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Stillpower: The True Path to Flow, Clarity, and Responsiveness

No matter how much willpower you exert, you can't force an "A-ha!" moment. That's why sports guru Garret Kramer wants us to focus on something else: stillpower.

Ted Williams is widely considered to be the greatest hitter to ever play baseball. As legend has it, Williams grasped his craft so thoroughly that he could tell the difference in a bat’s weight down to a ½ ounce. But that doesn’t mean he was forcing himself to slog through batting practice in pursuit of a greater goal. Says Williams,  “It was always fun for me. I loved baseball so darn much. By the hours I practiced, you’d have to say that I was really working, but it was pretty much tireless fun.”

Williams’ approach wasn’t about creating a grueling workout regimen to achieve a particular goal. It was something simpler: he just enjoyed the ongoing process of mastering the nuances of hitting. And with this mindset, he was able to accomplish, over 19 seasons, what so many players before and since can only dream about.While conventional wisdom would likely argue that Williams’ work ethic was the distinguishing factor, sports guru and author Garret Kramer has a different theory about what separates great performers. Kramer believes that the classic “grind it out” mentality that we’re taught at a young age actually prevents athletes from realizing their potential – and he’s betting it’s impacting your performance at work, too.

As a consultant to athletes ranging from high school amateurs to acclaimed Olympians, Kramer has counseled the best as they struggled and succeeded. Over 20 years, these insights led him to write the book Stillpower: The Inner Source of Athletic Excellence.

We sat down with Garret for a discussion about what athletics can teach us about getting in the zone, letting go of keeping score, and enjoying the journey.

From your experience, what makes for a great competitor?

I truly believe the finest competitors in every sport, or in life, play the game with what I call stillpower not with willpower. This understanding is key to success. What I mean is that despite the desire to win, these competitors remain open to all possible outcomes; win or lose, they know they’ll be perfectly okay. What arises out of this is a level of consciousness that let’s them excel. They see opportunities, follow their passions, and feel an ease in their day-to-day lives. They’re simply following their instincts.

Is this the infamous “in the zone” state that we hear so much about?

Let’s be clear about this. The zone is not about trying hard. You can’t force it. The zone feels effortless because you’re operating at a higher state of consciousness. Although athletes in the zone are incredibly locked in, their focus is never forced.

Same thing goes at work. You’ve never had to push hard to find a great insight. If you think on your best performances or purest experiences in life, were you trying to exert a force on it? Most of the athletes I work with tell me that when they find the zone they simply “let go” and just absorb themselves in the present moment. It’s a selfless experience.

The zone is not about trying hard. You can’t force it.

What do you tell them when they fall out of this state?

The answer will always be found in simplicity. The reason athletes (and all of us for that matter) struggle is that the quality of our thinking has declined. When that happens, we revert to the intellect for the answers and the intellect will always overcomplicate things.Now, since we’ve been taught to grind it out, we force it. But, from this low state of mind, we’re not capable of finding answers, so our quality of thought continues to drop down as we struggle. But what if we simply took our foot off the gas pedal? Our thoughts and mood would settle, and we would see the same challenges as opportunities. The insights start to flow again, so answers become obvious.

Once you grasp that fundamental concept you realize that willpower will not help you. You’re not capable in the moment. The more we try to control our effort (or our thoughts about effort), the more we tend to get in our own way – and reduce our odds for success.

So I encourage my clients to step back and use a term I call “stillpower,” which means don’t push ahead but rather be still. The feelings that come will be of ease, clarity, and responsiveness.

It sounds crazy. I mean, do nothing? Yes. Do not make any decisions from a low mindset – just be still.

What if we simply took our foot off the gas pedal? Our thoughts and mood would settle, and we would see the same challenges as opportunities.

How do you help athletes handle negativity in their thinking?

Well, the worst thing we can do is try and fix the negative thought. Which, by the way, is a productive thing. It’s just thought. There is no reality to it. Understand what really is happening. A thought produces a feeling which produces a mood. The feeling is a navigational instrument. It’s telling us we’re not seeing it clearly.The worst thing is to wage war on this. It’s normal to think negatively. That sign is there to guide you and if that was the right move to make you wouldn’t be feeling that way. You would feel free. You would feel enthused. You would feel passion. You would feel determination.

So, a negative thought is a great thing. Why would you ever want to mess with your own mind’s ability to direct you?

What about setting goals?

The worst thing an athlete can ever do is be focused. It shrinks the perceptual field and narrows options. Instead, we want awareness. Awareness expands possibilities. So, when someone sets a goal they’ve eliminated all sorts of possibilities for their growth. Their level of self-worth doesn’t rise when they get to the goal either. Now, of course we all want to win but let’s not intentionally limit our own awareness by narrowing in on a goal. It’s totally unproductive for our lives.

That reminds of Steve Jobs’ famous commencement address at Stanford, and how his life only made sense in the rearview mirror.

Yes. Such a great way to look at it. We don’t notice true change until after it happens. True change isn’t willful. It’s so fluent and intuitive that we don’t even realize it happened. That goes back to letting our feelings be our barometer and letting our passions and creativity guide us.

