Achieving Flow In Sport

Flow and Performance

Flow can be experienced in any human endeavour, from the tasks of daily living to demonstrations of outstanding levels of performance in sport and the performing arts.

Having interviewed many athletes at the very top of their sport, I have found a consistent theme of performers valuing their experience of flow, appreciating the opportunity to speak about their experiences (rather than their results), and being motivated to have more flow in their performances. The following quote by an elite athlete illustrates how motivating an experience flow can be.

Flow is what gives you the buzz to keep doing what you are doing, keep doing the sport. Because once you’ve got it, it just lifts you. Once you lose it, it can be a real slog until you get it back again. And once you’ve got it back again, and you’re just grooving along, everything’s going well, that’s great. That’s just what you want it to be.

Psychologists have the potential to assist performers to experience flow, through working with them on developing a mindset that facilitates flow state in what they are doing. Flow occurs when everything comes together in one’s experience, creating a psychological state of total absorption in the task at hand. Once flow is understood, the pathway to enhanced performance becomes clear, as the flow model provides a practical pathway to an optimal psychological state.

Knowing the conditions that set the stage for its occurrence puts flow into the realms of an attainable psychological state, rather than a mystical experience that occurs if luck is on one’s side. Setting the stage for flow to occur is the challenge–skill balance. Qualitative research with elite athletes (e.g., Jackson, 1995) demonstrated that there are several factors that are perceived to influence whether flow occurs.

These include:

Being well prepared for the challenge, having high levels of motivation, having the right level of energy for the performance, having a clear plan for the performance, having a sense that performance was progressing to this plan, staying focused on the task, remaining confident, experiencing good team work, and managing distractions. These are examples of the types of factors that psychologists can work on with performers to help them be prepared for the challenges they face, and to face those challenges with a mindset that can lead to flow.

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