A Basalt-based psychotherapist is studying local endurance athletes in the hopes of breaking new ground in the understanding of mental states during peak performance.
The study is being conducted by Marlis Marolt-Sender, for her transpersonal psychology doctoral dissertation from Sofia University in Palo Alto, Calif. She was drawn to the project, she said, because she is an endurance sports enthusiast herself.
“It’s a study focusing on the phenomenon of ‘flow,’” she explained.
It will focus on 30 athletes from the valley. Marolt-Sender is beginning the study by interviewing subjects on their experience in high intensity endurance sports like running and biking. She’ll collect information about times when the athletes have experienced what she’s calling “flow” or “in the zone” states — the blissful sensation sometimes referred to as a runner’s high.
“When you have it, it totally stands out because the quality of your experiences are way above your normal experience,” she explained. “The primary marker of it is intense joy or bliss.”
Then, next month Marolt-Sender will conduct an experiential workshop or “flow test” with the subjects — focusing on a specific variable that has a direct correlation with athletic performance.
“Your performance is optimized in that state,” she said. “It tends to happen when you’re very focused and are challenged in a way that you feel you can meet the challenge.”
She’s been fascinated by the phenomenon, she said, because in it a person’s self-consciousness tends to fade out of the mind’s forefront. While many athletes can identify having experienced flow, the psychological understanding of it is limited, Marolt-Sender said, due to the perspective from which it’s been studied.
Existing work on these kinds of mental states have come from a traditional psychology or sports science perspective. Marolt-Sender’s work takes a transpersonal perspective, meaning that it focuses beyond ego-based consciousness.
“This is the first flow study that I know of that’s looked at it from the transpersonal perspective,” she said. “This looks at transcendent states of consciousness that take place outside of the egoic self.”
Her dissertation will break down a prominent variable underlying dynamics of peak performance in endurance sports, and attempt to explain how and why athletes enter that transcendent state. Marolt-Sender is not identifying that variable now, so as not to taint the pool of subjects.
Sofia University, formerly the Institute of Transpersonal Psychology, is a private graduate school that stresses a holistic approach to psychotherapy for clinicians, spiritual guides, wellness caregivers and consultants in a variety of fields.
Marolt-Sender is seeking six more athletes to take part in the project. She said that participants may leave the study with new mental tools to enhance peak performance and flow-like states.
While it’s fairly easy for athletes to identify the transcendent feeling associated with a long race, Marolt-Sender is hoping to find ways people can recreate it at will.
“It’s just really cool stuff,” she said.