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.

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.

2016 US Election -Donald Trump as US President

Donald Trump is the new President of the United States. This statement, thought impossible by most political pundits, pollsters, journalists as well as much of the Western world, has come true. In what some commentators and political websites are describing as the biggest political upset in American history, Trump defied the odds and has become the new POTUS.

As outsiders observing the US election from afar, it can seem perplexing at first glance to see Trump elected as POTUS. Unlike traditional presidential candidates, his policy details are often lacking, sometimes even incoherent. He has been embroiled in innumerable personal controversies which seemingly would have disqualified other candidates from being in the conversation as a serious candidate for POTUS. I am among those who think that Donald Trump is not a worthy candidate for POTUS for these reasons (for what it’s worth, I think the same of Hillary Clinton). Despite this, it is important to note the context for how a candidate as deeply flawed as Donald Trump managed to become POTUS. Only by taking a serious, measured look at these circumstances can the necessary lessons be learned to ensure another candidate as inept and unqualified as Donald Trump does not get elected POTUS.

Firstly, despite a level of recovery since the financial crisis of 2008, many Americans are still in a precarious economic situation. Half of all Americans have no savings at all, and 70% of Americans have less than a thousand dollars in the bank. Whilst Americans in metropolitan centres have largely resumed living at a pre-crisis standard, this has not been the case in rural America, which Trump virtually swept in the final vote. Jobs are scarce and opportunity to advance in life is even more scarce. The rural/city divide extends to cultural issues. In rural America, people felt alienated and forgotten, lacking control over their lives. In many instances, these Trump voters had voted for Obama four and eight years ago. Despite this, having felt ignored by the current administration and the nation at large, they felt no other option but to vote for Trump, despite often having reservations about specific policy issues and his personal character.

The big question now is what exactly a Trump administration will look like. His presidential campaign was based on challenging Republican policy orthodoxy, particularly on key issues such as trade, immigration and America’s place in the world. In all these instances, Trump won the rhetorical debate first against the Republican establishment and ultimately the voters. On trade, Trump promised to put America first, including promises to rip up or renegotiate trade deals as well as taking measures to prevent jobs from leaving the country. On immigration, Trump has argued against current immigration levels and has promised to build a wall along the southern border of the United States to help deal with illegal immigration from the Mexican border. Trump has also repudiated America’s role as the world’s foremost power on international issues, particularly in relation to issues such as the Middle East and Russian involvement throughout Eastern Europe. This is in sharp contrast to the neoconservative doctrine which has been a GOP staple since the presidency of George W Bush.

Whether Trump will firstly follow through on these specific policies or policy directions and whether he can make significant reform in these areas remains to be seen. Throughout the Republican Primary and the general election, Trump has taken several different positions on a variety of issues, including cornerstone issues of his campaign such as immigration and trade. Many of his policies, including many of his proposals on tax are either unworkable or would require significant adjustment to be feasible. Other proposals which Trump has raised, particularly in relation to combating terrorism would be in violation of the United States Constitution. Examples of these include his proposals for torture and to place a blanket ban on Muslim immigration from the Middle East.  More importantly, despite the Republican Party having a majority in both the Senate and Congress, he may face significant opposition to many of his proposals. Many Republicans in both the Senate and Congress are opposed to Trump ideologically and may vote against his policies on a variety of issues.

From an Australian perspective, a Trump presidency could have significant ramifications for the Australia-United States alliance. Trade deals will likely have to be re-negotiated, quite possibly on terms less favourable for Australia. On significant geopolitical issues, such as the ongoing situation with China, Trump’s aggressive rhetoric toward China, if followed through in policy and action, would leave Australia in a particularly precarious position. Australia has major trade ties with China despite being allied closely with the United States and were America to engage in a trade war or a military conflict over the South China Sea, to name two examples, Australia would be in a severely compromised position, being obligated to side with America in these circumstances. So far, the Australian Government has been diplomatic and insisted relations with the United States will not change. It is hard to imagine, however, if Trump is serious about his positions on international relations, how a reworking of the Australian-American alliance will not occur.

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.

Racial Discrimination Act, 18c and the free speech debate

The debate around the Racial Discrimination Act, specifically section 18c, has been a hotly debated topic in Australian politics for an extensive period of time. The issue has once again come into the spotlight in recent weeks as backbench Coalition senators have again raised the issue, citing 18c specifically as having a ‘chilling’ effect on free speech. Section 18c, among other things, declares unlawful ‘offensive behaviour because of race, colour or national or ethnic origin’. One recent case in particular has re-energised conservative members of the Coalition in repealing Section 18c. The case in question involves a former employee at the University of Queensland Technology suing the university and students at the school. The incident in question occurred in 2013, when the employee removed students from a computer lab designated for Indigenous students. The students then took to Facebook to complain about the incident. The posts made by the students were deemed racially offensive by the employee and sought damages totalling nearly $250,000. Three years later, the case is still yet to be resolved.