True change isn’t willful. It’s so fluent and intuitive that we don’t even realize it happened.

Do you see any parallels with coaching and leadership?

Absolutely. To effectively engage someone, you must be operating from a higher level of consciousness than the other person at that moment. I often advise coaches that this understanding supersedes any other requirement if they are to provide enduring guidance, recommendations, or love.The next time a coach or manager feels the urge to provide guidance or discipline, please understand that what comes out of their mouth is much less significant than the level of mental functioning from which the words are spoken.

The best coaches refuse to operate from ego or insecurity and instead are willing to consider that a player’s perspective might indeed have some added value. Many fail to recognize that the most innovative teams (companies and societies as well) actually encourage individuals to express their views respectfully. Such teams have learned that personal ownership in the greater good will foster the free will that is paramount to success.

What message do you try and leave your athletes with?

No matter the circumstance, when fearful thoughts appear, remember: They are self-created and powerless on their own. Negativity (fear included) is just a sign to slow down; whatever you are thinking and feeling at that moment – whatever you see – it’s not true. Keep your foot off the gas pedal and your state of mind will ascend on its own. Then, answers will become obvious – you will realize there is nothing “out there” to fear.

More Posts by Jake Cook

Jake Cook is an entrepreneur, professor, and writer. A co-founder at Tadpull, he also teaches Online and Social Media Marketing at Montana State University. He’s fascinated by the intersection of design, technology and creativity. Follow him at @jacobmcook.

Comments (25)
  • Kamil

    Great article. One doubt though: won’t the “take the foot off the gas pedal” lead to endless procrastination, if the mood change don’t appear?

  • Black Ops Artist

    I love the content of the article, for the most part. What I have a problem with is the idea of not creating goals. To put it more clearly, it is not so much of a problem, as much as an unclear understanding of his point. Sure I can appreciate having a goal can cause one to be hyper focused and thus miss opportunities for learning and improving, BUT our society is so conditioned to use goals to achieve ones dreams. IF we are not to use goals, what is the alternative?

    THIS IS WHAT WAS MOST FRUSTRATING FOR ME! Does it mean be perpetually open? I am having trouble seeing how that can lead me to the life I want to live?

    None the less I found alot of value in this article, an interesting perspective compared to this article published by 99%:

  • Daniel

    I don’t think so, if you love what you do.

  • George Beinhorn

    In a little over two months, I’ll be 70. I’ve explored the ideas encapsulated in this article for 43 years. I can say, from my own experience, that they work. And they work not only at the micro level (“How fast should I be running right now?”) but at the macro (“What goals am I running toward in my life?”).

    I’ve been a monk and a yogi for a little bit longer than I’ve been running, and as a result of years of prayer and meditation – and running – I know beyond the shadow of a doubt that there is a superconscious intelligence that has our best interests at heart, and that speaks to us through the calm, dispassionate feelings of the heart. This is, of course, a very different kind of feeling than raw emotions, which notoriously always lead an athlete astray.

    The larger intelligence guides us in whole ways. That’s a long story, but I’ve seen that it can give us injuries that force us to take stock of goals that transcend how fast we’ll run our next 5K – if that’s the direct path toward a greater happiness. And the process of attuning myself to that ever-wise guidance is very much as you describe here: calm, focused attention, awareness, while offering up likes and dislikes, desires and attachments, to the greater wisdom. In this way, even very slow recovery runs, and runs where you feel terrible, can end in great happiness and joy – if you with great discipline do only what is right, for the day.

    At any rate, thank you for this inspiring article which made me smile – not often I can agree 100 percent with a writer’s claims. I’ve written about my experiences in a book, which I’ve put online:….

  • George Beinhorn

    Kamil, my experience is that you never really take the foot off the gas pedal. You can’t run without exercising some degree of will. It’s a question of changing your priorities – you submit the will to a higher wisdom that you can perceive in the calm, dispassionate feelings of the heart. The body and soul always know the best way to train, at each moment of exercise. And they speak to us through calm, intuitive feeling. This is not at all inconsistent with having goals or wanting to get the maximum enjoyment from exercise. In fact, it’s the very best shortcut to those ends. The paradoxical fact is that we have to be fully in the moment in order to get the maximum from our training and reach our goals. It’s just a question of seeing the goal in its true perspective – it’s our goal, formed by our mind and heart – but it just might be the case that it isn’t our soul’s goal – held by a greater intelligence and reality of which we are a small part. So, goals tend to be more fun to work toward, and easier to attain, when we hold them a bit in flux – striving in an expansive direction but focusing on the process.

  • jkglei

    Black Ops-

    A great observation, and one I was anticipating a bit with this interview. Certainly some of the things Garret says seem to run in opposition to the research in my recent piece on grit.

    I think that’s only the case on the surface, though. Certainly Ted Williams and many others wouldn’t have gotten to where they were without perseverance and a strong work ethic.

    But I think Garret is more interested in the flip side of that, the state of “no mind” or stillness that allows us to stop TRYING so hard and just let our natural instincts and abilities come through. Sometimes being so fixated on a specific goal (and I’m thinking near-term here) — win this game, produce a great creative work today — makes it harder to find that flow state.

