Have you ever been performing your favourite exercise routine or sporting activity and just found that you had so much control over your movements that almost anything seemed possible? Time either appeared to speed-up so that you felt as if you just couldn’t get enough of the experience, or it slowed down to the extent that it felt as though you had all the time in the world to make your movements technically perfect.
If you have been fortunate enough to have such an experience, it is likely that it was intensely rewarding. It was probably also associated with one of your best ever performances. The experience was quite possibly what psychologists refer to as a flow experience. Flow is when you are immersed in an activity to such an extent that absolutely nothing else matters and you function on autopilot. The concept of flow was popularised by a Hungarian psychologist, Prof. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, who published his first book on the topic, Beyond Boredom and Anxiety, back in 1975. More recently, Csikszentmihalyi has collaborated with an Australian researcher, Dr. Susan Jackson, and together they penned an outstanding text in which the concept of flow was applied to the sports context. My aim is to summarise and synthesise some of the very recent research published by these two eminent researchers while presenting it in such a way that you can put it to use immediately. The principles of flow are relevant to all domains of human endeavour.
Central to the attainment of flow is a situation in which there is a perfect match between the perceived demands of an activity and the skills that you bring to it. Such a match promotes flow while an overbearing or unrealistic challenge can easily cause anxiety. On the flip side, if you bring a high level of skill to an activity and the challenge that it provides is relatively low, this may just as easily result in boredom. For example, imagine yourself as an Olympic-level speed skater being challenged to a race by your old schoolmates down at the local ice rink – you would most probably just laugh them away.
Apathy is what happens when both challenge and skill are low. This is typified by comments such as, “I can’t be bothered with this” or “I can’t see what all the fuss is about”. In essence, to attain flow, it is important to find challenges that are going to stretch you just that little bit further than you’ve been stretched before. Take the example of Marion Jones at the Olympic Games in Sydney 2000. Her self-set challenge was to win five gold medals. The Imperturbable Jones rose to the challenge and managed to win three of her intended golds (100m, 200m and 4 x 400m relay) as well as two bronzes (long jump and 4 x 100m relay).
During a flow experience, performers tend to lose self-consciousness and become one with the activity. This engenders a state in which they are rewarded solely by the movement patterns involved and not by the consequences of success or failure. As you have probably realised, flow is an extremely sought-after experience among the sport and exercise fraternity. Many coaches and athletes refer to the flow experience as being “in the zone”, “on song” or “in the groove”. It represents an optimal psychological state and an experience that is deeply pleasurable. To develop an understanding of how we can increase the probabilities of experiencing flow, let’s examine its nine constituent parts or dimensions. These are the foundation stones upon which Prof. Csikszentmyhalyi developed his theory of flow.
The idea of the challenge imposed by a particular activity matching the skills that you bring to it lies right at the heart of the flow experience. In fact. Prof. Csikszentmihalyi describes it as the ‘golden rule’ of flow. It is important to remember that it is your subjective perception of challenge and skills that leads to flow. What you believe you can do will determine your experience more than what you can actually do. Sport and exercise are pursuits that, through their very nature, provide ever more challenging situations as your skills develop. Hence, starting with the little leagues of childhood with your parents shouting encouragement on the sidelines, as a young adult you can find yourself playing in major championships in front of thousands of people with big bucks at stake. The best athletes thrive in situations where they are confident that they can meet a particular challenge but know they need to exert every scrap of energy to be successful.
There are times when you feel completely at one with the movements you are making and this is representative of the second flow dimension. Action-awareness merging requires total immersion in your chosen discipline. When action and awareness merge it is almost as if whatever happens in a sport situation is a natural extension of your mind and will. Soccer players feel literally merged with their team members so that their actions are perfectly coordinated and there is no wasted effort. A tennis player taking a service may feel the racquet as an extension of his/her arm adding to the pinpoint accuracy of the delivery. Goran Ivanisovic said exactly that after winning Wimbledon for the first time in 2001. Similarly, a racing driver I worked with put it like this:
When I’ve got it right, the car just feels like a part of me – I have absolute control and can make it do exactly what I want it to do regardless of the conditions and whichever driver is breathing down my neck.
