports are often characterised by the casual observer and non-practitioner as being only concerned with physical strength and ability. The mental and psychological aspects of these sports is often overlooked or dismissed outright. From personal experience as a practitioner of Muay Thai kickboxing, I argue that this could not be further from the truth. The ability to perform in any sport, especially a combat sport such as Muay Thai, requires complete control of one’s mental state, thoughts and emotions. The ability to control your mindset and thoughts in relation to executing a task in a state of flow is essential for a combat sports practitioner, particularly the latter stages relating to distraction, fear of failure and self-consciousness is critical. All the physical conditioning and preparation counts for naught if training occurs under during a state of mental anxiety, unease and self-consciousness. A routine training task, such as hitting pads or shadowboxing can one day be relatively simple and the next day exhausting if emotions are not kept in check. This disparity in exertion for the same task becomes even greater if emotions are not kept under control in a more complex situation such as live sparring. Coming to terms with this fact and mentally training to attain a state of flow has become the primary ongoing obstacle for me to overcome in my Muay Thai training. As difficult as the physical fitness aspect of training in this sport has been thus far, training the mind to be calm under duress has been far more difficult an obstacle to overcome.

Though I have used the example of Muay Thai to illustrate the concept of the flow state and the importance of controlling the thought process in mastering skills and executing them in an effective manner, flow state can occur in any instance. The process of outlining clear goals, deconstructing the goal into manageable yet challenging steps and then practicing these with a positive mindset that focuses on practice as an opportunity to learn and develop, rather than as something to feel apprehensive or self-conscious about is a process and mindset that can be applied to anything in life. An awareness of how the flow state occurs and how to work towards it can improve performance in all manner of tasks.

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Mindfulness and Meditation – A Primer

 

The concept of mindfulness is one which has been talked about much in the media and popular culture in recent times. This concept is often described as an antidote for the various stresses, anxieties and problems faced by large portions of the population. In the last decade mindfulness-based cognitive therapy has gained much mainstream traction in psychological therapeutic practice. Mindfulness is, simply put, a state of open and active attention to the present moment that is free of judgement. In this context, a judgement-free state of attention to the present moment means simply acknowledging the current moment as it is, whether it be a good or bad situation, without further emotional judgment. Rather than being preoccupied with thoughts about the past or the future, mindfulness, when practiced correctly, allows for calmer, clearer and more rational decision-making and thought. Mindfulness and concentrating on the task at hand, practiced over an extensive period, leads to a variety of quantifiable benefits, including reduced stress, increased memory and reduces emotional reactions to situations.   Though it is often talked about in relation to meditation, mindfulness can occur at any moment, during or outside a period of meditation.

Mindfulness and meditation are often coupled with Eastern religions and spiritual practices such as Buddhism and Hinduism. Though the practice originated with these traditions, mediation and mindfulness is not inherently a spiritual or religious practice. It is quite possible and in fact beneficial to de-couple the practice of meditation from religion. As famed neuroscientist Sam Harris notes, many meditative practices derived from Buddhism and Hinduism are inhibited by the beliefs associated with these practices. Rather than focusing on the beneficial aspects of meditation, these practices often concern themselves with ritual and religious dogma, much of which detracts from the act of meditation itself. One of the forms of meditation that avoids this pitfall is vipassana, or ‘insight’ meditation. This form of meditation focuses on non-judgemental attention to the present moment and creates the conditions necessary for mindfulness.

Many scientific studies have shown the clear psychological and neurological benefits to a regular practice of meditation. Despite its reputation as being an impractical spiritual practice, meditation has quantifiable benefits in a variety of ways. For a start, it has been proven to create more grey matter in the brain, which has a positive benefit on cognitive performance, processing of information and reactions to situations. Meditation practice has also been associated with changes to the amygdala, which regulates ‘fight or flight’ responses, allowing for calmer and more rational decision making under duress.

