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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.
Understanding the Flow Phenomenon
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.
Concentration on the Task at Hand
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.
Sense of Control
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.”
Loss of Self
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.
Transformation of Time
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.
How to Harness the Flow
Flow Tip 1 – Create the Winning Feeling
Sit down in a place where you are unlikely to be disturbed. Close your eyes and take a few long, slow deep breaths until you feel completely relaxed. Recall a time when you were performing at the very peak of your ability, a time when everything just seemed to click into place. Spend a few minutes recalling every detail about that experience. When the experience feels really lifelike, open your eyes and write down everything that characterised it: How you felt inside, what you were thinking, how other people were reacting to your movements, how you were control-ing the environment, etc. It is very likely that your mind was completely clear and that you were focussed entirely on the task at hand. Using your checklist, it will be possible for you to recall the feelings associated with peak performance and flow just prior to your next performance. Engaging in this process will greatly enhance the likelihood of you entering flow.
Flow Tip 2 – Plan and Chart Progress
We noted earlier how important it is to have clear goals. It is now widely recognised that the most effective way to set goals is to have some overarching objectives (e.g., winning an Olympic medal or getting down to 15% body fat) that are underscored by numerous medium-term and short-term process goals. It is no coincidence that the secret to entering flow is to immerse yourself in the process of your activity while, over time, persistent focus on processes brings about successful outcomes such as winning Olympic gold medals. By process, I am referring to the nuts and bolts of your discipline – mastering the skills, working on your mental toughness and attaining appropriate fitness levels. I suggest that you keep a training/activity diary in which your major goals are listed on the first page while on subsequent stages you strategise, review and monitor your progress from day-to-day, week-to-week and month-to-month. Be sure to adjust your initial goals if they turn out to be either unrealistic or too easy. Personally, I like to tick off achieved goals as I progress through each week as this gives me a real sense of accomplishment. The next time you go into a training session or an exercise routine, be sure to have recorded in advance exactly what you expect to achieve.
Flow Tip 3 – Self Hypnosis
This is a means by which you can ease anxiety and stimulate the alpha brain wave activity that is so often associated with peak functioning. A simple way in which to induce self-hypnosis is to sit comfortably and focus on a spot on the ceiling until your eyelids become heavy and tired. Slowly close your eyelids and notice a warm feeling of relaxation spreading from your chest and shoulders out through your entire body. Once you feel relaxed, warm and heavy you can give yourself repeated positive suggestions in your mind’s ear such as, “I will feel calm and agile in competition”, or “I will give my utmost in training”. Always keep your autosuggestions very positive and focus on what is to be accomplished rather than dwelling on things you might wish to eliminate. The key principles are to make yourself feel extremely relaxed, and to repeat positive suggestions to yourself. I find that a backdrop of slow but inspiring music such as Whitney Houston’s “One Moment in Time” enhances this exercise. Further, if you wish to practise heterohypnosis (hypnosis induced by somebody else), there are dozens of excellent audiocassettes commercially available. Remember that all hypnosis is in fact self-hypnosis, as a hypnotic trance cannot be induced without total volition.
Flow Tip 4 – Positive Self-Talk
This is one of the most tried and tested strategies in the pantheon of sport psychology interventions. Positive self-talk is used to maintain concentration and to induce optimal arousal. I use three types of self-talk in my applied work and I will illustrate each with an example to assist you in coming up with your own. The first type is known as task-relevant self-talk and as the name suggests, this will focus your attention on the task at hand. A professional boxer that I worked with recently uses the statement “Guard up -chin down” to reinforce his posture. The second type is known as mood-related self-talk which should impact on the way you feel. A club-level rugby player came up with “Wham bam thank you ma’am!” to encapsulate the ease with which she would dispossess her opponents of the ball. The third type is known as a positive self-affirmation statement and the most famous exponent of these was the great Mohammed All who told himself “I am the greatest” so many times that even his opponents began to believe him.
Flow Tip 5 – Seeing Is Believing
I have left my top tip until last. Every great achiever in the history of mankind is characterised by having a clear vision of what they wanted to achieve; as the great political philosopher Isaiah Berlin put it, “There exists a great chasm between those, on one side, who relate everything to a central vision …and, on the other side, those who pursue many ends, often unrelated and even contradictory.” If you wish to turn your dreams into reality, then structured imagery is the key that will unlock your potential. Imagery allows you to see in your mind’s eye the outcomes you wish to bring about. By recreating these outcomes using multi-sensory images, you greatly increase the chance of attaining superior performance because images programme muscles. The more vividly you can create images and the better you engage each of your senses, the more effectively you will prime your muscles for superior performance and this holds true in all spheres of human achievement. I suggest that you set 5 minutes aside EVERY DAY to mentally rehearse peak performance in your activity. See things happening in real time through your own eyes and take total control over the scenario. Vary the circumstances so that you practise overcoming different types of adversity (e.g., bad weather, superior opponents, time delays, etc.); that way, you will have a blueprint for dealing with a wide variety of circumstances.
Flow represents a peak experience that most athletes rarely experience and some never quite experience. A flow experience will enrich your life and make you want to persist at your chosen discipline with even greater intensity. To reach this seemingly elusive state of being, you must switch off from all peripheral distractions and focus solely upon mastery and enjoyment of the task at hand. In particular, what anybody else might be thinking or saying about you is completely irrelevant to your performance. More important still is that being successful is about being completely happy with your performance even if somebody else does better. Flow equates with happiness.
Karageorghis, C. I., Vlachopoulos, S. P., & Terry, P. C. (2000). Modelling the relationship between exercise-induced feeling states and flow. European Physical Education Review, 6, 230-248. Vlachopoulos, S. P., Karageorghis, C. I., & Terry, P. C. (2000). Hierarchical confirmatory factor analysis of the flow state scale in an exercise setting. Journal of Sports Sciences, 18, 815-823.
Dr. Costas Karageorghis
is a BASES Accredited
Sport and Exercise
Psychologist for research
and scientific support.