There is a very simple way to differentiate between conventional and integral coaching programs. It is the inclusion or exclusion of the zone experience. Does your coaching program include performing in the zone, yes or no? A simple question, but one that upsets many coaches because it suggests that their approach to coaching is missing something, which it is, and there is no way for conventional coaches to reconcile the fact that their performance programs exclude the highest order performance experience known to coaching – the experience of performance in the zone.
You either coach it or you don't. Conventional coaches don't; integral coaches do. And if that sounds hierarchical, that's because it is. Growth and development are hierarchical. There’s no getting around that fact, but what we're talking about here is a "growth hierarchy" in coaching development, not a "dominator hierarchy" that says one coaching method is better than another. This is not a coaching contest; it's a signal that marks the emergence of a new coaching paradigm that is relational rather than mechanistic, nonlinear rather than linear, and the experience that marks the emergence of this relational coaching paradigm is the experience of the zone as well as the emergence of holistic, integral coaches who actually teach their athletes how to intentionally create the zone experience in their chosen sport.
This new wave of coaches is emerging all over the world, and these coaches have the zone experience as the centerpiece of their performance models. This does not diminish the importance of conventional and post-conventional coaching techniques, rather, integral coaching looks to include the best of all stages of coaching development while adding the zone experience to the mix. So integral coaching both includes and transcends previous stages of coaching development without negating or replacing them.
The evolution of coaching has always been an evolution of inclusion and transcendence. Conventional coaching includes and transcends pre-conventional coaching; post-conventional coaching includes and transcends conventional coaching; an integral coaching includes and transcends post-conventional coaching. So, yes, the evolution of coaching has always been that of a growth hierarchy, and that very growth hierarchy has been responsible for the creative advance of coaching into the novelty and the greater complexity that we see today. With that creative advance in coaching has come a simultaneous advance in sport itself. 21st-century sport is a far cry from 20th century sport and even farther from 19th century sport. The evolution of competitive consciousness has been part athlete and part coach in a dialectic relationship that leads ever onward in the pursuit of… of what? What is it that we pursue as athletes and coaches? What do we seek to find in this dialectic between player and coach?
One answer to that question is that we seek as athletes and coaches to find the Holy Grail of athletic performance: the peak performance state, flow, the zone. What higher goal is there for us to reach as athletes than the wholeness of our peak performance state? What higher goal as coaches than to coach our athletes to experience this athletic wholeness?
Wholeness has nothing to do with winning or losing, fame or glory. Wholeness has nothing to do with making money as a professional athlete; it has to do with peak human experience, a fully-potentiated connection between athlete and athletic environment; oneness with the whole. Both athletes and coaches have been searching for the secret to performance wholeness for as long as the human peak performance state has been recognized as "different" from our normal performance state. Those differences have been expertly analyzed and defined by conventional coaches and post-conventional sport psychologists in the hope that a better understanding of the component parts of wholeness would lead to the secret of how to produce it.
Scientific analysis of flow has heightened athlete’s and coach’s awareness of the flow state, but it has not revealed the underlying structure and process that produces the flow state. Nor will any "outside observation" of flow reveal its structure and process. That revelation only comes from an "inside observation." The zone’s structure and process are only revealed through the athlete's direct experience of that structure and process, and even then, it takes the continued manifestation of the zone's higher-order performance experience before the athlete will come to understand its underlying structure and process.
The emergence of integral coaching brings with it a relational approach to performance that not only defines the interior and exterior correlates of flow’s structure, but also defines the process of how you do it. That's a quantum leap in coaching development that does not deny the value of any prior stages of coaching development, but rather introduces athletes to the direct experience of the human peak performance state.
Where conventional, mechanistic coaching techniques stop at the zone, and where the psychological and energetic interventions of post-conventional coaching only prepare athletes for the zone, integral and holistic coaching practices embrace the zone as the centerpiece of their developmental process.
With conventional and post-conventional coaching, the process is all about “growing up,” but with integral coaching, the process includes “waking up.” The importance of flow is that it includes both growing up and waking up. The growing up part has to do with the development of your "game," while the waking up part has to do with the development of your "self." The two go together when you play your game in the zone. You can't have one without the other like you can when you play your game in the norm. Yes, your game will eventually grow up when you play it your normal performance state, but your egoic self remains in charge when you are in the norm, so the waking up part of the developmental process won’t happen.
It will, however, happen on those rare occasions when you unconsciously slip into the zone and awakened to your Authentic Self, but if that shift to your peak performance state only happens occasionally and for no apparent reason, then the development of your Authentic Self takes a backseat to the continued development of your ego.
True transformation comes when both growing up and waking up occur simultaneously, and that's what you get with playing in the zone. Your game develops faster when played in a state of flow no matter what your level of development, while simultaneously your Authentic Self is awakened, and with the continued practice of playing in the zone, your Authentic Self is stabilized and developed over time, giving you more than just a glimpse of who you really are as an athlete and human being.
Add to that the fact that the zone is neither race, creed, nor color dependent. Cultural differences have no place in the zone because the zone is not about how we humans are different, but rather about how we are the same. And it shows us how we are the same in the most powerful way possible – through direct experience. You have to experience it to understand it, and the system dynamics of how you go about co-creating the flow experience are the same for all of us. The zone is what makes us the same; the norm is what makes us different. One experience unifies us as human beings; the other experience separates us, divides us into parts competing against each other to claim some transient reward, while the other integrates us into an interplay of cooperative parts whose reward is a functioning whole.
As athletes of any kind we are first and foremost human beings. Sport brings us together. It always has. Sport in the zone brings us together at an even higher level of consciousness. A level of consciousness wherein the prize is not victory but rather wholeness; wholeness of performance and wholeness of being, and at this very moment in the evolution of consciousness, each of us as human beings has at our command the ability to experience the wholeness of who we are at whatever our stage of athletic development. The wholeness of who we are right here, right now. We can experience that wholeness of being through playing our favorite sport in the zone.
Wholeness does not mean perfection. Wholeness does not mean winning, nor does it mean losing. Performance wholeness comes with a shift out of an asymmetrical interface with the sequential parts of the athletic environment and into a symmetrical interface with the simultaneous whole of that same athletic environment. Only when you are connected to the whole of the athletic environment, it is no longer the same athletic environment, nor are you the same athlete. Both you and the athletic environment have changed; you by shifting into your full potential mode of sensorimotor operation, and the environment by revealing to you the full potential of its moment-to-moment wholeness.
That's the zone. That's flow. More exactly, it’s you as a human being in a one-to-one interface with the flowing present; you as co-creator of a state of wholeness between you and your athletic environment. It might be novice wholeness, it might be recreational wholeness, it might even be elite or professional wholeness; it doesn't matter. Wholeness is wholeness, and we as human beings have come to a point in our evolution in which we are not only able to reflect on this full potential wholeness, but we can also experience its higher-order reality; a higher-order reality that we co-create.
That's how we get in the zone; we co-create it. And whether we co-create it by chance or by choice, the results are the same: the experience of wholeness. Right here, right now.
Scott A. Ford is the author of Integral Consciousness and Sport, Welcome to the Zone, and Sports, Energy and Consciousness. He is a Founding Member of the Sports, Energy and Consciousness Group. You can find Scott at Scott A. Ford and Tennis in the Zone