Meditation, like most new skills and practices, is simple to understand, but difficult to truly master. The first step, sitting down, closing your eyes and breathing, is relatively easy for most people. Being able to concentrate on the act of meditation without either being consumed by or repressing thoughts, however, is significantly harder. Distractions quickly arise and can easily overwhelm the beginning meditator. When this inevitably occurs, it is important to focus on an anchor, such as the breath to ‘reset’ the mind back on the task of meditation. Though the breath is a common and ideal starting point, anything can be used as an anchor. Developing an ongoing mindfulness and meditation practice is not an easy task. It requires discipline and work the same way as developing a consistent practice in any other activity does, whether it be an exercise routine, a diet or learning an instrument. For those willing to put in the effort of a consistent practice, however, the benefits are clear and worth the time investment.

Venezuela On The Brink: Economic and Humanitarian Crisis

Venezuela is in the grip of an unprecedented humanitarian and economic crisis. Much of the population lives in poverty, masses are making do without even food and the most basic of supplies and the economy is in utter ruin. It is estimated that as many as 9 in 10 citizens do not have access to adequate amounts of food, and spend almost the equivalent of a standard working week each month queuing for food. Supermarket shelves are frequently empty of any kind of food, with scavenging for food scraps now a common practice in the country. Beset by a lack of opportunity or even basic supplies, the crime rate, particularly violent crimes, has skyrocketed. Venezuela currently has the second highest homicide rate in the world after El Salvador. At this point, it is almost inevitable that the country will either default or go into complete economic collapse within the next 12 to 24 months. The cause of this humanitarian crisis has been an economic collapse years in the making, which has been compounded exponentially in the last few years.

The chief cause of Venezuela’s remarkable collapse has been the staggering mismanagement of the economy firstly by authoritarian Socialist president Hugo Chavez and then by his successor, Nicolas Maduro. The state-controlled oil industry, which accounts for half the country’s revenue, is at the centre of the story of Venezuela’s economic collapse. For many years, the oil industry has been run incompetently by both Maduro and Chavez. The state-run system, which did not allow for private competitors, became inefficient as well as corrupt. In addition, price controls set by Chavez in 2003 reduced the industry’s global competitiveness and eventually rendered Venezuelan currency virtually obsolete, creating a black market. The profits of the industry, estimated at some $250 billion between 2001 and 2015 was spent entirely on social programs including the importation of food, often in a wasteful and ineffective manner. However, as the global oil price collapsed in the last few years, so too has Venezuela’s ability to take in revenue from oil. Worse still, oil production has reduced in recent years. Despite this, there has been no change to Venezuela’s ambitious social programs, nor any change to the Venezuelan oil industry, or indeed its economy in general. With inflation tipped to reach 700 per cent by the end of 2016 and the overall economy to contract between 8 and 10 per cent, drastic changes are needed immediately. However, there is virtually no chance of this occurring, at least while current president Nicolas Maduro remains in power.

The crisis is compounded by the authoritarian nature of Maduro’s rule. Despite his immense unpopularity (a recent poll indicated only around 15 percent of Venezuelans would vote for him in an election or recall referendum), Maduro is holding on to power through a series of increasingly unconstitutional and dictatorial moves. Maduro recently amended via decree the country’s Constitution to grant him more executive power at the expense of the country’s Congress. President Maduro has also recently sacked hundreds of public servants who signed a recall petition demanding a referendum on his presidency, as well as the majority of his economic team after scarcely a month in power. The opposition has recently gathered sufficient votes to force a recall referendum on Maduro’s presidency. Maduro, however, has delayed holding the referendum. In the meantime, the opposition leader Daniel Cebbalos has been imprisoned. This move comes as part of a broader crackdown on political opposition and dissent in the country.

Despite the seriousness of the crisis enveloping Venezuela, the international community’s response to the situation has been mild. There has been limited effort into managing the ongoing crisis, and when efforts have been made, little more has been produced than generic statements of concern about the situation. Yet, there is a real possibility that Venezuela could collapse as a nation completely, destabilising the entire region as well as having significant implications for the global oil market, causing ripples in the global economy. A much more concerted effort is needed to manage the ever-escalating Venezuelan crisis, and it is needed now. The Venezuelan state could collapse at any moment, and if so, the international community is inadequately prepared for the implications of this collapse.