    Which is likely why we have those a-ha moments when we’re not looking for them — running, in the shower, etc. I don’t think the point is that we should do away with goals, but that we should also remember the value of a more “zen” approach.

    As F. Scott Fitzgerald said, “The test of first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposing ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function.” ; )

    -Jocelyn /// Editor-in-Chief, 99%

  • Black Ops Artist

    Thank you for your reply. Your explanation has clarified some of my apprehensions. In light of short term goals, I can see how harnessing still power can be an effective use to opening one self up to the possibilities present in the universe.

    Thank you 🙂

  • Adam Yost

    Living in the moment, being aware of your thoughts and feelings is great, but It’s also good to have an underlying structure.

  • Rebekah

    An interesting article. One I’m not completely comfortable with. It seems counter-intuitive not to have goals. But I understand the idea of staying open to all possibilities while having generic character goals that prevent procrastination and giving up. I myself struggle deeply with negativity as a result of various addictions, so I’m not sure I agree with the author. My thoughts of, “Give up, you’ll never succeed” are lies, not truths. And they definitely don’t help. Instead, I try to acknowledge them and change them. I reply, “I’m doing this. I’m succeeding. See? I can do this. I can’t give up.” For someone who has struggled with addiction, letting your mind be your guide is a terrible idea. 

  • Nicolette D.

    “Taking” your foot off the gas pedal is very different than “keeping” it off. So knowing when to do this becomes the question, and that requires personal reflection because it’s different for everyone. I came across this article a while back by Denise Jacobs that describes very well the challenge of knowing when to use our critical faculties (which fuel our drive/motivation) for progress rather than procrastination and self-defeat:

  • K-eM

    I find the comments on goals right on target with my own thinking and experience. I’ve often been frustrated by goal setting and especially when it’s a supervisor setting them for me. They are usually too defined and so focused that sometimes they totally miss the point in the end.

    Example: I was given the goal to find new vendors for a certain type of product in order to expand our offerings to clients. Problem with that is that: 1. the clients needs turned out not to be for more options in that product. 2. Most vendors offered variations of the same thing, nothing new unless I invented it and got it built by someone willing to do that. So in the end the goal was too focused, wasted a lot of time, and gave us nothing to offer the client to meet their needs.

    A better goal from my boss would have been to 1. Discover what the client’s true needs were, 2. find solutions and expand our vendor base to meet that need. Much simpler and broader while leaving me open to opportunities. A much more successful outcome as well.

  • Jake Cook


    Great point on setting goals – I think when someone imposes a goal on us versus letting us follow our passions like Garret recommends to his clients, it then becomes work.

  • Project Management Certificati

    Thanks for shared nice article. One doubt though: won’t the “take the foot off the gas
    pedal” lead to endless procrastination, if the mood change don’t appear?

    Project Management Certification

  • Jpmartin

    With 2012 just around the corner, this is a great article to read. It will be more enjoyable for us to go into the holidays with still power than will power and just let go. Thank you sports guru and author Garret Kramer.

  • cottageme

    This is truly a great read for me. I have bookmarked it and I am looking forward to reading new articles.Keep up the good work!  

  • custom essay

    Nice trylly great article!

  • Maria

    Having run my first half-marathon last month at age 57, I can understand the concept of not having goals. If my goal was only to run a liitle more than 13 miles, I would have missed everything along the way, like a coin here and there and nails that might eventually end up in a tire. I’d also miss the people I passed along the way, some waving. It’s like “the destination” and “the journey…”

  • webpromo

    Awesome blog. I enjoyed reading your articles. This is truly a great read for me. I have bookmarked it and I am looking forward to reading new articles.Keep up the good work! 

  • Sue Lightfoot

    Great article…

    Reality does involve the back, white and greys………..positive/negative……everyone needs to have a reality check sometime….

  • Ken Polotan

    As an Aikido instructor, I can’t help but find similarities between “stillpower” and Aikido principles.  We call it “one point.”  Keeping one point means staying calm and relaxed.  The idea is to blend (and flow) with negative energy to the extent that we can re-direct it without the attacker and the defender getting hurt.  In it’s physicality, Aikido is both graceful and powerful.  Nothing about it is ever forced.

    Thanks for the post, Jake.

  • RobAnthony

    This reminds me of a quote I stumbled into somewhere:

    “When an archer is shooting for nothing, he has all his skill. If he shoots for a brass buckle, he is already nervous. If he shoots for a prize of gold, he goes blind or sees two targets. He is out of his mind. His skill has not changed, but the prize divides him. He cares. He thinks more of winning than of shooting and the need to win drains him of power.” – Chuang Tzu

  • cynthia nelson

    Good post.  I visit all your project. Thanks

  • 99U


  • Ben

    I don’t know that he’s saying to not have goals … more that you should be mindful about the types of goals you create and how you function within them.

    Goals, like deadlines, have the potential to create tunnel vision, and huge opportunities can be missed along the way if hitting that goal is your sole measure of success.

  • Dianne Lowe

    A  GOOD lesson to read daily ..THANKYOU!!!

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