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Being in the Zone: the Importance of Culture to Peak Performance in Sport, Arts and Work

Dr Tim Jordan has just received an AHRC Research Network Grant for £30,000 with Prof Kath Woodward at the Open University on the theme of ‘peak experience’ or ‘being in the zone’ in music, sport and work. It will involve six workshops to examine the concept and see how it can be explored in each of the domains of embodied experience. It will involve collaborations with Exeter, Oxford, The Open University, Brighton and Canterbury Christ Church.

Futher details:

The phenomenon of individuals or groups who routinely perform creatively achieving a state of extreme competence in a specific performance is well known in psychology, where ‘being-in-thezone’ [bitz] has been studied. Musicians, sportspeople, creative workers and others all repeat certain actions and experiences but occasionally they repeat these actions—playing a clarinet, batting, or software coding—with an unexpected and extremely high level of competence, often beyond the competence the individual thought they were capable of; such experiences are when individuals are ‘in the zone’. Analysis of bitz has focused on the internal states of individuals and thus underestimated the importance of culture to heightened creative performance and the cultural significance of achieving a personal best. This is particularly important for understanding a commitment to participate in activities that depend critically on ‘care of the self’ both in relation to body and psyche.

Culture is essential to bitz as can be seen in the collective practices that are necessary to both routine and peak performance. It is not only the internal emotions of sportsmen and women, musicians or creative workers that explain an experience of heightened competence, but also the cultural framework in which the very distinction of ‘routine’ and ‘peak’ is created. Such activities engage wider cultures that define competence such as ‘groove’ or ‘timing’ in music, game ‘intelligence’ in sport or ‘creativity’ in cultural work (such as ‘elegance’ in computer programming). Without an understanding of such cultures, bitz remains individualised, limiting understanding of how to create conditions for nurturing the experience.

Such concerns have particular resonance in relation to the London Olympics in 2012 when the excitement of competitive sport and the ideologies of widening participation of the Olympic Movement are also tied to other cultural forms through the Cultural Olympiad. The connection of culture and bodily performance demonstrates the possibilities of bitz for a wide range of cultural engagements which involve individuals in collaborative enterprises that encompass the interface between personal inner worlds and social, cultural spaces.

Understanding the cultural dimensions of bitz permits a better grasp of how individuals can gain a strong positive appreciation of what is achievable through creative performance and bodily reflexivity. Failure to grasp the role of culture in bitz has individualised its experience and understanding, fundamentally blocking the possibility of developing effective group-based practices. Understanding culture in this context should lead to the design of practices to promote cultural and mental wellbeing through enhancing creative performance, whether artistic, sporting or in cultural industries.

The project will focus on this neglected theoretical-practical nexus of culture and bitz across six two day workshop events. The six two day events will be themed on; theories of culture and bitz; sport; music; work; methodology; and a final event on culture, psychology and performance. Each event will be overseen by a small group of scholars expert in these areas in consultation with the PI or Co-I.

Theories of bitz builds on psychological conceptions which also attend closely to work on the body thus creating connections to performance and culture, understood as ‘being-with’, particularly in Haraway’s recent work but also in relation to challenging the individualisation of bitz by looking at relationships between people, places and things and focusing on the wider cultural terrain in which bitz is situated. Music addresses research on ‘groove’ in jazz, music therapy and the specificities of classical music. Sport examines both expressive and existential sports such as surfing and parkour, as well as competitive sports such as football and tennis. Work builds on creative and cultural industries’ research with a particular focus on software programming. Three innovative methodologies will be collectively developed using workshop techniques—a ‘whole event’ methodology for tracking bitz in specific performances over the course of the full event from preparation to post hoc reflection, non-representational methods for examining bitz across different cultural areas, and action-research techniques for converting project findings into practices that deliver tangible impacts. The final workshop will be based on sessions from each of the previous five to develop future work

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