Goals serve to give us a sense of direction and hence provide a path for us to follow. To achieve flow, goals must be set in advance of an activity so that you have a dear idea of how you are progressing on a moment-by-moment basis Clarity of intention helps you to focus your mind and avoid unnecessary distractions. Therefore, goals direct attention to all the information that is relevant to superior sporting performance
Prior to winning the World Championship gold medal in the 100-metre dash for a third time in 2001, USA Maurice Green told reporters that he knew exactly what he had to do to impose himself on the other athletes and make them play catch-up during the race. He had run the race over and over in his mind until he was absolutely sure of what he had to do and the intended outcome. Right from the start, Green imposed himself on the field by being the last to rise in the blocks – a tactic that he uses frequently to great effect.
To monitor how successfully you are pursuing your goals, clear and unambiguous feedback is necessary. This means that you are entirely aware of how well you are doing and have a sense of how you are achieving your preset goals; Feedback is an essential component of both learning new skills and of sports performance. Athletes who are keyed-in to what their bodies are doing and how such movements interact with their environment are able to exert optimal control in their chosen discipline. A way of attaining effective feedback during an exercise session is to use a mirror. This will help you to perform the movements in a technically accurate manner as constant visual feedback is provided.
Focussing on relevant details in your environment while ignoring unwanted distractions such as noise in the crowd or the gamesmanship of opponents is another important dimension of the flow experience. A break in concentration can have a really disastrous effect on your performance. For example, a boxer who gets caught-up in his own negative thoughts will soon end up on the canvas hearing the referee’s count. Similarly, a netball player who primes herself for a shot without being aware of the movements of the opposition will quickly lose possession of the ball.
Peak performances tend to be characterised by a supreme sense of control. That is, you feel as if you have total mastery over your environment and movement patterns – you can do no wrong; there is almost a feeling of invincibility. This sense of control completely frees you from any fears of failure and creates a feeling of empowerment for the challenging tasks to be executed. Most of all, control is about having trust in your skills and abilities to rise to the challenge at hand. Audley Harrison, a former student of mine who went on to become Olympic Super-heavyweight boxing champion explained that:
“When I went into the ring for the Olympic final, I had absolutely no fear. I wanted that gold medal so badly that I wasn’t prepared to let anybody or anything stand in my way. I knew that I was the best fighter and I felt that, deep down in his heart, my opponent knew this too. Nothing was going to stop me realising my life’s ambition.”
Consciousness: As well as fewer worries and negative self-thoughts, concern for the self disappears during a flow experience. This is because attention is so focussed on the task at hand that there is no processing capacity remaining for the normal day-to-day concerns that we have. Prof. Csikszentmihalyi suggests that after a flow experience, the perception of self is stronger and more positive. Doing away with our normal worries for a period is extremely refreshing and liberating. To lose self-consciousness is to be so connected with your activity that nothing else matters. Further, feeling supremely confident will allow you to pursue a successful performance with a sense of sureness that frees you entirely from any nagging self-doubts.
The hustle and bustle of everyday life leaves us preoccupied with time. We refer to our watches incessantly to make appointments and stay on schedule. Flow provides a release from this constant external regulation of the clock because during flow, there is a distortion in our sense of the passage of time. Typically, in sports that are of long duration such as marathon running or cross-country skiing, time can appear to speed-up with minutes appearing like seconds. In shorter duration sports such as sprinting or downhill skiing, time can appear to slow down giving athletes an opportunity to make their movements technically perfect. Transformation of time is a by-product of complete concentration as when you are focussed optimally, it is impossible to keep track of passing time. This time distortion is not relevant to all athletes as the clock regulates some events. A middle-distance runner going for a world record may be totally focussed on the passage of time to meet their goal. Similarly, some sports that are performed synchronously with music, such as synchronised swimming or competition aerobics, require a very strong sense of time. Recent research from Brunei University has confirmed that the transformation of time dimension of flow is not relevant in such circumstances.
An autotelic experience is one that is self – or intrinsically rewarding and not simply a means to an end. Therefore, the key is to enjoy the process of your activity. The term autotelic stems from a Greek word that literally means “an end in itself”, Flow is an experience that fully immerses and engages you. In its purest form, an autoteiic experience is one that is simply great fun. The perception of performing effortlessly typifies such an experience and gives a buzz that can sometimes last for days on end. An autotelic experience is the end result of the other eight dimensions of flow; it is the factor that embodies flow.