Donald Trump and the American Presidential Race

There’s no point in denying it at this point of the Republican Primaries. Donald Trump is virtually guaranteed at this point to be the Republican nominee for President. The scenario which I laid out in a post back in December, in which the Republican establishment has to contend with a Trump nomination has just about been realised. It is almost guaranteed that he will win most of the states involved in the Super Tuesday primaries handily. The only state in significant doubt for Trump is Texas, the home state of Senator Ted Cruz. According to aggregate polling from RealClearPolitics, Cruz holds a 9-point lead over Trump in this state. Even if Cruz wins Texas, Trump will still have a huge lead in terms of delegates over rivals Cruz and Marco Rubio. Furthermore, with both Cruz and Rubio still contesting the primary, neither has a clear path as establishment candidates to successfully challenge Trump, with both candidates taking support from one another.

Donald Trump’s success to this point has been based on challenging certain orthodoxies of the Republican Party which have stood since the Reagan presidency of the 1980s. One of the primary orthodoxies, which is not very popular with the Republican base, is neoliberal or ‘trickle-down’ economics, which emphasises low taxes, a globalised economy and a diminished welfare state. Much of Trump’s support comes from the working classes, many of whom have been left behind by globalisation and believe the state has a role in ensuring the welfare of its citizens. Related to this, Trump also plays into anxieties around immigration, particularly illegal and undocumented immigrants, of whom there are presently an estimated twelve million within the United States. Globalised economics has meant a large increase in migration, both legal and illegal. Despite all the benefits this has brought to large swathes of the population, many in the working classes, particularly those without a tertiary education, have not been beneficiaries of globalisation. His insistence of building a wall along the Mexican border, at the Mexicans’ expense, as well as raising trade tariffs with China, resonates strongly with this particular constituency.

The George W Bush presidency and his advocacy for a neoconservative, interventionist foreign policy also angered many of these voters. The Iraq War and its aftermath has been attacked heavily by Trump, despite Trump himself supporting the war back in 2002. Trump has also claimed that Bush lied about the 9/11 attacks, as well as questioning his leadership in relation to the attack. This is a marked departure from the Republican establishment, who have consistently praised Bush’s response to the 9/11 attacks and the Iraq War. These factors, along with Trump’s brash, outspoken mannerisms appeal to these voters, who are deeply dissatisfied with the Republican establishment of the last few decades.

Trump’s highly-charged rhetoric on these issues, however, is inconsistent with his past behaviour and statements. On the issue of undocumented workers, for instance, Trump is shown to be hypocritical. Recent reports highlight his use of 150 illegal labourers in the construction of Trump Tower, some of whom were not paid fully. Trump’s position on border control may also not be as strong as it appears. BuzzFeed reported that the New York Times has a tape which suggests Trump is not fixed on his position in relation to immigration. According to the report, Trump’s current position was merely the start of a ‘negotiation’ in relation to the issue. As well as his inconsistency and lack of coherence on many issues, some of his more outlandish statements will likely hurt Trump in a general election contest, despite not appearing to affect him in the primary. Only days ago, Trump repeatedly refused to disavow support from white supremacist David Duke, in the latest of a series of incidents involving Trump and white supremacists. Trump has also repeatedly entertained conspiracy theories, not only during this campaign but also in 2012, when he argued that Barack Obama was not an American citizen. In this cycle, Trump has entertained conspiracy theories relating to the death of Justice Antonin Scalia, as well as speaking to prominent conspiracy theorist Alex Jones on multiple occasions.

A Trump candidacy, despite his success in the Primary, leaves the Republican Party with a deeply flawed candidate to contest a general election against a relatively weak Democratic nominee, presumably in Hillary Clinton. Polling suggests that in a general election contest against Clinton, Trump would lose by a margin of several points. This margin has not changed since December and it does not appear that Trump will be able to close the gap any time soon. This is in contrast to Cruz and Rubio, both of whom would beat Clinton in a general election matchup.

There is also the more fundamental problem of a long-term ideological split within the party. On the one hand, there are the newly-empowered populist conservatives of the party, spearheaded by Trump. These Republicans would like to see a more restrained foreign policy as well as a more protectionist economic policy, similar to that of European-style conservative populists. Trump himself has been likened to a European-style nationalist-minded conservative, such as Nigel Farage in the UK or Marine Le Pen of France or On the other hand, there are Reagan-style conservatives who are vehemently opposed to the likes of Donald Trump, who they see as the antithesis of the fiscally restrained, socially conservative and internationally interventionist Ronald Reagan. Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio are both very much in this camp of the Republican Party, especially in terms of fiscal policy. Such is the difference between these visions of conservatism that there is now considerable speculation whether the party itself will split. Even if the Republican party remains as is, the struggle over its core principles and ideology is such that it will struggle to be viable in elections, not only in the upcoming general election, but also in the foreseeable future.

