Re-Discovering the Spiritual Underground of Sport: Developing a Workable Peak-Performance Philosophy & Discipline that is Informed by the Lessons of Transcendent Experiences in Sport.

In 2011, while enthusiastically scavenging through a sport psychology section at my graduate school’s library, I found a small book that would profoundly change my understanding of the role that Sport Psychologist’s can play in supporting athletes to being - and becoming -  their very best.  


The book was In the Zone: Transcendent Experiences in Sport (1995) written by one of the leaders of the human potential movement, Mr. Michael Murphy.  In it he documented accounts of what he called “the spiritual underground of sports.” These were moments where players would have super-ordinary experiences that they would often keep to themselves as there was not common language or understanding of what these moments were, and what they meant. These experiences included feeling they were one with their sport and teammates, as if they had telepathy, could levitate, or even as though God was playing through them. 

This Bill Russel quote represents just one of the many disclosures athletes have given on the spirtual underground of sports:

“At that special level all sorts of odd things happened.... It was almost as if we were playing in slow motion. During those spells I could almost sense how the next play would develop and where the next shot would be taken. Even before the other team brought the ball in bounds, I could feel it so keenly that I'd want to shout to my teammates, "It's coming there!" - except that I knew everything would change if I did. My premonitions would be consistently correct, and I always felt then that I not only knew all the Celtics by heart but also all the opposing players, and that they all knew me.”  

Reading these passages as a lifelong athlete and someone who had just traveled to India to become a yoga teacher and practice meditation - keen on seeking transcendent moments - had me hooked! Finally, I could rationalize my obsession with sports, and taking those back country cliffs on my ski’s, to all those non-beleivers I thought! :) 

But what was perhaps equally, or of more, value than hearing athletes share their spiritual experiences - and what I hope those reading this blog can take away - was learning about the dark side of flow and perhaps a solution to flow’s dark side. Certainly, this was of greatest import in my own life.

In particular, Murphy explained that athletes can “have trouble recapturing peak moments in sport because they have difficulty incorporating them into the rest of their lives.” He noted that perhaps “a missing ingredient for many people, I guess, is that they don’t have a supporting philosophy or spiritual discipline” that can enable them to live in harmony with these superordinary expereinces in their day-to-day life.  Below is the full quote:

Many athletes have trouble recapturing peak moments in sport because they have difficulty incorporating them into the rest of their lives. Former quarterback John Brodie described this problem: “Football players and athletes generally get into this kind of being or beingness – call it what you will – more often than is generally recognized. They often don’t have a workable philosophy or understanding to support the kind of thing they get into while they are playing [italics my own]. They don’t have the words for it. So, after a game you see some of them coming down, making fools of themselves sometimes, coming way down in their tone level. But during the game they come way up. A missing ingredient for many people, I guess, is that they don’t have a supporting philosophy or discipline for a better life. (Murphy, & White, 1995, p. 118)

Murphy emphasized that for athletes to incorporate these superordinary experiences - what we may call flow-state - into their lives they may benefit from learning to “live in tune with their truth by practicing some kind of spiritual discipline” (Murphy & White, 1995, p. 118). 

[ I want to take a moment to acknowledge the use of the word “spiritual,” as I realize it may bring up resistance to readers. The manner in which I am using the word Spiritual relates to its origin and Latin root word spiritus meaning breath. Spirituality then, like breathing, can be seen as an essential element of human life and all pervasive at all times - it is something that is already existing, not something to be added or developed, but rather relaxed into. Other words with the common root spiritus include inspire, aspire and to conspire which means to breathe together.]

With Murphy’s suggestion there was an instant moment of pattern recognition firing within my brain that landed me on the focus of my dissertation: Shinning Light on the Dark Side of Flow-State: Is Mindfulness in High-Flow-State Athletes Predictive of Improved Emotion Regulation and Self-Control?  Through my dissertation study, what would become the foundation of my scientific knowledge base, I wanted to better understand these super-ordinary experiences (flow-state, explained by transient hypo-frontality) and learn if the (spiritual) discipline of  mindfulness could support living “a better life” (improved self-control). 

The short answer to my hypothesis was “Yes!” my research, along with others, appears to show that the discipline of mindfulness may improve self-control in high-flow state athletes (along with increasing flow-state!!! Wohooo! 

But the next enevidable question is how does this science get transfered into applied and practical take-aways that can enrich the athletic landscape in order to further promote these transcedent expereinces, while reducing the risks of the dark side of flow? Sure, practicing mindfulness - being non-judgementally in the moment - is what we often hear, and for good reason as emotion regulation is key; but is this getting to the core? What are additional ways that the field of sport psychology can furhter help athlete’s to develop the workable philosophy and discipline that Murphy spoke about? 

For me, this is asking questions that go deeper than the role of mental skills training. Mental skills training are just tools on the surface to ride the waves of consciousness, they do not get us in touch with the core of our awareness, the ‘I AM,’ which, to me, appears as the birthplace of peak performance. How do we further create an enriched sporting culture that brings light to the spirtual undergound of sport and enable athletes to commune with - and play from - their deepest inner self? 

Over the next series of blogs I intend to share some of the applied approaches I have been using, as well as share my further investigations, reflections, and questions that arise as I stay engaged with this on-going adventure. In the next post I intend to write on the power of yoga (asana) and breath work (pranayama) as two body mind approaches to developing communion with athletes inner self, that which they express during transcendent experiences in flow-state.

As Huxley described in the Perennial Philosophy, “Disease is not cured by pronouncing the name of medicine, but by taking medicine.”

In the same way,  I believe that Sport Psychologist’s effectiveness is not about pointing towards mental skills, hacks, or tips; rather its about showing a way to master the craft of connecting to a state of awareness wherein peak performance is experienced - and for me, more and more, this requires a workable philosophy that honours the transcendent experiences in sport and a spiritual discipline that joins one to this inner place, the athlete within.

Here are some books I am currently reading along my investivation, please feel welcome to share others you may recommend:

  1. The Perennial Philosphy - Huxley

  2. I AM THAT - Sri Nisargadatta Maharaj

  3. Stealing Fire - Steven Kotler & Jamie Wheal

  4. Light on Yoga - B.K.S Iyengar

  5. Wooden on Leadership - John Wooden

  6. Tao Te Ching, Lao Tzu (Stephen Mitchel’s translation)

  7. Journey into Now - Leanard Jacobson

  8. How the Zebra got its Stripes - Leo Grasset

  9. Wired for Culture - Mark Pagel

  10. Enlightenment NOW - Steven Pinker

Also, if you want to hear a great podcast with Michael Murphy, check out Michael Gervais’ Finding Mastery Episode Here.

Taking a reflective walk recently on the great salt lake in Utah.

Taking a reflective walk recently on the great salt lake in Utah.