You take a deep breath and exhale slowly. You feel your abdominal muscles tighten, your diaphragm contract as the air slowly leeches out of your lungs. You’re in the prone position with a high-powered rifle in your arms and there is fatigue in your neck muscles, your eyes are smarting from hours of scope duty. You don’t feel any of this, you just know they’re there. As the breath flows out of your body you focus just on that, your heartbeat and the rifle. Like the hundreds, or thousands of times before; you feel a deep sense of dissolution like nothing matters except the target you see through the scope and the bullet you know is in your gun and you begin to mentally tick off the nanoseconds to the moment you pull the trigger. No matter how many times you’ve done this, it feels new every time. It feels new because the moment is new and you’re in it. You begin to take up the slack tracking your body’s responses without knowing you’re doing it, mentally calculating variables that affect bullet trajectory, working out bullet flight time and factoring in target behavior. You’re not completely conscious of any of this because you’re in the grip of the most powerful drug in the world: flow.
Over the course of three years, researching The Sniper Mind, my latest book on critical decision making under pressure, I interviewed hundreds of acting and retired snipers from around the world including Delta Force, the U.S. Rangers and the British S.A.S..
Deconstructing the steps that create that magical sense of flow that takes performance to an entirely new level is no easy task. The making of a sniper requires the reengineering of a human being. As Craig Harrison the British sniper who held the previous record for the longest confirmed sniper kill in combat says “You go down to the essence of who he really is and then you build him back up from there …”.
The approach relies on the adaptive capabilities of the mind and body when placed under intense mental and physical pressure and doesn’t easily lend itself to introspective awareness of what exactly has been done to you. Sniper training rewires both the brain and body. It creates instinctive responses from learned actions. The actions represent both physical and mental end states. The points where a decision has been taken and a choice has been made. Or, put more simply a mind has been made up.
It is only by focusing on the actions that we can reverse engineer the process sufficiently to get a better understanding of what goes on in the mind of a sniper when the state of flow is achieved.
Because it is action that creates the mental state of flow any of us can learn to apply the same approach when it comes to our decision making.
- Involvement. The activity you engage in must have a clear structure and direction. That means that it is really important to have well-structured, tangible, incremental steps all the way to the end goal. The approach creates a sense of progress and direction. It allows for any necessary corrections that need to be made and it provides a solid sense of purpose.
- Clarity and feedback. The tasks you engage in must be crystal clear and easily doable. This leads to the absence of ambivalence in the execution of each one and confidence in the effectiveness of the process. There has to be immediate feedback at each task execution point. This is important for dealing with the unexpected and readjusting the process by adapting each task, without losing the state of flow.
- Skillset and reach. There has to be a good match between the level and quality of skills brought to bear on the task at hand and the potential of the challenges that may arise during its execution. Too big a gap between the two and the mismatch creates impossibilities that are difficult to overcome. Any mismatch creates doubt. Doubt undermines confidence. A lack of confidence affects everything else and makes it next to impossible to achieve any state of flow.
What becomes apparent is that a state of flow – a mental state of being, is achieved through the execution of carefully structured, precisely engineered tasks – a physical activity. The body and the mind can no longer be separated. The activity of one can and does influence the other. The optimal performance of both depends upon having structure, clarity and purpose for each.