Turnbull’s Troubles: Why Re-Election is No Longer a Formality

In recent weeks, Malcolm Turnbull and his Coalition Government has had its share of struggles. Numerous things have gone against the Government, from ministerial troubles to policy agenda setbacks. Not so long ago, it appeared that re-election for the Turnbull Government was a mere formality. Fresh from a successful leadership ballot which saw Malcolm Turnbull become the new leader of the Liberal Party and therefore the new Prime Minister, Turnbull initially enjoyed a great deal of popularity, particularly in contrast to Labor leader Bill Shorten, who was struggling with near-record low approval ratings. Yet this initial wave of popularity now seems a distant memory, with Newspoll recently polling the Coalition and Labor at 50/50 on a two party preferred basis.

For all the talk of a fresh, policy-based outlook toward governance, the Coalition so far been found wanting. This lack of policy leadership has been exemplified by the ongoing debate around Labor’s recently introduced policy regarding negative gearing, as well as in the broader debate of taxation and fiscal policy. In terms of taxation policy, Turnbull and the Coalition have ceded ground to Labor. Having put forth few ideas apart from recently rejecting a GST rise after a prolonged silence on the subject, Labor have taken the policy initiative on this front. Labor Treasurer Chris Bowen, by contrast, has released several significant policies, including changes to negative gearing, capital gains tax and superannuation concession tightening among other measures. Malcolm Turnbull has responded to the negative gearing measure by arguing that it would be a ‘wrecking ball’ for house prices and would hurt ‘mum and dad’ investors trying to get ahead. Yet his own Assistant Treasurer Kelly O’Dwyer, went on television arguing the opposite, before retracting her statements shortly after, a gaffe which highlights the lack of a consistent narrative from the government on this issue.

Other setbacks, such as the resignation of ministers, have also not helped the image of the Coalition. Only a few weeks ago, Stuart Robert, then the Minister for Veterans’ Affairs among other portfolios, was forced to resign after it was revealed he had attended a signing ceremony between Australian company Nimrod Resources and a Chinese firm. A conflict of interest arose after it came to light that the chairman of Nimrod Resources, Paul Marks, was a prominent donor to the Liberal Party. This resignation followed the resignation of two other frontbenchers, Jamie Briggs and Mal Brough, forcing Malcolm Turnbull into a second cabinet reshuffle only a few months into his time as Prime Minister.

In the government’s favour is the fact that there are still several months before an election has to be called. Turnbull also stills holds a significant lead over Shorten as preferred Prime Minister and the Coalition is still, albeit narrowly, the preferred party of government over Labor in most polls. For this to continue, however, Malcolm Turnbull and the Liberal Party will have to reverse this state of affairs, and quickly. A consistent and significant policy agenda will need to be developed in order to effectively counter the policy measures being put forth by Labor. The upcoming federal Budget will prove to be crucial in this regard. Turnbull will need to be bold and differentiate himself significantly from Labor as well as from the Abbott leadership which he successfully challenged. Unpopular budgetary measures were, after all, the reason Abbott was challenged and ultimately overthrown as leader. A repeat budgetary performance from Turnbull in current circumstances may well cost him the election, an almost unthinkable proposition when he took over as Prime Minister only a few months ago.

The Scarce Commission Findings and the Case for Nuclear Power

On Monday, the Scarce Royal Commission released its preliminary findings into nuclear power for South Australia. The findings, among other things, suggest that there is a significant positive fiscal case for accepting nuclear waste storage in South Australia. According to estimates in the report, accepting nuclear waste could net the state an average of $5.6 billion in its first 30 years of operation. In addition to this, the report finds that there would be an additional economic benefit in excess of two billion dollars for the following 43 years. The report also looked at options such as nuclear electricity generation, domestic processing and manufacture and expansion of uranium mining. However, the economic benefits for all three of these options were considerably weaker and not viable in the short term in the way a nuclear storage facility would be.

