No quote has ever captured the essence of what weightlifters chase as well as Yuri Vlasov’s description of “the white moment.” It reads:
“At the peak of tremendous and victorious effort, while the blood is pounding in your head, all suddenly comes quiet within you. Everything seems clearer and whiter than ever before, as if great spotlights had been turned on. At that moment, you have the conviction that you contain all the power in the world, that you are capable of everything, that you have wings. There is no more precise moment in life than this, the white moment, and you will work hard for years, just to taste it again.”
While Yuri Vlasov might have been an Olympic gold medalist, being an elite isn’t a pre-requisite for achieving the white moment. I, myself, have tasted it. A few years ago, I was competing at local meet where the difference between first and second place came down to whether or not I made my final clean and jerk.
After a particularly hideous clean in which I actually needed to side step to save the lift, I took a moment to recollect before attempting the jerk. In that brief moment, time stood still. It was as though my vision narrowed, my conscious brain shut off, and the room disappeared. In room full of people, nothing existed except for the mission before me.
The feeling is completely inexplicable, but for an over-thinker like me to suddenly lose my self-awareness and instead become intensely focused on the task at hand was exhilarating. An athlete all my life, I have never felt as “in the zone” as I did in that moment. And though I have lifted heavier weights since that day, I have not achieved the same intensity of focus.
When I stumbled upon Vlasov’s quote, I knew without a doubt that what had happened that day was indeed a “white moment.” His words resonated with me and described the surreal spiritual sensation better than I ever could- until now.
After reading Steven Kolter’s book The Rise of Superman, I realize that “the white moment” is a synonym for achieving a flow state. Flow is difficult to define, but Kolter explains it as an altered state of consciousness which allows for optimal performance. He describes the laser-focus of flow that enables an athlete to subconsciously make perfect decisions by acting on strong, accurate impulses. In fact, he would argue that all incredible athletic feats have been achieved because of flow.
It sounds hokey, but it’s not. This isn’t just another self-help book pushing positive mindset. In fact, flow as a state of mind can be scientifically proven and the technical term for it is transient hypofrontality. In other words, it is a state in which our prefrontal cortex, the area of the brain that is responsible for thinking, making decisions, and processing sensory input, temporarily deactivates. When you feel self-doubt or are wondering if a situation is too risky, that thought process is taking place in your prefrontal cortex (specifically the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex). Thus, shutting this section of the brain down allows for split second decision making without any doubt and leads to incredible athletic achievement.
My “white moment” was perhaps the most intense flow state I have achieved, but flow operates on a sliding scale. Interestingly, brain chemistry during a meditative state is strikingly similar to a brain in flow. However, achieving flow through meditation takes years of practice, where as in sport, and specifically extreme sports, the body finds flow more easily.
Since flow is where the magic happens, achieving flow- whether it is a low-grade flow state or an intense period of flow- is essential for an athlete who wants to perform. If we can hack into flow, our training sessions are enhanced, our progress greater.
Researchers have pinpointed 17 ways to trigger a flow state, and some of these are accessible for a weightlifter. For instance, having clear goals helps one to achieve flow. So instead of doing clean pulls to do clean pulls, focus on the purpose of your clean pulls. Perhaps you need to learn to drive through your feet or keep knees back during the pull, or maybe you need to focus on finishing with a strong drive at the top of your pull. Whatever the purpose, know it and focus every lift you do on achieving that purpose.
Another way to achieve flow is to operate with a clear challenge to skill ratio. If your dream is to make the American Open, keep pushing for that dream. But if you are currently 30 kilograms under the necessary total, set manageable goals to attain along the way. A goal during an individual training session can be to make every lift. Over a cycle, a goal could be to add five kilos to your push press. Collectively, these individual goals will bring you closer to achieving your dream of qualifying for the AO because each time you reach a small goal, you hack into a flow state and riding those waves will lead to greater gains than being frustrated with the grind will (though getting stuck in the grind will be unavoidable at times!).
A “rich environment” can help one find flow. This is explained as one that is novel, complex, and unpredictable. In other words, step outside your comfort zone. Lift on a new platform instead of in the same spot day in and out, pair up with a different training partner than usual, or add some accessory lifts that you don’t often do. Outside of the gym, do something unique that will help your inside-the-gym focus. Try going for a short hike in nature on an active recovery day, or swimming if it’s something your rarely do. Doing something different, either in the gym or out of it, will actually translate into a greater sense of flow during your training sessions.
And finally, take risks. I’m not talking about stupid risks, like throwing 15 kilograms on the bar at once to try to hack flow and hit an insane PR. Taking a risk can be as simple as deciding to compete. Many of us fear being in the spotlight, afraid we aren’t good enough, or that we are being judged. But the root of the word competition quite literally comes from the latin “com” meaning together and “petere” to strive. It is through competition that we strive to be our bests by hacking into flow together.