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Tuesday, January 17, 2023

Volleyball Coaching Life-Thoughts are the Enemy of Flow

I am a big fan of serendipity; I love it when disparate threads from my life manage to get intertwined in my mind and create a new connection.

Ever since the passing of Jeff Beck last week, I had been astounded by my social media feeds filling up with tributes, live performance videos, and stories that honor him.

I found a video that was posted three months ago by Rick Beato, obviously not as a posthumous tribute. If you are unfamiliar with Beato’s YouTube channel ( ,  you should take a dip into its wonders. He creates videos about music, mostly about rock, jazz, and pop music as he is a music producer. The videos take a deep dive into what makes the specific music he showcases great. He digs into music theory, pontificate about the reasons that he thinks makes the music great, he tells great stories about the music business, and of course he mentions the musician he has known; it is well worth checking out.

This video is about Jeff Beck’s music, Beato makes the point that his playing is “uncopiable” ( . The performance footage that Beato showed was intense, moving, and virtuosic.  In the middle of one of the performance footages, Beato quotes Vinnie Colaiuta, Jeff Beck’s drummer, describing the reason for Jeff Beck’s virtuosic playing:

“Thought is the enemy of flow.”

Beato isn’t the only one that notes Jeff Beck’s uniqueness as a musician, the laudatory tweets and tributes from other notable musicians, particularly other guitarists, are not only numerous, enthusiastic, and worshipful, they refer specifically to his lyrical interpretations and the musicality of his performances.

I am fascinated by exceptional people who do exceptional things. I am especially interested about why and how the way that they do what they do is different and unique, so different and unique that makes their work sublime and verging on the superhuman. I like to watch people unleash their genius while practicing their craft, in other words, I like to watch people in the flow. My fascination comes from a pragmatic place, a place where I wonder if I can replicate their flow experience for myself. Whether I can teach my students and players to experience flow, not just experience it once, but experience it regularly, continuously, and consistently.

This is the eternal question then: even as the people who can perform within the flow cannot, with certainty, tell us how and why they do what they do in minute detail, because if they were to try to describe how they flowed, they would stop flowing. If they tried to dogmatically analyze and break down how and why they do what they do, they will have lost that magic of flow instantaneously, because “Thought is the enemy of flow.”

Historically, the flow concept is one that is beyond human language’s ability to convey. To paraphrase Justice Potter Stewart when he was referring to a pornography case being debated in front of the Supreme Court: “I cannot define it, but I know it when I see it.” Moreover, one usually does not become aware of being in the flow as the recognition that you are in the flow snaps you out of the flow. That is part of the uniqueness of being in flow, once you realize you are in flow, that recognition usually takes you out of flow.

Of course, that doesn’t stop people from trying. Mihaly Csiksentmihalyi describes the state of flow in his  book The Psychology of the Optimal Experience (Csikszentmihalyi 1990) and Edward Slingerland describes wu-wei, a Taoist concept akin to flow in his book  Trying Not to Try: The Art and Science of Spontaneity (Slingerland, Trying Not to Try: The Art and Science of Spontaneity 2014). The two approached it from two completely dissimilar cultural contexts, one from the western psychological view and the other from the Chinese Taoist and Confucian traditions.

Here’s how Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi described the state of flow:

Being completely involved in an activity for its own sake. The ego falls away.  Every action, movement, and thought follows inevitably from the previous one, like playing jazz. Your whole being is involved, and you’re using your skills to the utmost.”

The first two complete sentences: The ego falls away.  Every action, movement, and thought follows inevitably from the previous one, like playing jazz. Neatly encapsulates the feel of flow. It is also very meaningful that he compared the feeling of flow to music.

While Edward Slingerland defined wu-wei as:

the dynamic, effortless, and unselfconscious state of mind of a person who is optimally active and effective.

The words: dynamic, optimally active, effective stand out. Slingerland’s word selection makes us infer physical states of being effortful; these words are juxtaposed with the words effortless and unselfconscious, which infer mental states of being fluid, unforced and unconscious. The descriptive words being used seem deliberately contradictory, which accurately captures the tension inherent in how we understand flow/wu-wei; we are performing purposefully with our actions yet also free flowing with our intent.