Though the initial findings of the report have been welcomed by many, there are some South Australians who are unconvinced about the benefits of nuclear waste storage for the state. The most vocal of these critics include the South Australian Greens as well as various environmental and anti-nuclear groups. Greens MLC Mark Parnell was dismissive of the findings, claiming that the report does not take into account the various costs of processing nuclear material, shipping nuclear waste to Australia as well as the cost of infrastructure. He claimed that the report was biased and “all about the dump”. Locals from the proposed site for the facility in South Australia’s Kimba region are also currently opposed to any such facility.

The economic lifeline that storing nuclear waste as well as from related industries is simply too important for South Australia to dismiss outright. It is no secret that South Australia is in a precarious economic position and has performed worse than other Australian states for a long time now. According to the findings of the Scarce Commission, the windfall from a nuclear storage facility could amount to over five billion dollars a year for several decades, or the equivalent to one-third of the current revenue the government takes in yearly, which is approximately 16 billion dollars. For an economy like that of South Australia, which is struggling to transition from the mining boom as well as the imminent closure of major manufacturing plants, nuclear storage revenue would grant the local economy some much-needed stability and revenue. Premier Jay Weatherill has, encouragingly, hinted tentatively at support for a nuclear storage facility, according to SA Labor insiders. This is despite opposition from federal Labor leader Bill Shorten, as well as much of the political Left in Australia.

It is important to re-iterate that these are only the preliminary findings. The full findings of the report will not be released until May. Even once the full findings are released, an extensive and robust debate in the community will need to occur before anything is finalised. As Commissioner Kevin Scarce states in the report, a bipartisan political approach as well as broad community support is required in order to make a nuclear storage facility in South Australia a reality. The findings released so far, however, are clearly encouraging in terms of exploring options related to nuclear power.

A Few Thoughts: Australia Day

On Australia Day, our national day of celebration, it is important to take time to reflect on just what makes Australia the great country it is. By most metrics, particularly socio economic ones, Australia is among the leading countries in the world. Australians enjoy one of the highest average life expectancies, averaging a life expectancy of over 82 years. In terms of average GDP, Australia also stacks up well in comparison to the rest of the world, at a figure of approximately $43,000 per person. From this standpoint, Australians enjoy a standard of living which is among the best in the world. Unlike Europe and to a lesser extent the United States, Australia has for the most part a positive economic outlook going forward, despite challenges such as the transition away from the mining boom.

Australian society enjoys a level of stability and cohesion which is the envy of virtually every other nation on the planet. An individual in Australia has the opportunity and freedom to live however they wish to do so. Our egalitarian national character emphasises equality among people, regardless of status or economic standing. Thanks to this egalitarianism, Australia is less vulnerable to the radical class divides of nations such as the United States or the United Kingdom. The stability of Australian society is no more evident than when Australia’s political system and institutions are compared to many European nations or America. Our constitutional monarchy, for example, ensures that our political system does not concentrate power in the hands of an individual leader in the manner of the American republican system or other equivalent systems throughout Europe. Extreme far-left and far-right parties have virtually no representation in the Australian parliamentary system, unlike in many democracies throughout Europe, where these elements are becoming more and more influential, often to the detriment of their overall politics.

To be sure, there are challenges which Australian society still needs to contend with. For example, racial relations within Australian society, though improving all the time, can still improve further. Stan Grant, reporter for Sky News and Guardian Australia columnist, eloquently pointed out these issues recently during a debate at the Ethics Centre. Debates such as these are of course necessary and important. However, in my opinion, Australia Day should be, primarily, a day of celebration, of acknowledging all that is great about Australia. Calls to rename Australia Day to ‘Invasion Day’, for example, as a means of acknowledging the nation’s troubled past in relation to its indigenous population, while well-intentioned, are misguided and ultimately counter-productive and divisive. Rather than creating a sense of cohesion and community toward solving the genuine issues of the present, initiatives such as these would do little apart from create a fixation on the past. Acknowledging history is of course important. However, concrete actions in the present by government and civil society to address issues such as the gaps in Indigenous life expectancy and education are more useful in the long run than symbolic actions such as changing the name of Australia Day to Invasion Day.