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Flow State

by Dusty Whitford - Published 3/18/2022

Dusty specializes in high caliber two year old cutting and cow horses and maintains a competitive hockey life on the side

In Japan the practice is Zen, in Chinese Daoist tradition is called Wu Wei. It’s a process of emptying your mind to operate without interference. Here we call it flow, or flow state. It’s that moment in high pressure situations when the environment around you slows down while your movements, actions and thoughts remain the same. You control your environment as opposed to your environment controlling you.   

Everyone has experienced a degree of performance anxiety. Our equine sports are often fast paced with little to no time to think our way through. We must react. In barrel racing for instance a horse may drop its shoulder right before a barrel and a knock down looks inevitable. That is your environment controlling you.

In my life I have always experienced performance anxiety dating back to being the weird farm kid in a city kid school. I fought my way through most of it and developed a sharp tongue, flattened knuckles, and anxiety under extreme pressure. Today I consistently subject myself to two high pressure situations, cutting horses and hockey. I came into showing cutting horses without instruction and had to figure it out on my own and at age 39, after over 20 years away from hockey went back to a competitive full contact version of the sport. Some would suggest I am addicted to the pain. In both these sports starting out I was experiencing a level of panic that was controlling me. 

I’ve studied finding the flow state relentlessly. I had to believe that it’s a trainable skill. Recently I accidentally stumbled upon the answer. Cognitive awareness, an awareness a person has of his or her own. What this made me do was begin to record outside information when I was in practice for my events. When I made a cut on a cow, I had a reason not to tunnel vision out on the cow in front of me. Instead, I recognize the cow to the left that I passed by was a red mott with snip in its ear. Shaina was in the stands to my right and her friend Jackie showed up in time to watch my run. The judge is… you catch my point. In a practice session on the ice, I would go through my regular drill, but instead of tunneling in on the drill I recorded as many things in my environment as I could. 

This on its face doesn’t appear to put me in a flow state. But when it was game time and or I put my hand down in the NCHA Derby all the sudden I was so aware of my environment that I accidentally controlled it. The moment I controlled it everything changed, and it hasn’t gone back since. I have allowed my awareness to take in my environment which in turn has allowed me to let go of my tunnel vision and allow my trained instincts to do what they do. Often times we need to get out of our own way. It’s paradoxical, to gain control you must let go. ed

By consistently taking control of my environment, I am able to enter into a flow state on the task at hand. If that’s roping, running barrels, taking a cow down the fence or you play a sport outside of horses controlling your environment is key. 

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