Turning back to Jeff Beck’s musical performances, we can hear flow in the music while imagining Jeff Beck being wu-wei. Beato talks about how each note is distinct. He lauds his unique  technique as being impeccable while also calling attention to Jeff Beck’s musical fluidity and improvisational prowess. Such terms as feel  and feeling are often used to describe Jeff Beck’s music,  yet those words seem rather inadequate in describing his performances.

In reading the praises from his fellow musicians, Jeff Beck stood out because he treated each performance as a fresh chance to  teach an old dog (the tunes)  a new trick; even though the tunes are and have been a regular part of his repertoire for decades. There is nothing rote about his approach to playing. He takes every opportunity to play seriously, treats every gig as a chance to create new interpretations. The key is that he does all this extemporaneously, spontaneously, and in the flow.

How is he able to do this every time he plays? How is it that he is able to do so without getting into a rut, and repeating himself? This is where the Colaiuta quote comes in: Thought is the enemy of flow. He doesn’t think his way through the song. He just plays.  Although he doesn’t “just” play, he consistently plays in the flow. The music comes directly from his history with the tune and his experiences playing that tune. Deep in the recesses of his imagination, he allows the experiences affect his feelings about the tune and then he lets it flow. The flow is translated through his nervous system, executed by his body, and he does not allow thinking to interfere, thinking would kill the flow. If he were to just think about the performance, the spontaneity and the extemporaneousness of the flow is gone, disappearing as magically as it came.

Music is what happens in between the notes. This is a quote that is brought up and attributed apocryphally, and perhaps wrongly, to Mozart. It expresses the ambiguities that make music something much greater than a robotic and tedious recreation of the notes, with humans acting the role of the robot. What it is saying is that music is not a strict and direct interpretation of the black dots on a white page.

I wrote a piece titled Leaving Space for the Divine in 2016. A topic that came from a quote from Jane Campion, the film maker from New Zealand. She says that as an artist she is always: “leaving space for the divine”, with the divine being anything that is uncertain, unexpected, unpredictable, and unforeseeable, and not necessarily religious. (

What happens in between the notes is that space is left for the divine. Those particular spaces are what makes music transcendent. That ability to make space, to make meaning appear and happen between the notes is what defines the music, and flow is the force, the inspiration, the magic which tells Jeff Beck how and why  to make space for the divine.

As I pondered this idea, my mind converted the context of this mental exercise about flow from music to playing a sport, the sport of volleyball to be exact.  

I ask some basic questions:

·       What would a Jeff Beck of volleyball play like?

·       What does a volleyball player who is completely involved in playing volleyball for its own sake look like? 

·       How does one make the player’s ego fall away.  

·       How does the player’s every action, movement, and thought follow inevitably from the previous one, like playing jazz  and become unconscious and natural?

·       How does one get the player’s whole being involved, and using their skills to the utmost?

·       What does dynamic, effortless, and unselfconscious state of mind of a volleyball player who is optimally active and effective look like and feel like? How do we get there?

There are obviously no obvious answers, or else people would be selling it on the internet.

I thought it would be interesting, if not entirely helpful, to examine the similarities and differences between being the virtuoso in music and being the virtuoso in playing volleyball. A bit of extrapolation and over analysis for the sake of over analysis.

The first thing that came to mind is the virtuosity, the ”chops”, skills, athleticism, and ability of the player. The player must be skilled enough to act and react with purpose in order to have complete autonomy to be in the flow; that is, being able to execute what they wish so that they can accomplish their goals tactically. They must have mastery over their techniques and the mechanics of the sport. There is considerable debate amongst coaches about the how to develop the skills. Some are proponents of endless and mindless repetitions so that the player can execute without thinking, while others are proponents of letting the game teach the skills. The discussions have polarized to the point where both sides are paralyzed by the over analysis.

The key question on what to do relies on the skill and experience levels of the players. For someone who is as skilled and experienced as a volleyball counterpart to Jeff Beck, there is no question, let them play and improvise. Put them in situations that are not replicable in the practice gym while experiencing desirable difficulties to allow them to learn by improvisation.

