Application of Polyvagal Theory for Sustainable High Performance

It is my pleasure to co-author this article with Michael Allison.  Michael is a Polyvagal-informed coach and, to my knowledge, the first to apply polyvagal theory to the realm of human performance. He has partnered with the Polyvagal Institute in developing education and coaching in Polyvagal Theory, is heading the development of a Polyvagal-informed Certificate for coaches, and is a leading expert in the integration of Polyvagal Theory in human performance.

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The application of Polyvagal Theory to the realm of human high performance is an emerging field with tremendous potential.  As our nervous system, and autonomic system in particular, is the fundamental determinant of how we experience all aspects of life, it becomes crucial that we learn how these processes work and develop the habits, strategies, and skills to influence the function of our nervous system to bring it more in alignment with our vision, purpose, and goals.

Integrating Polyvagal Theory within the skills and habits of human high performance requires an understanding of additional concepts and resources which Michael Allison has identified and developed.  These considerations build upon the foundation of Polyvagal Theory and allow for application of the core concepts within the framework of human high performance, resilience, and sustainability. Through the understanding of Polyvagal Theory in general and these additional skills in particular, it becomes possible to utilize the knowledge of autonomic nervous system physiology to optimize our ability to perform to our highest potential in all areas of life.

The high performance related considerations of polyvagal theory include recognition of the blended ventral vagal-sympathetic physiological state, referred to as the Play Zone; acknowledgement of the intention-execution loop; and development of habits of safety.  We will consider each of these in turn.  For a review of the fundamentals of Polyvagal Theory please see the previous articles.

Michael Allison describes the Play Zone as the blended physiological state of the ventral vagal complex with varying levels of sympathetic activation. This state, or zone (i.e. range of different levels of mobilization) becomes the optimal neurophysiological platform for most endeavors of human high performance because it combines the grounded, expansive traits of the ventral vagal state with additional focus and mobilized energy from the sympathetic state.  Within the boundaries of the Play Zone, is a more specific state commonly referred to as the flow state, or the zone, which is believed to be the optimal state for achieving our highest performance. As flow state is within the Play Zone, it becomes necessary to access the Play Zone in order to access flow state. It is the authors’ opinion that achieving flow state isn’t the primary performance goal, because it requires internal preparation, external conditions and a level of challenge to precisely match our highest potential and this is beyond what we can reliably and intentionally control. However, entering our Play Zone, and navigating The Performance Hierarchy with strategies and inner resources to regulate our metabolic output and sympathetic activation is a more skillful and sustainable approach to optimizing performance. While it is possible to perform at a high level over a limited duration of time in a sympathetic fight state (i.e. highly mobilized, attacking, aggressive) it is metabolically costly, closer to our threshold for losing control, inefficient, unsustainable, and therefore, lower on the Performance Hierarchy.

Once we understand that the optimal physiological state for performance is the Play Zone, we can then apply the principles of polyvagal theory to first recognize our current state and then modulate our state with intention to access the Play Zone.  Training the awareness and modulating skills in advance is important so that we are best able to utilize our knowledge and skills in order to perform in our ideal physiological state. Having an awareness of when we are in a mobilized sympathetic fight / flight response (i.e. angry, anxious, etc.) or a version of our dorsal vagal immobilized zone (i.e. numb, dissociated, behavioral shutdown, etc.) and an understanding of where these zones sit in the survival sequence provides us an opportunity to regain control of our physiology to skillfully climb the Performance Hierarchy back into our Play Zone.

The second consideration applied to performance is the Intention-Execution Loop.  This refers to the interplay between our expectations and intentions for completion of a skill or task and whether or not we are able to successfully execute the task.  If we are able to match our execution with our intention, this provides a cue of safety to our nervous system, whereas if we are unable to do so it violates our expectancy and becomes a cue of threat. The recognition of this loop is important because, for example, if we are in a situation in which we may not be able to perform to the level of our usual expectations, such as due to injury or illness, then we may need to adjust our expectations in order to avoid creating cues of threat for our nervous system.  In addition, by adjusting our intentions and expectations to more easily achievable objectives, we can begin to provide our nervous system with cues of safety (i.e. reliable, predictable, stable) thereby modulating our physiological state towards the Play Zone. We can witness the Intention Execution Loop play out in a variety of ways. For example, momentum shifts in competitive sports are often a result of one athlete getting locked into a reliable Intention Execution Loop which stabilizes their physiology comfortably in their Play Zone. As they build momentum, their opponent’s nervous system detects their confidence (i.e. expressed through their facial expressions and body language) as a giant cue of danger, triggering a defensive physiological state and suboptimal levels of execution and performance.

The third performance related consideration is that of creating the Habit of Safety.  This refers to recognizing and developing strategies, patterns, ways of interacting with our self and others, and behaviors that provide our nervous system with cues of safety so that we develop greater vagal efficiency and under times of heightened demand, potential stress and challenging conditions, are able to find and feel what’s safe and reassuring for our body, before flooding ourselves with too much sympathetic activation or feeling overwhelmed and folding under pressure. 

The specific habits of safety are individual specific and require self-awareness to identify which habits are most effective and accessible.  Typically, awareness of our breathing becomes an important strategy in our Habit of Safety because breathing is both a reflection of our current state and a portal into efficiently shifting our physiology. For many of us, a slow, relaxed exhale that is longer than our inhale will dampen sympathetic activation and slow heart rate. Whereas, when the duration of our inhale is longer than our exhale, we increase heart rate and raise our mobilized energy. Hence, awareness of our breathing can help us to identify our physiological state, while intentionally altering our breathing patterns can be used to train vagal efficiency and modulate our state “on demand”.

By incorporating these additional considerations within the framework of Polyvagal Theory we are able to more fully and completely achieve the objectives of The Practices of the Healthcare Athlete, specifically promotion of health, wellbeing, and sustainable high performance.  In order to perform to our highest potential and be the best version of ourself as consistently as possible it is necessary to understand the functioning of our nervous system and develop the skills and habits that support our ability to access and maintain our ideal performance state.

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All of the figures in this article are provided by Michael Allison.

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