Supporters of the law argue that Section 18c is a necessary component of the Racial Discrimination Act, on grounds of alleviating racial abuse and discrimination and as a way of curtailing hateful speech towards minorities. On the issue of potentially curtailing free speech, advocates for 18c cite the following provision, 18d, as a counter-argument against these concerns. 18d states that ‘18c does not render unlawful anything said or done reasonably and in good faith’. For supporters of the current legislation, the combination of both Section 18c and 18d of the Racial Discrimination Act strike the balance between protecting minorities against racial vilification and maintaining freedom of speech.

The desire to eliminate racial discrimination and vilification is, of course, a noble and worthy goal. No sensible person would argue otherwise. However, the current manner in which Section 18c is written, as well as cases such as the aforementioned case, can at times cause unintended consequences and potentially stifles discussion on sensitive issues. In particular, the terms ‘offend and insult’ within the wording of 18c can be stifling. Acting New South Wales Supreme Court Justice Ronald Sackville AO argues that this wording requires amendment. He cites Section 2A of the Racial Discrimination Act as being a legal safeguard against racially hateful actions. Section 18c and 18d, he argues, are vague and subjective in their wording, making establishing an objective and consistent legal standard for what is permissible and what isn’t permissible impossible. As a result, he argues, free speech is compromised, as there isn’t currently an objective standard to what could be considered as insulting or offensive.   Although the issue of amending the law is primarily favoured by right-leaning politicians and commentators, support for amendment can also be found among the Left, for this reason. Prominent progressive lawyers and commentators such as Julian Burnside, David Marr and Phillip Adams all support reform of the legislation on grounds of it stifling freedom of speech.

The issue of the Racial Discrimination Act and 18c in particular will likely not be a priority for the Coalition in the near future, with Malcolm Turnbull ruling out any amendment for the time being. The Act is a source of discontent for many backbenchers within the Government, however, and the broader debate of free speech and racially sensitive issues is one which will not go away. When the time comes that the Racial Discrimination Act is put forth for amendment, a mature, nuanced and comprehensive debate is required. A complex, sensitive piece of legislation such as the Racial Discrimination Act requires careful examination of all the potential legal ramifications and precedents.

South China Sea Dispute

Historical Context

The South and East China seas have long been a source of dispute between China and surrounding nations, including Japan, Vietnam, the Philippines and Taiwan. Disputes on territory have been ongoing since as far back as the late nineteenth century, with a dispute over the Diaoyu and Senkakus Islands during the Sino-Japanese war of 1894. More recently, China’s claims to territory in the region rest on what China has termed the ‘Nine-Dash Line’, an area within the South China Sea marked by nine dashes (See Figure 1). These dashes were first put on a map by the Chinese in 1947. Much of the territory within the dashes is disputed among several nations.

Slider-South-China-Sea1
Figure 1: Map highlighting the disputed area (Source: http://www.chinausfocus.com)

 

The region is an important area in a geopolitcal sense, for several reasons. The area serves as an important trade route and is important both for exports and the importation of essential raw materials and fuels for the countries in this region. It is one of the major economic corridors of the world, with a myriad of nations using this area to pass through.

The UN Ruling on the dispute

Recently, the already tense situation surrounding the South China Sea became escalated further. A United Nations Permanent Court of Arbitration ruling on territorial claims between the Philippines and China ruled almost exclusively in favour of the Philippines and against China. The ruling found that China’s claims to territory in the region were unfounded under international law. As much of the maritime territory China was claiming were rocks, low tide elevations and submerged banks, not islands, China was not entitled to claim the territory surrounding these geographical features. This is an important distinction legally, as these geographical features only carry with them a right to the surrounding 12-mile radius is territory. Islands, on the other hand, entitle the claimant to the surrounding 200-mile radius of territory. The ruling therefore strongly undermines China’s claim to territory in the area. Though a favourable decision towards the Philippines was anticipated by many experts on the region, the extent to which China’s claims were dismissed by The Hague has taken many by surprise.

Australian Interests in the dispute

Australia, as a close trading partner of most of the nations involved in the dispute, as well as a close ally of the United States, which is strongly opposed to China’s increasingly assertive stance in the region, finds itself in a precarious position. This has been exacerbated by a scathing editorial in Chinese state newspaper The Global Times which harshly denounced Australia’s position on the ruling. The paper labelled Australia a ‘paper cat’ and took aim at Australia’s ‘inglorious history’, making reference to Australia’s colonial past, among other things. The paper argued that Australia, by voicing ‘delirious’ support for The Hague’s ruling, was making itself a ‘pioneer of hurting China’s interest’.

