Presence – so simple, so elusive

The final of the 3 Ps of performance!  If you’ve established the what and the why of your purpose, and you can fully define and you value your process, then all that is left is to remain present as you embrace your challenge.  Simple, right?  Not so fast.  Presence is simple in concept, but plenty challenging in practice.

I am going to define presence as being immersed in the here and now by having your mind free from past experiences and future expectations.  I can watch ANY footrace and pick out which athletes are present in the moment and which are not as they pass by.  It is obvious to see.  I don’t think we need to cover that people perform their best when they are fully present and immersed in the moment.  This is widely accepted in athletics, in academics, in business, in communication, and in relationships.  I think the more critical thing to focus on is why presence in a challenging task can be so elusive?  This is because two things that constantly dominate our thinking are kryptonite for presence: past experiences and future expectations.  While these things seem opposite in nature, but they have the same detrimental impact as they leave you with a preconception of how a challenge or a particular event is going to play out. 

It is important to note that focus on a positive OR negative previous experience can equally inhibit presence.  It is easy to connect the dots with the negative past experiences as these often lead to fear and apprehension going forward.  We tend however, to think of positive past experiences as fuel for future performance.  On some level this is true, we should evaluate after any positive performance and draw confidence from that once we understand why it went well.  But once you get to the next race, the next big challenge, having that past success on your mind will only create a preconception that likely won’t play out to be accurate.  Each race is different, just as each backcountry trek is different, and each peak ascent is different.  While I’m a HUGE proponent of having a plan, no set plan is a substitute for presence.  Presence allows better execution of said plan AND the flexibility to adjust with confidence if things play out in a different manner. 

Expectations we place on future events harm presence in pretty much the same way.  Coach Mike Anderson, distance coach at The College of Idaho, has a phrase he uses often….’big summer syndrome.’  This is in reference to collegiate distance runners who have a great summer of training, then come into the fall cross country season and drop a big ol’ turd in their first race.  This is precisely because the expectation they’ve built up all summer as they can feel themselves getting so fit and strong destroys the ability to be present when the race actually arrives.  These athletes are lulled into a sense of the race being easy because they are so physically prepared.  When most athletes think of a race they naturally picture the clock at the end, breaking the tape, or beating certain people to the finish.  Those are images of a result, they have nothing to do with the process of the race and hence erode away quickly at an ability to be present in that process.  It is fine to think of these things, particularly a ways out from an event, these are fine as motivators.  However, as the race grows near you are much better served to shift your focus to the actual execution of the event.  When you think of it, pause and change your view to how things will look from your actual field of view DURING the race.  What does that look like? What does it feel like?  Then you will start to shift back to being present in the task.  There is another level of this, and that is valuing and enjoy the actual race.  Crazy notion, I know, but if you can pull it off you will be capable of competing at vastly higher levels.  It is easy to enjoy a good result, anyone can do that.  But competing should be enjoyable!  Challenge should be enjoyable! 

The pinnacle of presence in regard to performance is known as a flow state, a well-known concept from the field of positive psychology.  Mihály Csikszentmihalyi named this concept in the 1970s, and detailed it at length in his book titled Flow.  I highly recommend this read for anyone interested in improving performance.  In athletics many term this concept of flow state as ‘being in the zone.’  We have all experienced this at one time or another.  The challenge is finding it on a consistent level, and the most effective means of accomplishing that is working to limit the influence of past experience and future expectation on what is in front of you NOW.

I’ll close with a story about a former athlete.  This is one of a few times I’ve seen and athlete move from a lack of presence all the way to ‘the zone’ within one competitive event.  One of the greatest competitors I’ve ever coached was Tiana Thomas, or T as I usually called her.  T was a long sprinter / hurdler / multi-eventer at The College of Idaho from 2012 to 2016 who had an incredible collegiate career on both individual and team levels.  Going into spring of her senior year, T had never lost a conference track & field championship, the team had won three straight titles.  That year, while the team was strong again, we didn’t have nearly the depth we had in past years.  The team was built around a handful of really standout athletes, T being the stand outiest.  She spent her whole senior year talking about how she wasn’t going to lose a conference meet in her career, it wasn’t going to happen on her watch.  This was GREAT for motivation, GREAT for our team to hear over and over, but I knew it wouldn’t be great for performance once we got to the meet.  She was creating a lot of future expectation, based on past experiences. 

Day one of the conference meet arrived and T had a couple field events first, high jump and long jump.  She struggled in these events, coming up short of expected team points in both.  Worse to me, she just looked way off.  So much stress, so much thinking between attempts and even during her approaches.  We regrouped and I offered some assurance as we were headed to the track and events that she typically approached with much more confidence.  First up was the 4×100 relay and T was our anchor leg.  The race was tight coming into the final hand off when disaster struck, T took off a bit early and we failed to make the exchange resulting in disqualification.  Instead of the 8-10 points we were counting on in that event, we got zero and the team title was officially in serious question.  T was devastated.  I was watching the event from the backstretch fence with our athletes who were about to race the 1500m.  They couldn’t believe what they saw either.  T slowly walked over to us, red faced, holding back tears, hands on her head.  When she got to us I said something to the effect of ‘ladies, we are fine.  We have had all this success because we have always shown up excited to compete and beat people because of that.  Quit worrying about the results and just go out compete people!  Tiana, these girls are going to go get all those points back in the 1500m and then you’re going to go back to work in the hurdles.’  Those 1500m girls made me look really smart and did go right out and get those points back.  T breathed a sigh of relief and I asked her to please just go out there and try to ENJOY this.  She walked back across the track, stepped into the blocks, and won the 100m hurdles.  She smiled across the track, and I knew she was back.  The presence switch was flipped.  Tiana went on that evening and the next day to put together a championship meet performance beyond any I have ever witnessed.  She scored a total of 54 points for our team to lead us to another conference championship.  I’m not sure I’ve ever seen an athlete have more fun competing than T did the rest of that evening and throughout day two.

Oh, and every time I reference this story some coach comments about how I let Tiana do too many events at the conference meet so please know she also went on to win the national title in the 400m hurdles two weeks later, finished her career completely healthy and remains completely healthy. 😊

That wraps up the 3 Ps of performance.  Whatever you want to take on, I invite you to run through this little checklist……


WHAT do you want to accomplish?  WHY do you really want to accomplish this?


Can you DEFINE it?  Do you VALUE it?


Limit preconception based on past experience and/or future expectation.  Can you enjoy the actual challenge at hand, not just the positive result you seek?