But, for those whose virtuosity is not developed or is limited, there is a case to be made for the dreaded block training and incessant reps until the desirable difficulties within those activities have diminished to the point that the player is no longer challenged; this is when skills development can evolve through the continually improvement spectrum of abilities that everyone undergo as they edge towards the manifold levels of mastery. The determining factor is level of skills and level of experience. This idea is not new. Musicians must develop their musical knowledge through playing what seems to be an interminable amount scales and arpeggios. STEM students must have the mathematical and physical fundamentals of their sciences metaphorically tattooed in their minds, whether it is the multiplication tables, the table of elements, trigonometric identities, or the infinite amounts of physical constants.  (Oakley 2014) (Guadagnoli 2004)

Indeed, our desirable goal of a completely fluid player in the mold of a Jeff Beck must have the “chops”. In volleyball, it means that the player is so skilled and fluid in their ability to solve problems physically and cognitively that they completely bypass thinking. Thought is the enemy of flow. A player can still be in the flow without having the chops, but their flow looks different and feels different from the flow of a player who has “chops”. Indeed, I theorize that the better their “chops” the more sustainable, effective, and repeatable their flow state become. Just a supposition.

The next thing that comes to my mind is that the mental attitude of the player is critical to whether they can get in the flow.

The player must not take each chance to play as if they are repeating the same familiar game, this comes from scrimmaging against the same or lower level competition too often. Every match must be a new experience, every chance to touch the ball must be a chance to exercise their ability to get in the flow. Every touch must be a new touch, treat it as such.

No man ever steps in the same river twice, for it's not the same river and he's not the same man.”


The skilled player can comfortably do so because they have confidence by knowing they have all of their skills and experience within them in their neural pathways so that they can improvise extemporaneously.

Next concept is , along the same thought, a player in the flow doesn’t think their way through the situation or the challenge. They just play.  The ability to play comes directly from their experience playing. Deep in the recesses of their imagination, they follow the experiences and not allow thinking to interfere. “Thought is the enemy of flow”.

One of Bruce Lee’s tenets for his martial art is the admonition to Be Like Water.

“Be like water making its way through cracks. Do not be assertive, but adjust to the object, and you shall find a way around or through it. If nothing within you stays rigid, outward things will disclose themselves.
Empty your mind, be formless. Shapeless, like water. If you put water into a cup, it becomes the cup. You put water into a bottle and it becomes the bottle. You put it in a teapot, it becomes the teapot. Now, water can flow or it can crash.”

Playing sports is in some ways very different from playing music; for one, the musician not only knows how the experience will start and end, but they have also written guardrails to guide them through the path from beginning to end; they have the song as it is written. It is within the beginning, the guardrails, and the end where they must make their magic. Whereas the sports players only know how the experience will start and end, their guardrails are less defined, have more variables, and subject to more uncertainties intruding upon their performance. The uncertainties come in the form of interactions between the player, their teammates, their opponents, officials, coaches, and environment. The player has less constraints but also have more opportunities to interact with others, react to more distractions, deal with the effect of other people’s decisions on their actions and reactions, and therefore has less predictability in doing what they do.

Playing volleyball is challenging but in a different way than playing music.

Finally, only an experienced and skilled player who is in the flow can appreciate and take advantage of the space between notes, that space that we leave for the divine, as they are not readily identifiable a priori, it is in the midst of playing in the flow that the player can sense that space and make that magic.

Those are my thoughts after spending a few days thinking about flow and the implications of flow through that quote and the music of Jeff Beck. I will grant you that I am no closer to finding out how to develop flow in my students and players, but I do know what not to do. STOP THINKING! Because “Thought is the enemy of flow”.

Well, that was fun for me. For those who have not stopped reading, I hope it gave you some ideas as well. I would love to discuss, debate, explore, and think about flow. You can reach me in Facebook, LinkedIn, and Twitter (for now).

Thanks for reading.


Csikszentmihalyi, Mihaly. Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience. NYC: HarperCollins, 1990.

Guadagnoli, Mark and Timothy D. Lee. "Challenge Point: a Framework for Conceptualizing the Effects of Various Practice Conditions in Motor Learning." Journal of Motor Behavior, June 2004: 212-224.

Oakley, Barbara. A Mind foor Numbers. How to Excel at Math and Science (Even if you flunked Algebra). New York City: Penguin Books, 2014.

Slingerland, Edward. Trying Not to Try: The Art and Science of Spontaneity. NYC: Crown, 2014.



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