Though The Global Times has a relatively small circulation in China, the fact that this rhetoric came from a government-ran media source is cause for concern from an Australian standpoint. As the dispute escalates, Australia will at some point have to take some action and stake a definitive stance on the issue. Though Australia is not a direct player in the dispute, the region is still important from an Australian strategic perspective. As is the case for the countries geographically adjacent to the South China Sea, Australia has economic interests in the South China Sea remaining accessible and free from escalated conflict between regional interests. If tensions were to escalate further, one possible course of action for Australia could be to resume Freedom of Navigation Operations (FONOPs), similar to exercises the United States has performed in the recent past. Such an exercise would strike a balance between showing assertiveness on our part whilst also not being an excessive provocation toward China. Though China is an essential economic partner for Australia, it is unreasonable to expect Australia to neglect its own reasonable interests in the region in order to satisfy the Chinese’s demands in the South China Sea.

This dispute, along with the broader relationship between Australia and China as well as the United States in the region, is one of the key geopolitical issues of our time, despite it receiving relatively little media attention. As Australia further increases its engagement with the Asian region, issues such as these will become more and more important towards Australia’s foreign policy. A measured, yet assertive response from an Australian perspective, as outlined above, will go a long way in ensuring crucial economic partnerships are not impacted whilst Australian strategic interests are also upheld.

 

 

Turkey’s Failed Coup: An Analysis

During the early hours of the 16th July, 2016, an attempted military coup took place in Turkey. The coup attempt, which eventually failed, began with the Turkish army taking over the building of state broadcaster TRT as well as several other important government buildings in the Turkish capital city of Ankara. The army also concurrently seized control of bridges in Istanbul. With state media temporarily in the hands of the army, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan took to mobile online media to call on his supporters and the police to resist the coup. Erdogan’s supporters and the police quickly responded, mobilising against the coup. By mid-morning, the coup attempted had been effectively stopped, with hundreds of deaths and nearly 2000 people being injured in the process.

In the aftermath of the coup, President Erdogan has quickly arrested thousands of soldiers, generals, judges and government workers involved with the coup. Thousands more in government positions have lost their jobs for their involvement. There has also been speculation that Erdogan has been considering re-introducing the death penalty for those found to have been involved in the coup attempt. The speed in which the arrests and sackings have taken place have led some pundits and commentators to suggest that the coup was orchestrated or at least encouraged by Erdogan as a means of further consolidating power.

There is some merit to this view. Ever since Erdogan’s AKP (Justice and Development Party) took office in 2002, Turkey has drifted from being a relatively secular democracy to an increasingly authoritarian and Islamist state. In the last few years in particular, free speech and expression has been increasingly restricted in Turkish society, with social media access being intermittently cut off and media outlets such as The Daily Sabah being taken over by the government. The increasing slide towards Islamist authoritarianism and against secularism bears more than a passing resemblance to Iran in 1979. In that situation, Iran went through an Islamic revolution which removed a secular monarchist leadership. Though Erdogan has not removed a sitting government, by purging the secular military, one of Turkey’s few remaining independent institutions, he may take Turkey towards an entirely authoritarian, Islamist nation.

Unlike most other nations, the Turkish army is a separate entity from the government. This is an arrangement that has been in place for nearly a century, since the end of World War One. The founder of the modern Turkish Republic, Kemal Ataturk, set up the army as a means of safeguarding Turkey’s secular society as envisioned by Ataturk and was kept separate as a means of keeping the government of the day in check. Before the last attempted coup on the 16th July, Turkey had survived five previous coup attempts. As was the case in the latest attempt, the coups arose as a response to Turkey drifting from a secular state as Ataturk had envisioned into a more fundamentalist Islamic state, the type of which Erdogan has presided over during his reign as President.

The failed coup and its aftermath has widespread ramifications. Firstly, Turkey’s position as a NATO member is put into serious doubt. US Secretary of State John Kerry has warned as such, stating that Turkey needed to stay committed to ‘democratic principles’ in the wake of the attempted coup. Any future bid for Turkey to join the European Union is also far less likely in the wake of the attempted coup. The crackdown on the army, particularly its more secular elements also raises questions about Turkey’s reliability as a partner in the ongoing fight against the Islamic State. France’s foreign minister, Jean-Marc Ayrault, argues that the coup raises questions about Turkey’s viability as an effective partner in the fight against ISIS. The current political instability in Turkey and the uncertainty about its security situation also complicates NATO efforts against ISIS. The use of key military bases is a primary concern. Bases such as Incirlik, which are close to the Syrian border are key to current efforts against ISIS. Another key split between Turkey and especially the United States is the Kurdish question. The Kurds and their fighting force, the Peshmerga, despite lacking equipment or the structure of a formal state, have been arguably the most important ground-based fighting force against ISIS. Despite this, Turkey views Kurdish groups such as the Peshmerga and the PKK (Kurdistan Workers’ Party) as both being terrorist organisations, in contrast to the United States, who see only the PKK as a terrorist organisation and the Peshmerga as a key ally. The latest coup attempt, Erdogan’s reaction and further slide into authoritarianism look set to only exacerbate these concerns, to the detriment of regional stability and security.