Episode 16: Mindful Peak Performance with Pete Kirchmer



“Research shows that mindfulness gives athletes greater access to flow states.”

In this episode of the Numinus podcast, Joe speaks with Pete Kirchmer, Mindfulness Coach and Program Director of UCSD Center For Mindfulness mPEAK (Mindful, Performance Enhancement, Awareness & Knowledge). The mPEAK curriculum builds on the foundation of MBSR to help people cultivate an optimal mindset for performance and life around it. Pete works with athletes, executives, leaders, musicians, dancers, law enforcement, military personnel, first responders and anyone else who pushes themselves towards excellence. He is also developing the mPEAK Coach Training program, for mindfulness teachers who want to work with performers.

The interview explores the rich territory around mindfulness and performance. As many practitioners know, mindfulness can enhance focus, clarity, and purpose. And yet it is not obvious how to integrate the practice into the goal-oriented context of performance. After all, mindfulness is typically associated with acceptance of present-moment experience and a detachment from outcome, whereas performance is all about outcome. Joe and Pete take a deep dive into these issues, exploring:

  • How to make sense of the apparent paradox between mindfulness and performance
  • The link between mindfulness and flow
  • Some concrete examples of how to bring mindfulness into performance experiences
  • How Pete uses his own mindfulness practice to sustain his own energy and passion
  • Some experiences Pete has had working with clients who you would expect to be highly skeptical about mindfulness training

If you or your organization are interested in this approach, Numinus has an experienced team of Mindfulness Coaches in Montreal, including Joe, who can guide you through mindfulness training and its integration into peak performance. Please reach out at numinus.com or info@numinus.com.

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Here are some highlights of my conversation with Pete:

On Flow

Part of what creates this apparent paradox is thinking of mindfulness and performance as opposites or two ends of a continuum whereas they’re actually important complementary factors. Right?

One area I’ve come across some of this work is this whole notion of the mindful athlete, soGeorge Mumford’s famous book. He spends a lot of time talking about how mindfulness helps set the conditions for flow. Are you working with flow as well? How do you see flow fitting into the mix? And maybe for people not familiar with flow, can you talk about what it is and how it might be similar or different to mindfulness?

So flow is one of the modules that is explored in mPEAK. And for those who are not familiar with it, it is the state of ultra high performance often referred to as the zone. It is usually characterized by a sense of time distortion, either slowing down or speeding up, a loss of self, which basically means an absence of thoughts. And it usually it’s quite pleasant. It’s an absorption state.

Usually the outcome–although it’s not outcome focused–is one’s best performance.

How mindfulness can help prime us for flow–I guess I can say a little bit about priming–is that there is not an on-switch to flow. I like quote, “Enlightenment is an accident, and meditation makes you accident prone.” I think it’s very similar for flow.

Flow just kind of happens with enough grace and the right conditions. And meditation and mindfulness help make us accident prone to flow.

So I already mentioned this correlation to the selflessness or thoughlessness. So of course, there is the work that many of your listeners will be familiar with around mindfulness decreasing default network mode activity. And being able to let go or allow thoughts so thoughts don’t control your experience. So this is one doorway into the state of flow.

There’s also the part that is this immersion with the activity, which requires a deep focus. We also know that mindfulness trains the ability to have deep focus. One of the flow conditions is also what I would refer to as balanced effort. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, the researcher who has done most of the work on flow, he says that it is this place that occurs when your skill is directly proportionate to your challenge or maybe your challenge is just a little bit greater than your skill and ability. And these conditions pull you into flow.

Having the ability to tune in and really pause and access one’s energy and resources in any moment, and then give the appropriate amount or just having a little bit more, having that wisdom of ‘Can I actually go for two more hours? Can I push a little bit harder? Or is that going to be too much?’

So really balanced effort is another flow condition.


On the Growth Mindset

I have to say I’ve used that sort of approach or that little module quite a bit when I’m working sort of higher performing clients. And what really stuck with me is this notion that actually high performing athletes because they’ve always been pushing limits and trying to get better and competing against people better than them in their development, they’ve had to become experts in failure.

And they have to develop the psychological tools to just extract all the possible value from failure and then keep going. I remember very well you guys showed us that amazing Nike ad with Michael Jordan, where he lists all of his failures and I think the punchline is ‘I’ve failed and that’s why I succeed.’

Have I sort of captured the essence of that wisdom?

Yeah. I love that you always added extracting value from failure. So with this growth mindset, one can really evaluate what the lessons were and use failure as on of the greatest growing opportunities. When you have a success, you can use mindfulness savour it and really enjoy it. Maybe you can reflect on what you did well that caused the success.

But I would say that failure has a such an intensity to it that the lessons are often far more transformative. So just having the intention to use failure as a learning experience is really valuable.


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